New state poison exposure data shows alarming jump in self-harm and suspected suicides in children

New poison exposure data from the Washington Poison Center shows an alarming jump in self-harm and suspected suicides in children as young as 10 years old. A large proportion of cases are among girls.

From 2019 to 2021, cases of self-harm or suspected suicide increased 58% in patients ages 6-12 years and 37% in patients ages 13-17 years, according to the WA Poison Center. The agency said it’s likely an underrepresentation of adolescent self-harm and suspected suicide in Washington.

The Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics said children going to emergency departments for suicide account for more than 1.1 million encounters a year, a number that has doubled in the past decade.

Behavioral health professionals said all the data even before the pandemic started point to a youth mental health crisis.

Dr. Kira Mauseth, the co-lead for the Behavioral Health Strike Team for WA Department of Health, said there are layers of concern contributing to the current youth behavioral health issues including the pandemic.

"A lot of the lived experience that these kids have had over the last two years has been been objectively such a large part of their lives so far, and it’s been really, really challenging," said Mauseth. "It’s been hard socially, they felt disconnected. They may have had academic struggles. They may have been experiencing family struggles with their primary caregivers and their parents, where those parents are under stress so there’s a trickle-down into the family."

Vera Abariy is the Teen Link Youth Services Manager. Teen Link is a peer-to-peer crisis call center in King County.

Abariy said in recent months she has noticed a spike in suicide ideations and substance abuse in callers who are at times only eight or nine years old.

"We certainly have seen youth suicide, unfortunately, but the numbers and the ages that we’re seeing, this is really concerning to me," said State Representative Alicia Rule of Legislative District 42.

Representative Rule is a long-time social worker and a former school counselor who was a prime sponsor of a bill that has been signed into law and provides school with more nurses and mental health and family support professionals.

"It means we have those trauma-informed professionals right where the children are at, which is so often in school. So those folks will be trained in this process to be able to tell what the difference is and know how to ask the right questions and make those kind of really good referrals for families and children who might need that extra support," said Rule.

Seattle-King County Public Health said there is no typical suicide victim, but there are common characteristics. The most common warning signs are:

  • A previous suicide attempt
  • Current talk of suicide or making a plan
  • Strong wish to die or a preoccupation with death
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Signs of depression, such as moodiness, hopelessness and withdrawal
  • Increased alcohol and/or drug use
  • Hinting at not being around in the future or saying goodbye
  • Experiences drastic changes in behavior

Mauseth said the healthiest step a family can take is to create a culture of communication within the family, check in consistently with each child and ask open-ended questions.

"If you have a sense of baseline, and you’re checking in regularly and really asking them how they’re doing, even if they’re not always answering the question you can immediately begin to see when things change," said Mauseth.

Both Mauseth and Rep. Rule said to keep your home as safe as possible and lock up your over-the-counter and prescription medication.

"If they are experiencing some of these things with their children, they’re not alone, and it’s really good and okay to ask for help," said Rep. Rule.

Resources are available for families experiencing a youth mental health crisis: