Rates of Suicidality Among Teenage Girls Increased Drastically Since Onset of COVID-19 Pandemic, CDC Says

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According to the Centers for Disease Control, depression and suicidality were on the upward swing for teenage girls between 2019 and 2021, with some experts attributing pressure for normalcy amid COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns as a major culprit.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 24 in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Emma Wanstall, 18, of Connecticut, shared details of her severe depression and mental health journey with CBS. "It got to the point where I overdosed," she said. "I was planning on going to bed that night and not waking up in the morning."

Wanstall said she had trouble sharing her experience with her parents because she feared it would "make them feel they failed as a parent." Wanstall is learning to cope through various therapies and now relies on boxing as an emotional outlet, according to CBS.

The unfortunate reality is that suicidality among teenage girls has become increasingly common. 

According to the CDC, since 2019 the number of teenage girls who have been suicidal has increased by 50%.

The increase was first noted in early May 2020, when emergency department visit counts for suspected suicide attempts began increasing among adolescents aged 12–17 years, especially among girls, the CDC reported. During July 26–August 22, 2020, the mean weekly number of emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls aged 12–17 years was 26.2% higher than during the same period a year earlier. Then, in the 2021 winter, specifically during February 21–March 20, 2021, the mean weekly emergency department visit counts for suspected suicide attempts were 50.6% higher among girls aged 12–17 years compared with the same period in 2019.

"The difference in suspected suicide attempts by sex and the increase in suspected suicide attempts among young persons, especially adolescent females, is consistent with past research: self-reported suicide attempts are consistently higher among adolescent females than among males," the CDC wrote

Samantha Quigneaux, a family therapist at Newport Healthcare, told CBS that "the pressure of the return to normalcy” after the pandemic may have contributed to these staggering trends. 

"We're trying to get back to normal when we've all lost out on some skills," Quigneaux said. 

The therapist told CBS that parents should be on the lookout for changes in the behavior of their teens. This could include isolating from friends, substance use, self-harm, or eating disorders. And parents need not fear that bringing up the issue of self-harm and suicide will bring the idea to their children's attention, Quigneaux said.

She says it’s OK to talk with children directly about the topic. "So you want to ask your child, 'Are you having thoughts of hurting yourself? Are you having thoughts of worthlessness or hopelessness? You can talk to me. If you can't, we'll get you the help that you need.'" 

The study noted that though it found an increase in emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescent females during 2020 and early 2021, such a finding did not mean that suicide deaths increased. "Provisional mortality data found an overall decrease in the age-adjusted suicide rate from quarter 3 (July–September) of 2019 to quarter 3 of 2020. The suicide rate among young persons aged 15–24 years during this same period saw no significant change," the CDC wrote.

The CDC also noted that particular study was not designed to identify risk factors leading to increases in suspected suicide attempts. 

"Young persons might represent a group at high risk because they might have been particularly affected by mitigation measures, such as physical distancing... barriers to mental health treatment; increases in substance use; and anxiety about family health and economic problems, which are all risk factors for suicide," the CDC wrote. "In addition, average [emergency department] visit rates for mental health concerns and suspected child abuse and neglect, risk factors for suicide attempts, also increased in 2020 compared with 2019, potentially contributing to increases in suspected suicide attempts.

"Conversely, by spending more time at home together with young persons, adults might have become more aware of suicidal thoughts and behaviors, and thus been more likely to take their children to the [emergency department],'" the CDC continued. 

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