Rise in youth suicide attempts in Washington could be attributed to COVID-19 pandemic


Shane Ersland


New data shows an increase in youths using medications in attempts to take their own lives in Washington State.


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The Washington Poison Center (WPC) reported that cases of self-harm or suspected suicide rose 37% in patients aged 13-17 from 2019-2021, according to data analyzing poison exposure calls to the WPC. The report showed that cases of self-harm or suspected suicide increased 58% in patients aged 6-12 during that time frame.

WPC reported that 65% of patients were already in health care facilities at the time it was contacted, while 17% of patients were in their own residences when WPC was contacted. Fewer than 1% were at school when the center was contacted.

In 2021, the top substance used in self-harm or suspected suicide attempts among patients aged 6-12 was acetaminophen (35 patients), while the top substance used among patients aged 13-17 was antidepressants (342 patients).

Brandon Foister, Director of Whatcom County Outpatient Services and Director of Inpatient Strategy at Compass Health, said concerns surrounding the mental health of youths have grown at an alarming rate since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Over the last two-and-a-half years, many kids have experienced massive disruptions to their lives, at home, and at school,” Foister said. “For kids facing difficulties at home, school is often a safe space where they tend to seek refuge. If their issues are severe, a student may be more willing to talk to a trusted adult who works there or disclose their challenges to their peers. During COVID lockdowns and when education switched from in-person to virtual models, many kids lost that avenue of connection and avenues to ask for help when needed.”

Justine McClure, Director of the Washington State chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), said many factors can lead to youths experiencing suicide ideation.

“Usually there are multiple things occurring to create a mental health crisis,” McClure said. “It could be part genetics, school, online activity, something going on with a relationship, or prior trauma. There are multiple factors, and then you add the pandemic, and that adds a lot of pressure.”

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Washingtonians aged 10-24, and the third leading cause of death nationally. Solutions for preventing it are complex, Foister said.

“On a broad level, assisting kids in rebuilding their community and sense of community to ensure they have a support network in place is going to be integral in our work as a state and country to address the mental health concerns that are facing our youth,” Foister said. 

Foister discussed some important steps in suicide prevention for youths, including:

  • Community members coming together to destigmatize the conversation around suicide so those at risk feel empowered to ask for help
  • Sharing strategies to listen and and support youths who do speak up
  • Ensuring kids and their guardians know how to access behavioral health and community services, and other resources that can serve as lifelines

Compass Health works to strengthen relationships with community partners like primary care providers and school personnel to ensure that there is a referral system in place for kids who need help, Foister said.

“Through these relationships we can work to connect teens and children with a mental health professional as quickly as possible,” Foister said. “We are also working to station more clinicians directly in schools, and are building onto our child and family support teams to increase points of connections.”

While the pandemic may have contributed to the increase in youth suicide attempts, the WPC report also suggests that more youths are seeking help, McClure said.

“Through COVID a lot more people sought care,” McClure said. “They were comfortable going for help and getting help. So a lot more people were not only feeling like it was okay to get help, more people received help. We all had the pandemic affect us in some way. People were able to express what their mental health was doing.”

Helpful suicide prevention resources can be found at Compass Health, AFSP, the Volunteers Of America’s Crisis Care Line, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and the Crisis Text Line.