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Self-harm rises sharply among tween and young teen girls, study shows

For girls navigating the straits of adolescence and young adulthood, there are new signs of serious emotional trouble. From 2009 to 2015, the nation’s emergency rooms saw a sharp rise in treatment of girls 10 to 24 who intentionally injured themselves.

But inside that increasing trend of girls and young women harming themselves — a yearly hike of 8.4% in ER visits over six years — lies an even more alarming statistic: Among girls 10 to 14 years old, rates of ER visits for treatment of self-harm surged 18.8% yearly between 2009 and 2015.

For girls in and around their middle school years, the statistics are a harbinger of turmoil and tragedy. Self-inflicted injury, including such behaviors as cutting, burning and ingesting poisons, is not only a cry for help, it is one of the strongest risk factors for suicide.

Among American kids 10 to 24, suicide was the second-leading cause of death in 2015.

The new statistics show that girls and young women were overwhelmingly treated in emergency departments after ingesting pills or poisons. Self-injury with sharp objects was about half as frequent. The data are in line with reports of an uptick in depression and suicide in young Americans, especially in young girls, starting around 2008-2009.

Among girls 5 to 15 years old — a segment of the population among whom suicide was a rare phenomenon in 1999 — an April 2016 study showed that rates of suicide tripled between 1999 and 2014, with one suicide yearly for every 6,660 of these girls.

That comes against the backdrop of rising suicide rates among all women younger than 75 during that period. In the age group of greatest vulnerability — women between 45 and 64 — the rate of suicide in 2014 vaulted 80% over 1999’s statistics.

The uptick in self-injury generally appears to coincide with a period in which Americans’ financial woes mounted and a battering recession settled in.

The new data on non-fatal self-injury were gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. They appear in a letter published Tuesday by JAMA.

In a November 2016 study chronicling the rise in depression among young girls, a team led by Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Ramin Mojtabai noted that adolescent girls appear to be coming under increasing stress.

As an example, Mojtabai and his team wrote that cyberbullying may have increased more dramatically among girls than boys. Research suggests adolescent girls are more intensively engaged than their male peers with texting and social media applications of mobile phones. Problematic mobile phone use among young people has been linked to depressed mood, they noted.

In the non-fatal self-injury statistics unveiled Tuesday, younger females remain less likely to require treatment for self-harm than their slightly older counterparts. Among girls and young women ages 10 to 24, those between 15 and 19 consistently had the highest rate of emergency department visits for self-injury: 625 per 100,000 girls in 2015.

But among girls 10 to 14, self-injury was a rarity from 2001 to 2009: Around 100 girls in 100,000 required emergency department care for self-harm in those years. Starting in 2009, however, those rates began to rise sharply. By 2015, they had reached levels similar to those seen in young women 20 to 24 (just over 300 per 100,000).

melissa.healy@latimes.com

@LATMelissaHealy

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