Many Preteens Screen Positive for Suicide Risk, Says Alarming New Study


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Nearly one-third of children ages 10-12 screened positive for suicide risk during an emergency room visit, some even if they came in for a physical health issue, according to a new study by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Typically, suicidal thoughts and behaviors are seen in older teens.

“It was troubling to see that so many preteens screened positive for suicide risk, and we were alarmed to find that many of them had acted on their suicidal thoughts in the past,” Dr. Lisa Horowitz, a clinical scientist with NIMH, part of the National Institutes of Health, said in a press release.

“This study shows that children as young as 10 who show up in the emergency department may be thinking about suicide.”

Study Examined Preteens in ER Visits

Researchers studied 79 preteens who visited three urban pediatric hospital ERs.

About half of preteens (53.2%) came to the ER due to a physical health concern, like a back injury or chest pain. The other half (47%) came because of a mental health concern, like depression or panic disorder.

To determine their risk for suicide, the preteens were screened using the four-item Ask Suicide-Screening Questions (ASQ) and the 15-item Suicidal Ideation Questionnaire-JR (SIQ-JR).

If participants answered “yes” to any of the four ASQ items and/or scoring above the SIQ-JR cutoff score, it was considered a positive screen for suicide risk.

Those who screened positive on either the ASQ or SIQ-JR were given a brief suicide safety assessment by a mental health professional.

Shocking Study Findings

The study found that 23 of the 79 preteen participants screened positive for suicide risk. That is nearly one-third.

54.1% of the preteen participants presenting with a psychiatric concern screened positive for suicide risk.

Notably, 7% of the preteens who screened positive for suicide risk were seeking help for physical – not psychiatric – concerns.

Almost 18% of the preteens, particularly those who visited the ER for a psychiatric concern, had previously attempted suicide.

“Many families use the emergency department as their sole source of health care, which presents a unique opportunity to identify these younger kids who are struggling with suicidal thoughts,” Dr. Maryland Pao of the NIMH said in a press release.

“But most preteens seen in the emergency department show up with medical problems and will not disclose their suicidal thoughts unless they are asked directly.”

Suicide: A Latino Pubic Health Crisis

Suicide rates have increased significantly across the U.S. from 1999-2016.

Rates are continuously rising among Latinos and African Americans.

Specifically, Latinas are at a greater risk. More than 1 in 4 Latina high-school students have thought about committing suicide. Latina teens also have higher rates of suicide attempts.

Latino youth are far more likely than their peers to have mental health issues. These issues often go unaddressed and untreated. Immigration, poverty, bullying, and other factors affect these disparities, according to a Salud America! research review.

Screening Preteens ‘May Save Lives’

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for the studied age group (10 to 12). Alarmingly, most youth who die by suicide had been seen by a health care provider in the month prior to killing themselves.

This is why NIMH researchers created a toolkit to help healthcare providers implement universal suicide risk screening for youth.

“Screening all preteens — regardless of their presenting symptoms — may save lives,” Horowitz said. “Otherwise, they may pass through our medical systems undetected.”

Other Ways to Address Suicide Risk

Additionally, the CDC recommends states use evidence-based public health approaches to prevent suicide risks before it occurs.

If you know someone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts or planning self-harm, there are many resources available to help:

Many prevention campaigns are rising up, too.

  • The 1 in 5 Minds campaign shares stories, counters mental health stigma, and boosts support for children in San Antonio.
  • Dawn Lee of Hickory Creek, Texas, began creating Mindful Mums to start conversations and reduce mental health stigma.
  • Project UROK, part of the Child Mind Institute, supports youth with online mental health forums and videos.

Learn more ways to improve mental health for Latinos and all!

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