Science Update: Youth suicides increased in first year of the pandemic, NIH-funded study suggests

Wednesday, April 27, 2022
Youth sitting on ground, looking down.
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The stresses of the pandemic may have contributed to an increase in adolescent suicides, suggests a study of 14 states funded by the National Institutes of Health. Although the number and proportion of youth suicide varied among individual states, when all the states were considered together, researchers saw an increase in the number of suicides among youth 10 to 19 years of age and in the proportion of youth suicides compared to the overall population.

The authors concluded that the findings highlight the need for mental health and suicide prevention services for young people to meet the stresses of the pandemic, as well as expanding bereavement counseling for those who lost care givers to COVID-19.

The study appears as a letter to JAMA Pediatrics. It was conducted by Marie-Laure Charpignon, MSc., of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and colleagues. Funding was provided by NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

Background

In 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a state of emergency in response to the mental health challenges facing children, adolescents, and their families during the pandemic. Another study found that during the pandemic, the percentage of adolescents screening positive for symptoms of depression increased from 5% to 6.2% and those screening positive for suicide risk increased from 6.1% to 7.1%.

The researchers obtained death record data from 14 states: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Vermont. For each state, they compared the average of suicide counts from 2015 to 2019 to suicide counts from 2020, the first year of the pandemic.

Results

Compared to before the pandemic, five states had an increase in the number of youth suicides: Georgia (87.8 to 106), Indiana (62.8 to 83), New Jersey (32.4 to 37), Oklahoma (54.8 to 67) and Virginia (67.6 to 85). Combined, all states saw an increase in absolute suicide numbers (835.6 to 903).

For the same time interval, researchers calculated the proportion of youth suicides among the total number of suicides in a state. Compared to before the pandemic, all the states with a higher number of youth suicides, plus California, also saw an increase in the proportion of suicides among youth during the pandemic, compared to the overall population: California (from 4.7% to 5.4%), Georgia (6% to 7.1%), Indiana (6.1% to 8.2%), New Jersey (4.6% to 5.8%), Oklahoma (6.9% to 8%), and Virginia (5.9% to 7.4%). For all 14 states combined, the proportion of youth suicides increased from 5.9% to 6.5%.

Montana had a lower number of youth suicides and of youth suicides as a percentage of total suicides. Alaska had a decrease in the proportion of youth suicides. There were no significant differences in adolescent suicides by either measure in Ohio, Connecticut, Colorado, or Arkansas.

Significance

The authors note that suicides among adults 35 and older declined during the pandemic and that those findings suggest the pandemic may have affected youth differently than adults.

Next Steps

The authors called for more studies of youth suicide risk in the remaining states. They also said further research is needed to understand how the pandemic may influence suicide risk among youth, including how risk may differ by race and ethnicity and across geographic areas and populations. The findings also suggest a need for interventions that address youth suicide risk, including expanding bereavement counseling to help young people cope with the loss of caregivers.

Reference

Charpignon, ML, et al. Evaluation of suicides among U.S. adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic. JAMA Pediatrics. 2022. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.0515

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