The number of kids aged 5 to 11 in the United States who have died by suicide in recent years has increased significantly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate has increased 15% each year from 2012 to 2017, making it the eighth leading cause of death for children in this age range.
So, what can we do about it?
Researchers in our Center for Suicide Prevention and Research determined that if we’re going to impact the suicide rate of children in this age group, we must first understand if there are common themes for why children are dying by suicide.
In a recent study, we looked at 134 suicide deaths of children aged 5 to 11 years between 2013 and 2017. Most of the children were between 10 and 11 years old, and 75% were male. Among the children who died by suicide, we found that:
31% had a mental health concern or diagnosis, with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and mood disorders such as depression being the most common diagnoses
24% had a prior psychiatric hospitalization
78% were receiving mental health treatment before their deaths
Additionally, more than 25% of children in the study had experienced one or more traumatic events, and many children in the study faced one or more family-related life events including divorce or custody issues, parental substance abuse or a family history of psychological problems or suicide.
A prior history of suicide attempts was reported in 12% of children in the study, and a history of suicidal ideation or suicidal attempts was reported in about 25% of cases.
In 32% of cases, researchers found that children in the study were disciplined on the day of their suicide. In these cases, the discipline often followed a school-related issue or argument between the child and parent or caregiver. Punishments included sending the child to their room (in half of cases) and taking away a technological device (in 29% of cases).
Oftentimes, a child was affected by more than one of these themes. In other words, children with mental health concerns or a history of suicidal behavior often had traumatic histories related to family situations. Children with mental health concerns were also more likely to have school problems that resulted in arguments with their parent/guardian.
The study also found patterns in how the suicide deaths occurred. While most suicides in this age group occurred by hanging/suffocation, 19% were by firearm. In cases where detailed information on these deaths was available, children who used guns got them in their homes where they were usually found unlocked and loaded or stored with bullets.
What does all of this information tell us? How can it help us improve prevention efforts? Here are three key things we learned:
Family-based interventions and a trauma-informed approach that helps children and parents/caregivers process thoughts and feelings related to traumatic life events may provide promising treatments for children at risk for suicidal behavior.
Suicidal statements should be taken seriously in younger children. More than 10% of children in the study made comments to parents, teachers or school employees on the day of their deaths.
Educational programs, youth-focused firearm laws and safe firearm storage public awareness campaigns could improve safe storage practices. Evidence suggests that this would protect against unintentional firearm shootings and suicide attempts across all age groups.
If you or your child need immediate help due to having suicidal thoughts, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. If there is an immediate safety concern, call 911 or go the nearest emergency room.
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