Study highlights importance of screening for preteen suicide-risk

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When parents worry about suicidal thoughts and behaviors in their children, those worries are most commonly associated with high school-aged students.

But, a recent study found that nearly a third of children between the ages of 10-12 screen positive for suicide risk while in the emergency department.

Purva Grover, M.D., of Cleveland Clinic Children’s did not take part in the study, but said many children arrive at the emergency room for care later than they should because people are afraid to talk about mental health.

“Part of the challenge is that mental health still has a significant amount of stigma associated with it,” she said. “People don’t want to talk about it. People don’t want to ‘label’ their child, and because of that, I think we seek care much later.” 

Researchers found more than half of the preteens who sought emergency care for mental health-related issues screened positive for suicide risk.

More surprisingly, however, they also found seven percent of the children who came for physical complaints also screened positive for suicide risk.

Dr. Grover said children and teens will often come in for emergency care with repeat problems of stomach pain, or other physical symptoms, and sometimes just by asking the right questions, a mental health issue is revealed.

She said while many young teens and preteens are more aware of the signs of mental health struggles, it can still be difficult for them to open up and have those conversations with mom and dad.

Dr. Grover said the best thing parents can do is be on the lookout for any sudden and unexplained changes in their child’s behavior.

“If there are things you are seeing, which are not making any sense, or your child is behaving differently -he or she was an ‘A’ grade student and now is slipping, or just doesn’t care about things, or is not taking care of personal hygiene issues – there might be something going on.” 

Dr. Grover said if a parent or someone else in the family has struggled with mental health issues, it’s important to remember that some of these issues do have a genetic component, so this is something to also be on the lookout for in children.

Complete results of the study can be found in Hospital Pediatrics.

You can call the national suicide hotline at: 1-800-273-8255, or you can download the SAFEUT app where you can text or call a crisis counselor, or send an anonymous tip to help someone.   

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