COVID-19 and the rise of teenage suicide

When I close my eyes, I see the faces of all the youth I’ve cared for after they attempted suicide. I can’t begin to imagine the faces of the children who took their own lives. I remember working in the pediatric emergency room when a child was brought in after committing suicide. The mom’s wails, the father’s screams: these are the sounds that haunt my dreams.

When I went back to my car after the shift, I couldn’t move. I sat there, tears in my eyes wishing there was something we could have done for that young boy. He is gone now, but there are so many other children who need help.

During the COVID pandemic, I, along with most pediatricians, have seen an exponential rise in teenagers admitted to the hospital with suicidal thoughts and attempts. Some had been lonely and contemplating suicide for a while. Some made rash decisions and cried of regret when recounting their actions.

When a child tries to commit suicide by firearm, they are likely to succeed.

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The pandemic uniquely impacted adolescents. Social isolation, constant uncertainty, stress, and fear have plagued their lives. According to the CDC, teenage emergency room visits for suicide attempts increased significantly during the pandemic, with a 50% rise in cases in females and almost 4% increase in males. Additionally, suicidality among teens in Texas was on the rise prior to the pandemic. However, most suicidal attempts are not fatal except when guns are used.

In Texas, guns are the second leading cause of death among children and adolescents. Suicide is also the second leading cause of death among American youth.

One of the greatest risk factors of death by suicide is access to firearms in the household. Studies have shown children often know where guns are hidden in the home. More than 80% of children and adolescents who die by suicide using firearms use a gun that belongs to a family member.

During the pandemic, there was a significant rise in the sale of firearms. This correlated with an almost 40% increase in firearm-related encounters in the pediatric emergency room, with the highest risk in adolescent teen males in southern states.

Teens are hurting. We need to be better for them.

As a pediatrician, I know there are ways to keep teenagers safe in households with guns. The best way to protect your children and adolescents is with safe storage. Guns should be stored unloaded, in locked position, and locked away. Ammunition should be stored separately. Children and adolescents should not have access to the keys or codes needed to retrieve the firearms.

Multiple studies have shown that proper storage is one of the best ways to decrease the risk of suicide in houses with firearms. If you do own firearms and your child is showing any signs of depression or suicidal thoughts, consider at least temporarily removing the gun from your home. When your children have plans to spend time at a friend’s house, we encourage asking the parents if they own guns and if so, if they are safely stored away. Parents should also feel empowered and encouraged to discuss safe firearm storage techniques with their teenagers’ pediatricians.

If you find your child or adolescent in acute danger, please do not hesitate to call 911. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) and the Crisis Text Line (Text “HELLO” to 741741) are also great resources during less urgent situations.

Our teenagers need us to help keep them safe. Let’s do our part to help them live a long and prosperous life.

-By Taylor Rosenbaum, M.D., pediatrics resident with Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital

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