An Alarming Increase in Child Self-Harm and Suicidal Behavior

Apr 2023

child sitting against a plain white wall, holding arms around legs and looking up at something. He looks sad and upset.

An 11-year analysis of hospital admissions sheds light on youth mental health

It’s well known that children’s mental health is a significant and growing problem in the United States, and a newly published national study has highlighted the severity of the problem.

Dartmouth researchers studied pediatric hospital admissions between 2009 and 2019. The study found a massive 25% increase in mental health-related hospitalizations, the majority of which were for self-harm or suicidal behavior.

It’s also worth noting that this entire study predates the COVID-19 pandemic, which other studies have found had a massive negative effect on youth mental health and suicide risk. As such, even these findings almost certainly understate the problem as it exists today.

According to Dr. Gabrielle A. Carlson, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Stony Brook University, these results represent a “whole system failure” that includes every aspect of youth mental health, from overworked clinicians who won’t take new patients, to poorly staffed crisis intervention teams, to insurers that won’t pay for youth mental health services.

“The hospital ends up being the place you go when all else fails,” Dr. Carlson told the New York Times.

Children between 11 and 14 represented the largest increase

According to the study, the increase in mental health hospitalizations was almost entirely among children aged 11 to 14; older and younger groups actually saw a decrease in the number of hospitalizations. Girls also made up a somewhat larger share of hospitalizations in 2019 than in 2009. Most alarmingly, there was an increase of over 80,000 hospitalizations for suicidal behavior over the 11-year period, from 49,285 in 2009 to 129,699 in 2019.

While the study did not look at the causes of these trends, one of the co-authors pointed to a growing use of social media in the age group. Other studies have shown a significant link between social media, self-harm, and suicide risk.

Hospitals are unprepared for the increase in mental health crises

While patients with acute mental health crises, including suicidality, make up a growing percentage of hospital patients, hospitals have struggled to address the culture of focusing on physical health emergencies to the detriment of mental health emergencies. As hospitals increasingly grapple with depressive disorders, self-harm, and suicidal behavior among patients, more mental health training and awareness are needed among medical professionals to ensure that they are prepared to manage suicide risk and keep patients safe.

Again, however, the increase in hospitalizations is only a symptom of a larger problem. Our nation needs more mental health resources for both children and adults to ensure that people at risk of suicide are able to receive treatment before they are in crisis and need to be hospitalized. Better access to care across the entire continuum is needed to address the growing problem of youth mental health and suicidality. And parents, educators, coaches, and other adults who work with at-risk youth need to understand the warning signs of suicidality and follow up appropriately.

Our law firm fights for justice for parents and families

Losing a child to suicide is a preventable tragedy, and medical professionals who treat at-risk youth need to be held accountable when they fail to meet standards of care. If you have lost a loved one to suicide completion, contact the Law Offices of Skip Simpson. We’d be honored to listen to your story and explain your legal options, with no obligation and no pressure. Our firm is based in Texas but serves families nationwide.

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