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ER visits for suicidal thoughts, attempts doubled among youth in recent years, study finds

The number of children and teens who have been brought to the emergency room for suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts has nearly doubled in recent years, according to a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people in the U.S. age 10 to 18.

The new study looked at data from the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and found there were 1.12 million emergency room visits for suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts by children ages 5 to 18 years in 2015. That number had risen sharply from 580,000 in 2007.

The study mirrors other similar recent research. Just last month, a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found the percentage of teens and young adults with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues has increased sharply over the past decade. The same pattern was not seen in older adults.

"We found significant increases in major depression, serious psychological distress which includes anxiety and hopelessness and suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts among teens and young adults with smaller, more inconsistent increases among adults age 26 and older," the author of the depression study, Jean Twenge, told CBS News. Twenge is a psychology professor and author of the book "iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood." 

The researchers found the rate of adolescents reporting symptoms consistent with major depression in the last 12 months rose from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 13.2 percent in 2017.

Additionally, the rate of young adults with suicidal thoughts, plans, attempts, and deaths by suicide also increased from 7 percent in 2009 to 10.3 percent in 2017.

What's behind the increase?

While it's difficult to confirm the reasons behind the trend, researchers have some theories. Twenge believes shifting cultural trends over the past decade, including increased use of electronic communications and digital media, may have had a larger effect on mood disorders among younger generations compared with older generations.

"Recently, there's been a number of studies showing that those who spend more time on digital media are more likely to be depressed and unhappy," Twenge said.

For example, a study of nearly 11,000 adolescents in Britain published earlier this year found those who were heavy users of social media were two to three times more likely to be depressed as those who did not use social media.

Another report, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science in 2017, found the use of electronic devices including smartphones for at least five hours a day among teens more than doubled, from 8 percent in 2009 to 19 percent in 2015. The group who spent the most time on their phones were 70 percent more likely to have suicidal thoughts or actions than those who reported one hour of use per day.

Teens are also not getting as much sleep as much as they did in previous generations and spending less face-to-face time with family and friends, both of which have been associated with depression.

"I think early and extensive exposure to social media as well as the interruption it can cause in sleep — [for example] being on social media late in the evening, the blue light interferes with falling asleep and alters melatonin production — both can contribute to increased anxiety, depression, and suicidality," said Mary Fristad, PhD, Vice Chair and Director of Research & Psychological Services at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Warning signs of depression and suicide

To help reverse these trends, experts recommend parents educate themselves on the warning signs of depression and get their children treatment when appropriate.

Symptoms of major depression vary from person to person but can include:

  • Feelings of sadness, emptiness or hopelessness
  • Tiredness and lack of energy
  • Outbursts of anger, irritability or frustration, even over small matters
  • Anxiety, agitation or restlessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities
  • Sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased cravings for food and weight gain
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Difficulty thinking and concentrating

For teenagers, additional signs of depression can include poor performance or poor attendance at school, feeling misunderstood and extremely sensitive, using recreational drugs or alcohol, and self-harm.

Warning signs of suicide can include:

  • A person thinking about or threatening suicide or seeking a way to kill themself
  • Increased substance abuse
  • Feelings of purposelessness, anxiety, being trapped, or hopeless
  • Social isolation and withdrawing from people and activities
  • Expressing unusual anger, recklessness, or mood changes

How to get help

If you believe a loved one is at risk of suicide, try to get the person to seek help from a doctor or the nearest hospital emergency department or dial 911. Do not leave him or her alone. It's important to remove access to firearms, medications, or any other potential tools they might use to harm themselves.

For immediate help if you are in a crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), which is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All calls are confidential.

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