Seasonal Patterns Detected in Teen Hospitalizations for Suicidal Thoughts

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A new study published in the journal JAMA and as reported by NBC News, reveals concerning findings about the increase in hospitalizations and emergency room visits related to suicide attempts and ideation among children and teenagers in the United States from 2016 to 2021. This alarming trend raises significant concerns about the mental well-being of young people.  

The research highlighted that approximately 66% of these cases involved girls, with an average age of 15. Notably, there were seasonal patterns observed, with higher ER visits and hospitalizations in April (15% higher) and October (24% higher) compared to the baseline rate in January, which was close to the annual average. Interestingly, 2020 differed from these seasonal fluctuations and did not follow the overall increase in suicidal tendencies over time. 

The study’s findings suggest a potential connection between the academic calendar and youth mental health. To address this issue, health care providers and public health officials may consider implementing in-school programs, with a focus on females and seasonal patterns, to reach those at the highest risk.  

Recent research has also shown a rising prevalence of mental health challenges among young people, particularly in adolescent girls. A 2021 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that nearly 57% of teen girls reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and 22% had seriously considered suicide. Even before the pandemic, the CDC reported that 1 in 5 teenagers experienced major depressive episodes.  

The study primarily examined data from over 73,000 ER visits and hospitalizations for suicidal ideation or attempts among children and teens aged 10 to 18, covered by commercial health insurance plans and Medicare Advantage. The results indicated that hospital visits increased from 760 per 100,000 individuals studied in 2016 to 1,160 in 2021, with 2020 being an exception with 942 visits. The researchers suggest that the dip in 2020 could be attributed to people’s reluctance to visit hospitals due to COVID-19 risks.  

Jonathan Singer, a social work professor at Loyola University Chicago, speculated that factors such as reduced academic pressures, increased sleep, and decreased anxiety during lockdowns may have contributed to the decline in 2020. Singer emphasized that adults often underestimate the stress children face during a typical school day, moving from one place to another, surrounded by people they didn’t choose to be with, and doing things they never chose to do.  

The sudden increase in hospitalizations in 2021 surpassed expectations, leading researchers to believe that it might reflect the negative mental health effects of the post-COVID period when students returned to school. The study also proposed that the seasonal fluctuations in suicide ideation and attempts during fall and spring could be influenced by various factors unique to children and teens. For instance, they might experience optimism at the beginning of the school year, followed by declining mental health by mid-fall.

Moreover, students are often closely monitored for mental health-related issues during school, and fall and spring months may coincide with placement exams or standardized tests. Experts stressed the importance of implementing proactive suicide prevention programming at the start of the school year and addressing mental health issues at a younger age. Regina Miranda, a psychology professor at Hunter College, highlighted the need to reduce the stigma surrounding depression and suicide and improve access to mental health counseling and support.

Instead of automatically sending children with mental health challenges to hospitals, fostering open conversations about mental health in schools and normalizing discussions with struggling individuals could be more beneficial. The study acknowledges the need to consider marginalized populations since data from uninsured or Medicaid-covered patients were not included. To effectively address the concerning rise in youth suicide attempts and ideation, a comprehensive approach involving schools, counselors, and parents in the conversation about mental health is crucial.

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