If you’re taking your 11-year-old son to the emergency room after he hurt his ankle during a baseball game, you might be surprised to hear the doctor ask if he has ever had thoughts of suicide. While the question might seem irrelevant to his broken ankle, a new study shows that this technique might actually yield crucial (and surprising) information.
Death by suicide has become an increasing problem, especially among youth. It’s the third leading cause of death among youth, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), and rates have risen across the board: from rural districts to urban hubs.
Usually, suicide risk is associated with older teens and young adults, but new statistics increasingly show that suicide risk begins younger than you might think.
To assess suicide risk among preteens (aged 10 to 12) and the effectiveness of universal suicide screening, researchers at the NIMH turned to emergency rooms. This is a place where youth can go for both physical and mental health concerns, and it’s often the main or only form of healthcare for some families.
In the study, about half of the preteens were there for physical concerns, such as an injury. Using two common suicide ideation surveys, a third of the preteen patients screened positive for suicide risk—including 7 percent of those who came in only for a physical injury or complaint.
The results have important implications. While a sector of the preteens came in for physical health concerns, they were at a high risk of suicide. This means surveying adolescents for suicide risk—no matter what they’re seeing the doctor for—can yield life-saving information.
Mainstream suicide prevention often encourages those suffering to seek help and talk to others, but universal suicide screening doesn’t wait—or put the responsibility on the adolescent who is struggling. While many preteens might not offer this information (to the adults in their lives or to their doctors), they may give it when asked directly.
These study results are especially important considering previous statistics revealed that the majority of youth who died by suicide had actually visited a healthcare professional in the month before their death, according to NIMH. Some of these deaths might have been prevented if suicide screenings were in place, even if the patient was only visiting for a sore throat.
Screening by healthcare professionals is just *one* step in suicide prevention, but it’s a step that can be enacted easily, affordably, and promptly. The only question is determining which tools or questionnaires will yield the most accurate results for different age groups, as this study only used two of several options, and only for preteens.
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