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ER visits for suicide attempts among girls rose 51% during COVID-19 pandemic, CDC says

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Emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls rose significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Friday.

The average weekly number of visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls 12-17 was 50.6% higher last winter than compared to 2019 data from the same period, according to the CDC.

"The findings from this study suggest more severe distress among young females than has been identified in previous reports during the pandemic, reinforcing the need for increased attention to, and prevention for, this population," the CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report said.

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Emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts initially dropped overall for people ages 12 to 25 in March and April of last year, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared and the first lockdown orders went into place across the U.S.

But starting in May, those numbers began to rise. The average weekly number of emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescents 12–17 years was 22.3% higher during the summer of 2020 and 39.1% higher during the winter of 2021 than during the corresponding periods in 2019, the report said.

The gender divide is stark. The average weekly number of emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls was 26.2% higher in the summer and 50% higher in the winter. Among boys 12-17, visits increased 3.7% in the winter compared to the same period in 2019.

For the slightly older age group – people 18 to 25 – there was a 16.8% drop in the number of emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts during spring 2020, according to the report. That number, however, later rose and was higher throughout the pandemic compared with 2019, the report said.

It's important to note the increase in visits for suspected suicide attempts does not mean suicide deaths increased. In fact, provisional mortality data found an overall decrease in the suicide rate from fall of 2019 to fall of 2020, the report said. At the height of the pandemic, deaths by suicide fell 9%, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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The researchers didn't study what's driving the increase in visits among girls, but they said the findings are "consistent with past research," which suggests self-reported suicide attempts are consistently higher among adolescent females than among males and that young women had both higher and increasing rates of visits compared with men.

In general, the researchers said young people may be "at high risk" because they may have been "particularly affected by mitigation measures" during the pandemic, such as a lack of connectedness to schools, teachers and peers; barriers to mental health treatment; increases in substance use; and anxiety about family health and economic problems.

Emergency department visit rates for mental health concerns and suspected child abuse and neglect, which are risk factors for suicide attempts, also increased in 2020, according to the report.

It's also possible that by spending more time at home with young people, adults may have become more aware of suicidal thoughts and behaviors and were more likely to take their children to get help, the report said.

In its analysis, the CDC used data from the National Syndromic Surveillance Program, which includes a majority of the nation's emergency departments in 49 states – all except Hawaii – and the District of Columbia. Race and ethnicity data were not available at the time the CDC conducted its analysis, the agency said. The report also did not provide information on people of other genders.

Researchers noted the data may be inflated because it did not distinguish between initial visits from follow-up visits for the same event. At the same time, the data may undercount the true number of suicide attempts because people with less severe injuries may have been less likely to seek emergency care during the pandemic, the report said.

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online. Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.