The Rate of Kids Admitted to the ER for Suicidal Thoughts or Attempts Has Doubled

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Young depressed girl sits on a bench hugging her knees.
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It's no secret that the rate of teen suicide and depression is sadly on the rise. We see the headlines; we've heard the cries from mental health advocates and read the slogans of countless awareness campaigns. But even with all that background knowledge, the stats can't help but shock you. And now, a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics has parents and health officials even more concerned. According to CNN, researchers pored through data from the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and found that the number of children admitted to the ER for suicide attempts or even thoughts doubled between the years 2007 and 2015.

  • In fact, the number of ER cases to fall into either of those two categories rose from 580,000 in 2007 to 1.12 million in 2015.

    If that number just caused your jaw to drop, it probably should. But here's the most upsetting part of all: The children at the center of these cases weren't just teenagers, as you might suspect -- they ranged in age from 18 all the way down to 5 years old. And 43 percent of these visits were for children between the ages of 5 and 11.

    "The numbers are very alarming," said lead study author Dr. Brett Burstein, a pediatric emergency room physician at Montreal Children's Hospital of McGill University Health Centre, when speaking with CNN. "It also represents a larger percentage of all pediatric emergency department visits. Where suicidal behavior among the pediatric population was just 2 percent of all visits, that's now up to 3.5 percent."

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  • As for what's causing the rise, experts say the reasons are varied, but it all leads back to one likely source: stress.

    "Kids are feeling more pressure to achieve, more pressure in school, and are more worried about making a living than in previous years," said Dr. Gene Beresin, executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

    One major culprit? The avalanche of homework that's become so bad lately, parents are actually hiring "homework therapists" to help their kids cope with the stress of it all. (Homework therapists! Did you ever think you'd hear of such a thing?!)

    Then there's the constant, 24/7 pressure of social media, and the relentless cyberbullying that often results. According to Scientific American, many studies have linked cyberbullying to teen depression, which is often suffered in silence.

  • And it's not just kids who are more stressed out these days, Beresin adds -- parents are more stressed out than ever too. 

    (But I'm guessing you didn't need an expert to tell you that one.)

    It seems as if nearly every day we're getting hit in the face with new studies on parental stress and its many causes. There's been research that having three kids is actually more stressful than having four; that husbands actually stress moms out twice as much as their kids do; and in September, a study found that parents spend 37 hours worrying about their kids each week -- aka, it's basically a full-time job. We even have lists of the top most stressful cities in America to be a parent, which cite divorce rates, percentage of single parents, and overall mental health and well-being.

    And then there's the stress of being a working parent. According to a study earlier this year, working moms have significantly elevated stress levels and were found to be 40 percent more stressed than stay-at-home moms. 

    All this stress, Beresin notes, is not always just our own; children often feel the effects of their parent's mental health in ways seen and unseen, and it can sometimes be passed on. 

    Although the suicide rates of teens and children are undeniably alarming, it's worth noting that the rate of suicides across all age groups has increased over the past 20 years, meaning there's something much larger at play.

  • So what can be done? Spreading awareness far and wide certainly helps, but at the end of the day, kids need more resources and more solutions. 

    Once parents do seek help for their children, they are often left to navigate a difficult mental health system riddled with challenges. Chief among them is a shortage of practicing child psychiatrists. In fact, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) notes that there are only 17 practicing psychiatrists for every 100,000 children. And that's even if parents have the means and insurance coverage to seek one. 

    Meanwhile, despite the growing need for school psychologists, they also remain in short supply. The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends a basic ratio of no more than 1,000 students per school psychologist, though in reality the ratio is estimated to be 1,381 to 1 in the US. 

    Those numbers certainly put into context another recent study, also published by JAMA Pediatrics, which found that nearly 1 in 7 children suffers from anxiety and depression -- and yet half of them go untreated.

    All of this new research shines a light on the fact that there's far more work to be done, and there's no time to waste.

    "We are seeing an acceleration of this issue," Beresin told CNN, "and I worry that we have not yet seen the peak."