The Central Ohio Poison Center Nationwide at Children’s Hospital found that the frequency of suicide attempts by drug overdose or intentional self-poisoning has more than doubled among young people aged 10 to 24 years over the past decade. Among girls and young women, the rate of these suicide attempts has more than tripled, according to the study published in the Journal of Pediatrics.

Self-poisoning is the leading form of attempted suicide, particularly among females. Young women and girls accounted for more than 71% of the 1,627,825 cases of suspected intentional overdoses since 2000.

Building on these findings, the same researchers published an analysis of the medications used in self-poisoning suicide attempts in Clinical Toxicology. OTC analgesics, specifically  acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin, led the pack across the full age range studied. Younger teens, those aged 10 to 15 years, also had a high rate of overdose associated with medications for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

“It’s not so much a matter of substance type, but rather a matter of access to the substance. Any type of medication can be misused and abused in ways that can unfortunately lead to very severe outcomes, including death,” said Henry Spiller, MS, director of the Central Ohio Poison Center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and co-author of both studies.

Over the 19 years studied, 340,563 cases required treatment, while the self-poisonings were life-threatening in 45,857 cases and fatal in 1,404. Opioids accounted for just 7% of serious medical outcomes.

“Because medications are so readily available in homes, many families do not take precautions to store them safely. Our findings suggest this is a big problem,” said John Ackerman, PhD, clinical psychologist and suicide prevention coordinator for the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s and co-author of both studies.

“The answer is not to stop prescribing medications to those who stand to benefit, but rather to emphasize the practice of safe storage and vigilance when administering any kind of medicine, especially when children and teens live in the home,” added Dr. Ackerman.

Pharmacists play an important role in educating parents on the need to restrict unsupervised access to all drugs. Parents should be encouraged to keep their youngsters safe by securing all medications, ideally in a locked cabinet.

Prominently displaying the number of suicide hotlines and providing handouts on suicide prevention and how to talk to children about mental health can also help. Nationwide Children’s On Our Sleeves program provides resources to facilitate these conversations and reduce suicide attempts that pharmacists can use.

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