In the United States, the rate of child suicide is inexplicably increasing

When 10-year-old Kelly Wright killed herself, there were no warning signs, her father Stewart says. The little girl was full of life, she loved to draw, hike, and row, and the day before her death, she showed her parents her dance moves.

Kelly didn’t seem sad or introverted; She did well in school and made friends easily. Mr. Wright would never have imagined that a ten-year-old could even contemplate suicide.

Wright, 63, who lived near Tampa, Florida, at the time of his daughter’s death in January 2020 laments: “I’ll never understand that.”

The number of children who die by suicide has increased dramatically in the United States in recent years. According to new research on the topic, parents are often unaware that their children have suicidal thoughts. Among girls ages 10 to 14, the suicide rate more than tripled between 2007 and 2020, from 0.5 per 100,000 to 2 per 100,000, according to data provided by the National Center for Health Statistics. Among boys of the same age, this rate decreased from 1.2 per 100,000 to 3.6 per 100,000 over the same period.

Although these numbers are small compared to the number of teens and adults who commit suicide, it is now the second leading cause of death among children in this age group.

Of particular concern to therapists and parents is that suicidal thoughts and behavior tend to persist and are used by young people as a means of coping with distress.

Mr. Wright, now a volunteer with Alliance of Hope, an association that helps those who have experienced the suicide of a loved one, wants to warn other families of the danger. “This can absolutely happen to your child,” he warns.

New research shows that suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts are more common among young children than previously thought. Among 9-10-year-olds and their parents questioned about it, 14.3% reported suicidal thoughts and 1.26% attempted suicide, according to an analysis of data from a large study on adolescent health and brain development after nearly 12,000 young adults across the world. across the United States states. The study was published in the journal in 2021 Translational psychiatry.

Psychologists and psychiatrists say they don’t know for sure why suicidal thoughts and behavior are on the rise among American children. These numbers contradict an old belief that children who have not yet reached puberty do not think about ending their lives, or when they do, they only have fleeting thoughts.

New research reveals risk factors in young children such as family conflict and early exposure to alcohol. Depression is most commonly associated with suicidal thoughts in adolescents and adults, but in younger children, scientists have found that ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and behavioral disorders are closely related to suicidal thoughts and behavior.

Some scholars highlight the easy online access to information about suicide, in particular the means of killing themselves, and point out that many young children have smartphones. Others point to the increase in the number of firearms in American homes.

In black children, studies have found a link between exposure to discrimination and suicidal thoughts. Between ages 5 and 12, black children are twice as likely to die by suicide as white children, says Ariel H. Sheftal, MD, senior researcher in the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio.

Research shows that children who identify as gay or bisexual, and who have a lower family income, are more likely to commit suicide.

Some clinicians in health care settings also believe that exposure to violence at home, in their community, and in the media contributes to the development of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in young children. Others commit suicide and take their own lives, too, in what researchers call suicide contagion, which can contribute to an already higher-than-normal number of suicides.

What therapists and parents especially worry about is that suicidal thoughts and behaviors tend to persist and that young adults use them as a way to manage distress, says Joanne Lupe, MD, professor of child psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

“As these children get older, they may engage in increasingly dangerous behavior, increasing the number of representative events,” she explains.

Much of the new data about preteen suicides comes from a 10-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health that is still ongoing. Across the United States, researchers are analyzing a wealth of data that began collecting when these children were 9-10 years old.

In this age group, severe family conflict is associated with suicidal thoughts, according to a 2020 analysis published in the journal JAMA Network is open. “We think this phenomenon is fueled by feelings of not being connected to others, feeling unloved, or feeling like a burden,” says Diana Barch, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and co-author of the article.

Even children without obvious risk factors can act impulsively in a moment of distress.

Dr. Barch and colleagues also found that lower parental involvement — such as not knowing where children are after school or what they are doing online — was associated with suicidal thoughts and behavior. A low level of supervision can increase the risk of children accessing suicide information or becoming victims of cyberbullying. It may also indicate an inability to get help to overcome difficult feelings and experiences.

Parents generally are not aware that their children may be affected: 77% of parents in the group of children who said they had suicidal thoughts themselves said their children had no suicidal thoughts or behavior.

Several studies show that those with ADHD and behavioral problems, such as when they tend to fight, are more susceptible to these types of thoughts and behaviors. “When a child grows up with undiagnosed symptoms, it feels like he’s sucking on his friends at school,” says Ran Barzilay, MD, a child psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. For children with severe behavioral problems, taking ADHD medications is associated with fewer suicidal thoughts and behaviors, according to a study by Dr. Barzilay and colleagues published in 2021. JAMA Network is open.

According to Dr. Sheftal, some children with ADHD may actually experience depression. While it is generally agreed that this manifests in sadness and loneliness, according to her, in younger children, it can lead to irritability and unruly behaviour.

Doctors recommend that parents discuss their feelings with their children, including sadness and frustration, even with the youngest. Share ways to deal with complicated emotions and tell your children that your love is unconditional. Ask them directly if they have had suicidal thoughts. Keep firearms, cleaning supplies, and medication in a closed place.

Psychiatrists point out that even children without obvious risk factors can act impulsively during a moment of distress.

Mr. Wright says that since his daughter committed suicide, he has inquired about risk factors for suicide and that Kelly has none. “I grew up in a very loving home. It was our whole life.”

Mr. Wright states that he regrets not having discussed suicide with Kelly, who killed herself with a pistol.

“If I could go back, I’d talk to her, I’d ask her, ‘Have you ever thought about harming yourself? Do you know what suicide is?'” says Mr. Wright, who moved to Louisiana with his wife.

Since his daughter’s death, Mr. Wright has said her full name – Kelly Helen Wright – out loud every morning. He keeps fresh flowers near his portrait, and when he is at home, he always has a burning candle. In April, he celebrates each of his daughter’s birthdays with cakes and balloons.

“I talk to Kelly, and I tell her that this candle represents the light that she puts into our lives,” he continues. “This light will not go out as long as I live.”

(Translated from the original English version by Behringer Vinoth)

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