In May, the journal Pediatrics published some disturbing data: The last decade has seen a sharp increase in the number of teenagers trying to kill themselves with poison. The trend is largely driven by increased attempts to poison young girls.
Overall, in a study conducted on the basis of reports from the Poison Control Center, it is estimated that in 2018, about 60,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 18 tried to be poisoned, twice as many as in 2008. These figures are derived from a larger data set of over one million self-poisonings recorded in people between the ages of 1
In general, suicide attempts are fatal in less than 5 percent of the time. But the poisoning attempt is still a traumatic experience. And the growing situation, especially among young girls, is worrying.
Now a new study by the same researchers, published in Clinical Toxicology, has analyzed the substances most commonly used in these poisons.
They found that the most common poisons were over-the-counter drugs, such as Tylenol or Advil (or generic versions of these drugs). Of the 1,677,455 cases of self-poisoning of people aged 10 to 25 years from 2000 to 2018, 27.5 percent were involved in over-the-counter painkillers. Again, women and girls accounted for the vast majority of these cases of poisoning.
Opioids have been implicated in only 4 percent of cases, and their use in poisoning has declined in recent years. This may be due to increased public awareness of their dangers, leading to better storage and efforts to reduce their designation. Household cleaners were only used in 1.8 percent of cases.
Over-the-counter painkillers are involved in 27.5 percent of cases overall. But when researchers looked only at "serious results" – this included the need for medical treatment, or symptoms that were not resolved quickly or death – pain medication was used in 37.3 percent of cases. Here is an important conclusion: over-the-counter medications can be more dangerous than many might think if taken incorrectly.
"Some of the most affordable drugs have been able to produce some of the most serious results among young people," John Says Ackerman, co-author of the study and co-ordinator of suicide prevention at the nationwide Children's Hospital.
Cheeks should talk to their children "about the access they can have to their friends and family," says Ackerman. And they should "ask about mental health and suicidal thoughts [and] whether they are experiencing an emotional crisis."
Researchers are not sure what drives these trends
It's not just poisoning, but overall, more teenagers are experiencing mental illness
Between 2009 and 2017, the number of alumni who have been thinking about suicide, reportedly increased by 25 percent. Suicide deaths among teenagers also increased by 33 percent during this time. Currently, suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers after accidents (traffic, poisoning, drowning, etc.).
Let me emphasize that death from teen suicide is still rare; only 10 in 100,000 teens aged 15 to 19 die this way. But even one death is one too many. And all the struggles, angst, and depression that can lead to it must also be fought.
Although teenage girls tend to poison themselves in suicide attempts more often than teenage boys, boys tend to resort to more lethal weapons than firearms. The result is that although girls try to take their lives more often, boys die in greater numbers.
Experts are uncertain about the exact cause of these troublesome trends: Hypotheses include stressful recessions, a changing way teenagers interact with each other in digital spaces, increased social isolation, opioid stressors, opioid stressors, , suicide infection, the fact that teens can find it easier to kill themselves online and more. There seems to be no single reason, although this trend seems to have started around 2011.
"The reason we don't know why children do it is that suicide is not the only diagnosis; it can be the result of many, many ways," Mitch Prinstein, director of clinical care, told me in April psychology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
Although the causes of the trends are unknown, it does not mean that we cannot help.
We do not need to know the exact causes of these trends so that we can help
For parents of troubled teens – or perhaps just parents in general – one question – is it worth the medication to close the home. It's difficult, Ackerman says, because allowing some kids to manage their medication can be a major milestone for development. Children should learn how to safely manage their own medicines eventually.
"A young man's development path must be taken to take ownership of his medicines," he says. "I don't say 'close' until they're 18, no matter what. But treat it as a driver's license or something that carries significant responsibility. It needs to be taught, practiced, and earned over time. Until your father is convinced that a child can manage his or her medication use, it should be stored and closed. "
Researchers say that there is no great guidance on how families should deal with keeping children from illicit drugs. or prescriptions belonging to other family members. "We have instructions if you have opiates at home," says Henry Spiller, director of the Poison Center in Central Ohio and co-author of the study. But, he adds, there really isn't anything about how to store blood pressure medications, such as what to do with the ibuprofen family repository.
Ackerman offers one common sense – not to allow children to have access to any bottle containing hundreds of tablets; use smaller ones that contain only a few.
Studies also indicate that it would be useful to change the packaging of certain over-the-counter medicines. In the UK, when a popular analgesic painkiller was packaged in blister packs (where tablets should be drunk one at a time) instead of bottles (which make it easy to pour many tablets at a time), this resulted in fewer overdose deaths from this drug.
"Most times, when you add time between an intense suicidal crisis and access to funds, you will show a decrease in suicidal behavior," says Ackerman. It just takes longer to open the blister packs. And time can save a life.
A new study also finds among adolescents that self-poisoning seems to be more prevalent during the school year, and the risks appear to be greater in rural areas than in urban areas.
New research is also a reminder that our mental health system does not do a great job of reaching out to everyone in need. Teaching most teachers and school staff to identify signs of suicide among teenagers can also help. And there are some clinicians trying to innovate in online therapy (you can read more about them). But this new data, again, underscores that there is a mental health crisis.
"From pure numbers, you do not have enough psychologists, social workers, counselors, other therapists to actually physically address a need that clearly exists," Ackerman said in a previous interview. "Even if you had all the mental health professionals involved in suicide treatment and life-threatening behavior, you would not be able to fully address this need."