Evaluation of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Medications, Externalizing Symptoms, and Suicidality in Children

JAMA Netw Open. 2021 Jun 1;4(6):e2111342. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.11342.


Importance: Childhood suicidality (ie, suicidal ideation or attempts) rates are increasing, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and externalizing symptoms are common risk factors associated with suicidality. More data are needed to describe associations of ADHD pharmacotherapy with childhood suicidality.

Objective: To investigate the associations of ADHD pharmacotherapy with externalizing symptoms and childhood suicidality.

Design, setting, and participants: In this cohort study, cross-sectional and 1-year-longitudinal associations were examined using data (collected during 2016-2019) from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, a large, diverse US sample of children aged 9 to 11 years. Data analysis was performed from November to December 2020.

Exposures: Main and interaction associations of externalizing symptoms (hyperactivity ADHD symptoms, oppositional defiant, and conduct disorder symptoms) and ADHD medication treatment (methylphenidate and amphetamine derivatives, α-2-agonists, and atomoxetine) at baseline assessment.

Main outcomes and measures: Child-reported suicidality (past and present at baseline; current at longitudinal assessment). Covariates were age, sex, race/ethnicity, parents' education, marital status, and concomitant child psychiatric pharmacotherapy (antidepressants and antipsychotics).

Results: Among 11 878 children at baseline assessment (mean [SD] age, 9.9 [0.6] years; 6196 boys [52.2%]; 8805 White [74.1%]), 1006 (8.5%) were treated with ADHD medication and 1040 (8.8%) reported past or current suicidality. Externalizing symptoms (median [range], 1 [0-29] symptom count) were associated with suicidality (for a change of 1 SD in symptoms, odds ratio [OR], 1.34; 95% CI, 1.26-1.42; P < .001), as was ADHD medication treatment (OR, 1.32; 95% CI, 1.06-1.64; P = .01). ADHD medication use was associated with less suicidality in children with more externalizing symptoms (significant symptom-by-medication interaction, B = -0.250; SE = 0.086; P = .004), such that for children who were not receiving ADHD medications, there was an association between more externalizing symptoms and suicidality (for a change of 1 SD in symptoms, OR, 1.42; 95% CI, 1.33-1.52; P < .001); however, for children who were receiving ADHD medication, there was no such association (OR, 1.15; 95% CI, 0.97-1.35; P = .10). The association with medication remained even when covarying for multiple confounders, including risk and protective factors for suicidality in ABCD, and was replicated in 1-year longitudinal follow-up. Sensitivity analyses matching participants with high numbers of externalizing symptoms taking and not taking ADHD medication treatment confirmed its association with less suicidality.

Conclusions and relevance: These findings suggest that ADHD medication treatment is associated with less suicidality in children with substantial externalizing symptoms and may be used to inform childhood suicide prevention strategies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / epidemiology*
  • Child
  • Child Behavior Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Risk Factors
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Suicidal Ideation
  • Suicide / statistics & numerical data*