Suicide is the second leading cause of death among children. Take a moment to consider what this actually means. The most common cause of death among children is unintentional injury. In other words, the two leading causes of child death are not related to physical illness. Instead, they are related to the circumstances of a child’s life. This doesn’t mean that all children who die from injury and suicide grow up in difficult circumstances, but many do.
The estimated number of suicidal children admitted annually to emergency departments in the US for a suicidal attempt or suicidal ideation doubled from 580,000 to greater than 1.2 million between 2007 and 2015.
Delfina Janiri and her team recently looked at precursors to suicidal ideation and attempts among a group of nine to 10 year olds. They analyzed data from 7,994 children participating in the Adolescent Brain Cognition Development (ABCD) Study. This study was designed to get an annual, national snapshot of childhood experiences and how they relate to factors like age, sex, and race.
Few children reported making a suicide attempt, but eight in every 100 said thought about it. Some of the most common predictors of thinking about suicide included family conflict and experiencing distress, disruption, or impulsivity. The probability of suicidal ideation was lower for children reporting more parental supervision and a positive school environment.
Importantly, the ABCD study also included questions for caregivers about whether or not their children were suicidal. The researchers assessed whether caregivers and their children responded similarly about the child’s suicidality. The researchers found that caregivers usually did not identify the same suicidal symptoms as those reported by their children.
For these children, schools could be an important resource by creating stronger bonds between teachers and students or through additional programs that provide a positive after-school environment for children.
Janiri and her team suggest that the reason children and caregivers did not agree about suicidality could be because children might not be comfortable talking about their feelings. They might be afraid that they will be judged negatively and not receive the support they need. The researchers also noted that caregivers missed suicidal symptoms more often when they lived in households with a lot of people. They speculate that larger households might prevent important interactions between caregivers and children that enable them to learn more about how their child is feeling.
To the researchers, reducing child suicide risk could result from finding ways to increase positive interactions between children and either their caregivers or adults at school. In the home, this might mean getting parents more involved in the child’s life to allow for the construction of more trusting relationships. However, in this study, suicidal ideation was much higher among children experiencing more problems at home. For these children, schools could be an important resource by creating stronger bonds between teachers and students or through additional programs that provide a positive after-school environment for children.
Suicidal thoughts are a result of serious underlying mental health related problems and, too often, abuse or neglect at home. Symptoms of hopelessness, social withdrawal, and talking about suicide increases the possibility of children attempting to take their own life. These experiences in childhood foreshadow the possibility of experiencing a lifetime of mental health challenges.
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If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.