Troubling upswing in self-harm among school children

Troubling upswing in self-harm among school children

(Tenn.) With new research showing a drastic upswing in the percentage of younger children and teens hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or actions throughout the country, experts are calling on schools to adopt intervention strategies for early primary grades.

Preliminary findings from a study out of Vanderbilt University show that the percent of youth ages 5 to 17 hospitalized across the U.S. for self-harm or suicidal thoughts or actions doubled between 2008 and 2015.

While only the abstract of the study has been released, Phyllis Alongi, clinical director at the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide and not associated with the Vanderbilt study, said the findings align with what she has witnessed in her work with SPTS.

“Education and awareness in middle and elementary schools is becoming something that we really need to pay attention to, and incorporating evidence-based best practices that address these younger students,” Phyllis said in an interview. “It’s important because early intervention is the essence of what I think would help prevent some of this.”

The Vanderbilt University study on hospitalizations was released on the heels of a 2016 report from the  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention   that found  the suicide rate for children age 10 to 14 doubled nationally from 2007 to 2014– overtaking motor vehicle accidents as the second leading cause of death in that age group.

According to a 2012 American Psychological Association analysis, there should be one school psychologist for every 500 to 700 students, but following years of budget cuts, districts were quick to lay off "non-essential" personnel. Authors of the psychological association report said that the ratio is currently closer to one psychologist per 2,000 students in many states.

And, in an annual report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, almost 13 percent of children aged 12 to 17 experienced extended bouts of symptoms aligned with clinical depression that contributed to behavior problems in school in 2015.

Despite a severe lack of mental health professionals available to students on campus to help students, many schools have sought in recently to address the issue. In Colorado last month, five districts received grants from Kaiser Permanente to expanded mental health services as well as social-emotional learning curriculum across all grade levels.

And in California–where a 2016 statewide survey found that one in every five students in grades nine and 11 seriously considered attempting suicide the prior year–lawmakers have introduced bills addressing funding for counselors and social-emotional supports, and professional development to help teachers identify troubled students.

And throughout other parts of the country, policymakers are working to target groups facing higher rates of depression or bullying that lead to higher rates of suicidal thoughts or actions, including Native American youth and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

Although the Vanderbilt University study did not examine the reasoning behind why children were diagnosed with suicidal ideation or major self-harm, author Gregory Plemmons–an associate professor of pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt–found that between 2008 and 2015, the number of hospitalizations increased from 0.67 percent in 2008 to 1.79 percent in 2015.

Data taken from 32 children’s hospitals across the U.S. showed almost 60,000 kids ages 15 to 17 were hospitalized with suicidal thoughts or actions during that time period; nearly 44,000 were with 12- to 14-year-olds ; and more than 15,000 children between ages 5 and 11.

Alongi said that there are many reasons young people may contemplate or complete suicide, including personality factors, family history, outside or internal stressors, the onset of puberty, separate clinical disorders, or combinations of other factors coming together that impede upon children’s ability to think clearly.

“We need to look at how young people problem solve and cope, and how our children and adolescents get stuck in crisis thinking,” Alongi said. “We need to cultivate emotion regulation, self-esteem, problem solving skills, coping mechanisms through early social-emotional learning and mindfulness.”

Some experts speculate that the increase in hospitalizations could be a sign that the stigma surrounding mental health issues may be decreasing. Logan Shideler, program director for the California Youth Crisis Line, noted that while callers in the past primarily used the phone number as a runaway hotline, it has since turned into a crisis line. Mental health awareness efforts and access to the internet means people may feel more comfortable typing their symptoms into Google and seeking help, he said.

“I think (mental health) is talked about more and of course, there is still a lot of stigma around mental illness, but it is totally different than how it used to be,” Shideler said in an email to Cabinet Report. “I think that this is proof that there is an increase in awareness of mental illness.”

For those currently in need of help or know someone in need, resources are also available through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK [8255]).