NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) — Suicide surpassed car wrecks and child abuse as the leading cause of traumatic death in 2020 at Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth.
The trend doctors described as 'alarming' when it emerged last year, is happening at an even more frequent rate in 2021.
In March, the hospital admitted 43 children after suicide attempts. The new record broke the previous high of 40, set in January. Many of the patients are girls, between 14 and 15 years old, although pediatricians have reported impacts to children as young as seven.
The isolation, loneliness and stress of the pandemic is leaving children feeling hopeless, doctors say, and ready to just give up.
"It's hard to see that things are going to get better, if you're only in your room doing virtual school," said Dr. Kristen Pyrc, the co-medical director of psychiatry at Cook. "You don't talk to anyone else. You're so isolated it's hard to see things will ever change or get better because you only see what's around you."
The children's health care system first noted the trend in August, after admitting suicide patients at the rate of almost one every day. It was happening as school districts debated the safety of students returning to classrooms.
Doctors said the delayed return to a normal life, left some children with a sense of hopelessness. It was heightened they said by social media that filled the lack of in-person connections.
By the end of 2020, seven suicide patients had died at Cook. That number does not include children who died before being admitted to the hospital.
Those same pandemic pressures are likely largely to blame now, Pyrc explained, with children who are isolated often seeing some aspects of life that have resumed, happen without them, in real time on social media.
"Their friends are so important for their development and for their happiness, and then all of that's been curtailed or changed," she said. "They're just very here and now in their thinking and so for a lot of teens, here and now is terrible and they're feeling hopeless and they just give up."
The 118 suicide attempts among the hospital's patients through March, are closing on in the 2015 total of 144. 103 of those patients so far this year, have been girls.
There have been 442 consults for children at risk through the first three months of the year, 60-percent more than during the same period last year.
At the same time psychiatric care resources for children continue to lag behind the demand, according to the health care system. It's not uncommon for a dozen patients to be waiting for room in a psychiatric facility. The waitlist just to see a counselor at Cook can be as high as 250 days.
Cook Children's plans to launch a campaign this month, aimed at slowing down the trend. The JOY campaign, an acronym for Just breath, Open up and You matter, will try to impress on children that the pandemic experience is temporary. It will also address over-the-counter medications, social media and the impact of suicide on parents and siblings.
Dr. Pyrc said while it's normal for teenagers to be withdrawn, parents should be aware of warning signs like a lack of engagement or interest even in the smallest things they typically enjoy.
She is hopeful the trend can be reversed.
"But I think it's going to take teens experiencing some things to believe it."
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