Health

More kids, especially girls, are attempting suicide. It's not clear why.

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Emet Oden tried reaching out in the only way he knew how.

“I had been struggling with my mental health and, specifically, suicidal thoughts since the eighth grade,” said Oden, who is now 18.

“I didn’t want to talk to my friends about it, because they never knew how to handle it. I just didn’t want to bother them.”

He dropped heavy hints around some teachers he trusted, but they didn’t pick up on the cues.

“I was kind of hunched. Walking around, I just looked sad,” said Oden, who’s about to graduate from his high school in Nashville.

When a teacher asked him how he was doing, he answered that he was fine, while wishing that someone would press a little deeper. But no one did.

Oden attempted suicide a little over a year ago. He’s part of a growing number of teens and children who are thinking about or even attempting suicide.

Related

A new study out Wednesday finds that more kids are either thinking about or attempting suicide.

“When we looked at hospitalizations for suicidal ideation and suicidal encounters over the last decade, essentially 2008 to 2015, we found that the rates doubled among children that were hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or activity,” Plemmons told NBC News.

Dr. Gregory Plemmons of Vanderbilt University and colleagues analyzed a database of visits at 49 children’s hospitals for kids aged 5 to 17.

Although suicide ideation — thinking about suicide — and suicide attempts accounted for just 1 percent of all hospital visits, the numbers have steadily increased,

Half of the encounters involved teens aged 15 to 17; 37 percent were 12 to 14; and almost 13 percent were children aged 5 to 11 years. Girls made up nearly two-thirds of the cases.

That’s at the same time that actual suicide deaths are up, too, so it’s not a case of awareness alone, the researchers said.

It’s possible pediatricians are paying more attention and sending kids to specialist hospitals because they don’t feel equipped to deal with suicidal thinking, Plemmons and colleagues reported in the journal Pediatrics.

“I don’t have any one magic answer that explains why we’re seeing this,” Plemmons said. “We know that anxiety and depression are increasing in young adults as well as adults. I think some people have theorized it’s social media maybe playing a role, that kids don’t feel as connected as they used to be.”

But there was a hint in Plemmons’ data. The rate of hospital visits was much higher during the school year.

“On average, during the eight years included in the study, only 18.5 percent of total annual suicide ideation and suicide attempt encounters occurred during summer months,” the team wrote.

“Peaks were highest in fall and spring. October accounted for nearly twice as many encounters as reported in July.”

Emet Oden, 18, is a suicide survivor. Here he is registering for TrevorSpace, a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community, modeled like a social networking site arm of the Trevor Project.Courtesy of Emet

Dr. Laurel Williams, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital, says mental illnesses such as depression, mood disorders and even bipolar disease may play a role.

“Over 90 percent of young people that eventually go on to commit suicide have some diagnosable mental health disorder,” she said.

“A young person has a mental health problem, let’s say depression. Then an external stressor, let’s say at school or at home, will push them over the edge.”

Pressures of social media

Oden said he had been struggling for some time, and was hospitalized three times for what’s called suicide ideation — not just thinking about suicide, but actively planning for it. “There were family issues and the pressure of school because I was really behind after being a hospital inpatient,” he said.

“There was a lot going on.”

Williams said that’s a common theme — teens and young adults feel pressure, with no time to break off and connect with someone.

"It doesn’t matter what it is, if it makes you feel hopeless, it makes you feel hopeless."

"It doesn’t matter what it is, if it makes you feel hopeless, it makes you feel hopeless."

Oden, a transgender male, had been cutting himself. Self-harm is one red flag for suicide risk, although not every child who cuts or scratches or harms him or herself is at risk of suicide.

Social media complicated things.

“I could go onto tumblr and in the search engine search type ‘depressed’ and see all these posts of people experiencing depression,” he said. “It validated what I was feeling, but I also felt trapped there.”

And then there were classic feelings of worthlessness. “I felt I was annoying and people would be better off without me,” he said.

That’s familiar to Dese’Rae Stage, a suicide survivor and activist who photographs and tells the stories of suicide survivors as part of the Live Through This project.

She can’t really remember her first suicide attempt, at age 16 or 17, but she remembers the second time. She was 23 and in a tumultuous relationship.

“I was thinking ‘I am never going to have a good relationship. I am never going to have a good job. I am never going to …’,” she said. “I had just gotten into a Ph.D program. I had a future and I just couldn’t see it.”

Many of the people Stage has interviewed describe feelings of despair and being unable to connect with the people nearest to them.

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