What Causes Childhood and Teen Suicide?

Drawing by E. Wagele

Drawing by E. Wagele

The causes of suicide among the young are complicated. A.D.D., depression, and recent conflicts or crises are all being investigated. And what are the options for parents, teachers, and other adults to best relate to children they are concerned about? Catherine Saint Louis wrote a New York Times article 9-19-16: More Child Suicides Are Linked to A.D.D. Than Depression, Study Suggests.

The new research does not definitively establish that attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or A.D.H.D., are causal risk factors for suicide in children. The findings suggest “suicide is potentially a more impulsive act among children.”

  • Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: “Not everybody who is at risk for suicide has depression,” even among adults.
  • David N. Miller, president of the American Association of Suicidology, questioned whether impulsiveness was a large factor in child suicide. “There is a lot of evidence it isn’t,” he said.
  • Dr. Nancy Rappaport, child psychiatrist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, suspected that children listed as having A.D.D. or A.D.H.D. might not have had the conditions. Children with bipolar disorder “are often undiagnosed under 12, and their conditions are often confused with A.D.H.D.”

Attention deficit disorder is the most common mental health diagnosis among children under 12 who die by suicide. Few children aged 5 to 11 take their own lives, and little is known about these deaths. The new study, which included deaths in 17 states from 2003 to 2012, compared 87 children aged 5 to 11 who committed suicide with 606 adolescents aged 12 to 14 who did, to see how they differed.

About a third of the children of each group had a known mental health problem. The very young who died by suicide were most likely to have had attention deficit disorder, or A.D.D. By contrast, nearly two-thirds of early adolescents who took their lives struggled with depression. Suicide prevention has focused on identifying children struggling with depression; the new study provides an early hint that this strategy may not help the youngest suicide victims.

Young children most commonly had fought with a relative or peer before dying by suicide. About a third of the children and adolescents had experienced a problem at school. A similar percentage had gone through a recent crisis. “Younger kids don’t necessarily have the words to negotiate the conflict, to talk about what they are feeling or seek a solution,” Dr. Harkavy-Friedman said. “It’s O.K. to ask your child, ‘Are you feeling like you don’t want to be around anymore?’” she added. “It won’t put the idea in their head, but it opens the door for a conversation.”

About 30 percent of the nearly 700 children studied in the new research had told someone of their suicidal intentions. It is important to take seriously a declaration of suicidal intent, no matter the child’s age, Dr. Harkavy-Friedman said. It is also crucial for pediatricians, parents and school personnel to broach the topic with children if the adults are concerned.

“We know that often kids don’t disclose that they are suicidal,” Dr. Miller said. But “they will disclose if they are asked.”

* Recommended Elizabeth’s books:

Learn about the 9 types of children as described by the Enneagram system in The Enneagram of Parenting

Children learn about the Enneagram in Finding the Birthday Cake.

The Enneagram for Teens 

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