Teen suicide by poisoning on the rise, especially among girls: Study

A spike in teen suicides by poisoning was mainly driven by girls.

May 1, 2019, 4:50 PM
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Suicide rates among people of all ages have been increasing since the turn of the century, but a new study points out to a particularly sharp spike in suicides among one group of people: teenage girls.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34. While boys die by suicide four times more often than girls, the study found that a bump in suicide rates among teens ages 18 and younger since 2011 was primarily driven by teen girls who attempted suicide by poisoning themselves.

This alarming trend among teens was “really different from what everyone else was reporting,” Henry Spiller, director of the Central Ohio Poison Center and clinical professor at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, told ABC News. “There’s an enormous change in this group that we have to pay attention to.”

Spiller and his colleagues determined rates of suicide by self-poisoning by comparing data from the National Poison Data System from U.S. poison centers to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. They specifically looked at poisoning deaths that were suspected to be intentional, and found that rates of suicides by self-poisoning were stable or even down-trending between 2000 to 2011 before they started increasing up until 2018 -- the end of the study period.

The most dramatic increase, they found, was in suicide attempts among children ages 10 to 15, which ranged from 126% to 299%. These increases were mainly driven by girls in these age groups.

Another concerning trend surfaced by the study: Almost a third of suicide attempts by self-poisoning resulted in more severe, prolonged health issues -- some of which could be life-threatening -- including low blood pressure and irregular heartbeats and lifelong disability.

Although the researchers couldn’t directly link the suicide attempts to any particular cause, they suspect that societal shifts in the way we communicate and use technology contributed to the rise.

“Screen time and social media -- they’re probably not helping,” Dr. John Ackerman, co-author of the study and suicide prevention coordinator for the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, told ABC news. “The advent of social media and smartphones and the manner and frequency with which youth talk to one another have clear positive associations.”

Spiller added that having this technology has also made information more available to teens about how to attempt suicide. “There’s multiple channels of information that give them access to it,” he said.

The study authors emphasized the importance of teens being able to have open dialogue with their teachers, counselors, doctors and parents. Ackerman said that adults shouldn’t wait until “something is noticeably wrong or when someone’s in crisis” to help.

“A better time to check in emotionally is when things are going well,” he said. “We need to be present, we need to be curious and our kids will start to open up.”

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, do not hesitate to seek help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for free, non-judgmental help 24/7.

Charlyn Laserna is a pediatric resident physician in Houston, Texas, and a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.