Pediatric hospitalizations for suicidal thoughts more than doubled from 2008 to 2015, study finds

Hospital admissions for children and adolescents with suicidal thoughts or actions more than doubled from 2008 to 2015, according to study findings presented Sunday at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) Meeting.

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Study Details

For the study, researchers examined administrative data from 2008 to 2015 on suicidal or self-harm diagnoses among children ages 5 to 17 from 32 children's hospitals across the United States.

The researchers identified a total of 118,363 suicidal or self-harm diagnoses, including:

  • 59,631 among 15- to 17-year-olds;
  • 43,682 among 12- to 14-year-olds; and
  • 15,050 among 5- to 11-year-olds.

Findings

According to the study, the percentage of young patients hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or self-harm more than doubled over the study period, increasing from 0.67 percent in 2008 to 1.79 percent by 2015.

The researchers found significant increases in hospitalizations for such diagnoses among all age groups included in the study, but discovered higher increases among older children.

Specifically, the researchers found that hospitalizations for suicidal thoughts or self-harm grew by an average of 0.27 percent annually among individuals between ages 15 and 17, according to a PAS release. In comparison, hospitalizations for such diagnoses increased by an average of 0.25 percent annually among children between ages 12 to 14 and by an average of 0.02 percent annually among children ages 5 to 11.

Further, the researchers found that girls were more likely to be hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or self-harm than boys. According to Gregory Plemmons, the study's lead author and an associate professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt's Children's Hospital, about 60 percent of all children and teens hospitalized for such diagnoses in 2008 were girls. That proportion jumped to 66 percent by 2015, Plemmons said.

However, Plemmons added that while "females are more likely to attempt" suicide, "males in general are more likely to succeed."

The researchers also identified seasonal variations in hospitalizations among children for suicidal thoughts and self-harm. According to the researchers:

  • The lowest percentage of hospitalizations for such diagnoses occurred from June through August; and
  • The highest percentage of such hospitalizations occurred from March through May and from September through November.

Plemmons said the seasonal increases coincide with the start and end of the school year, adding that the number of hospitalizations for suicidal thoughts and self-harm declines in July, but "creep[s] back up right when school starts."

Plemmons said a number of factors can lead to suicidal thoughts—including abuse, bullying, and genetic disposition—but it remains unclear which factors are leading to the increases the researchers observed. He said additional research is "urgently" needed to "understand [the] factors contributing to these alarming trends" (Andrews, "Morning Mix," Washington Post, 5/8; Pediatric Academic Societies release, 5/6; Scutti, CNN, 5/5).

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The CDC estimates that nearly $247 billion is spent annually on the treatment and management of childhood mental disorders. Further, pediatric patients and caregivers often struggle to access high-quality behavioral health expertise due to a limited number of specialists and fragmented approaches to behavioral health services.

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