Youth attempted suicide spiked globally during pandemic: UCalgary report

A new report from the University of Calgary (UCalgary) shows an increase in emergency department visits for attempted suicide and suicide ideation among youth globally.

The report published in Lancet Psychiatry is a meta-analysis of 42 studies representing over 11 million pediatric emergency department visits across 18 countries.

Studies included were published between January 2020 and July 2021, and they contained data on pediatric emergency department visits before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The numbers show a 22 per cent increase in children and adolescents going to emergency departments for suicide attempts and an eight per cent increase in visits for suicide ideation.

This is despite a 32 per cent reduction in pediatric emergency department visits for any health-related reasons.

Dr. Sheri Madigan, a clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychology in Toronto and the lead author in the study, says the increase means there were 102 children and adolescent visits per month for suicide attempts before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In our earlier work on mental health in the pandemic, we determined that kids were in crisis, and that we needed to bolster services and resources, or it was going to get worse,” Madigan said in a news release from UCalgary.

“There’s been a debate during the pandemic as to whether the kids are all right or not all right. Now that more data have been published and analyzed, we can more precisely answer that question. The kids are, in fact, not all right.”

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In 2021, Madigan’s research team led another study which found depression and anxiety symptoms doubled in children and adolescents due to the first year of the pandemic, which she said was part of a “global mental health crisis.”

The reports show girls’ average health department visits was 57.6 per cent, compared to boys at 43.4 per cent. The average age was 11.7 years old.

Mental distress accelerants 

Meanwhile, the report says that children’s screen time “rose greatly during the pandemic” due to physical activities dwindling.

In addition, Madigan says families were struggling due to lost jobs, family violence increasing, and the mental health of parents deteriorating.

“These are all accelerants to mental distress,” Madigan said.

“Children have an ability to show resilience in difficult times, but they were pushed past what is tolerable, beyond their capacity-to-cope threshold. And now, far more kids and teens are in crisis than was the case before the pandemic.”

Madigan co-authored the study with researchers from The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto, the University of Ottawa, and University College Dublin.

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Dr. Daphne Korczak, a psychiatrist at SickKids in Toronto and co-author of the report, says the findings are worrying and aligned with what she’s experienced at her clinic.

“There’s really been this accumulation of pandemic-related stressors, social isolation, school closures, online learning,” she said.

“At that same time, there’s been this withdrawal of sources of support friends in schools and routines and having that sustained over months and years that they’re quite a long period in the life of a child.”

Korczak says the combination of stress and lack of support can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed, stuck or unable to cope.

The Distress Centre can be reached by calling or texting 403-266-4357 (HELP). The Kids Help Phone also has services available 24/7 across Canada and can be reached by texting CONNECT to 686868 or by phoning 1-800-668-6868.

-With files from Todd Kaufman

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