From 2013 to 2016, the suicide rate for children and teens ages 10-19 rose by 12 percent. This is a disturbing new trend among children, as suicide had previously been on the decline for this age group. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate in children declined by 33 percent from 1999 to 2013.
In June, The American Academy of Pediatrics published research compiled from hospitals in the U.S. that focused on children and suicide. The reports revealed that visits to children’s hospitals for suicide attempts, including incidents of talking about suicide or threatening to harm or kill oneself, more than doubled between 2008 and 2015. While about 50 percent of these hospital visits for suicide attempts or suicidal incidents involved teens age 15 to 17, nearly 13 percent involved kids age 5 to 11 years old.
These new reports about suicide in children and teens are cause for concern. It’s important to understand the risk factors of suicide in children and the warning signs of suicide.
Risk factors that contribute to suicide in children
Audrey Nottke, director of nursing at The Medical Center of Aurora's Behavioral Health and Wellness Campus, says that suicide in children is a possible reality that adults must face.
There are multiple risk factors for suicide in children and teenagers, including:
- Mental health problems (including depression, anxiety and substance abuse)
- Previous suicide attempts
- A family history or mental health issues or suicidal behavior
- History of physical or sexual abuse
- Exposure to violence
Children and teens who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual orientation, queer or transgender might be at risk for attempting suicide or experiencing suicidal thoughts. Other warning signs that a child or teen is thinking about attempting suicide include:
Suicidal ideation (suicidal thoughts, talking about suicide or threatening to harm or kill oneself)
- Feeling trapped, hopeless or purposeless
- Excessive feelings of anxiety worry, fear or anger
- Withdrawing from friends, family or society
- Engaging in reckless behavior
- Frequent changes in mood
In children and teens, there are several other factors that may increase the likelihood of a suicide attempt:
- Alcohol and drug use
- Child has access to weapons or other methods of self-harm, such as poisons or medications
- Exposure to suicide of a family member or friend
- Social stress and isolation
Warning signs of suicide in younger children
In younger children, the signs of a mental illness might be different than in adolescents. Mental illness and mental health problems can be a risk factor for suicide in children and teens.
In 2016, the journal Pediatrics published a study that looked at 699 suicides in elementary-aged children. The research found that, among children diagnosed with a mental health problem, young children who committed suicide were more likely to have a diagnosis of ADD (attention-deficit disorder) or ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder). Older children with a mental health problem who committed suicide were more likely to be diagnosed with depression.
“The study indicated that suicide among the younger age group had a higher correlation with ADD/ADHD,” says Nottke. “One of the symptoms of ADD is impulsive behavior, which might contribute to suicide in younger children, in that they might act on suicidal thoughts.”
Nottke says that the warning signs of suicide in younger children might be subtler or less noticeable, compared to the signs seen in adolescents and teenagers. These signs in younger children could include:
- Crying spells
- Becoming less verbal
- Displaying a lack of interest in familiar activities
What parents, educators and adults can do to prevent suicide in children
If a child or teen is showing any of the warning signs of suicide, it’s crucial to address the situation right away. As a parent, if you detect signs of suicide in your child, the first thing to do is to talk to them about it. Parents should know that they don’t have to handle this on their own. Nottke suggests reaching out a family therapist, a counselor who focuses on children, or a child psychiatrist. Parents can also talk to their child’s school counselor to get more information on suicide in children and teens and the warning signs.
One of the big risk factors of a suicide attempt or completed suicide is isolation. Families can play a huge role in making sure a child feels supported, help them manage their feelings and get their child or teen the help they need. At school, teachers and educators can be instrumental in spotting the early warning signs of suicide in children and adolescents.
“Kids can act differently at school than they do at home,” says Nottke. “Teachers can help identity these changes in behavior, like noticing if a child is withdrawing or becoming more socially isolated.”
Other signs teachers can note include changes in academic or sports performance, or a child loses interest in activities they previously enjoyed. If an educator detects these warning signs, they can refer the student to a school counselor, who will evaluate the child and perform a mental health intervention.
A child or teen who displays suicidal behavior, such as an attempt to inflict self-harm, should be kept under close supervision in a safe environment. If you fear that a child is in immediate danger, don’t wait to see a mental health professional or counselor. Call 911 or take the child to the emergency room. Or, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Understanding the suicide risk factors in children and teens today
The recent reports that look at suicidal thoughts, attempts and completed suicides in children and teens might be surprising and worrisome to many parents and adults. A 2018 study noted that the frequency of hospital visits for suicide attempts and ideation were lowest in children and teens during the summer months and highest in fall and spring. Some speculate that the pressures of school might be a contributing factor.
“For some children and teens, school might be more stressful than it used to be,” says Nottke. “Kids today are being exposed to stressful things at a young age, including violence, negativity and bullying. The pressure to perform well academically can also be stressful for both younger children and adolescents.”
Nottke says parents might be unaware of the pressures children and teens face today. In the case of bullying, a child might be tormented by their peers online, while their parents and teachers have no idea that this is even happening.
Don’t ignore or underestimate the warning signs and risk factors of suicide in children. Parents, family members, teachers and other adults can play a crucial role in keeping children safe and intervening before a suicide attempt occurs.