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

When 10-year-old Kelly Wright killed herself, there were no warning signs, says her father, Stuart. The little one was full of life, she loved drawing, hiking and canoeing, and the day before she died she had shown her dance moves to her parents.

Kelly didn’t look sad or introverted; she did well in school and made friends easily. And Mr. Wright would never have imagined that a 10-year-old could even contemplate suicide.

“I’ll never figure it out,” laments Mr. Wright, 63, who lived near Tampa, Florida, at the time of his daughter’s death in January 2020.

The number of children who die by suicide has increased dramatically in the United States in recent years. According to new research on the subject, parents are often unaware that their children are having 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 fell from 1.2 per 100,000 to 3.6 per 100,000 during the same period.

Although these figures are miniscule compared to the number of adolescents 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 behaviors tend to persist and young people use them as a way to deal with distress.

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

New research shows that suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts are far more common among young children than previously thought. Among 9-10 year olds and their parents questioned on the subject, 14.3% mentioned suicidal thoughts and 1.26% suicide attempts, according to the analysis of data from a large study on adolescent health and the brain development following nearly 12,000 young people across the United States. The study was published in 2021 in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

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

New research exposes 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 people, scientists are finding that ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and behavioral disorders are also closely linked to thoughts and to suicidal behavior.

Some scientists highlight the easy access, online, to information on suicide, in particular on the means of killing themselves, and point out that many very 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 experiencing discrimination and suicidal thoughts. Between the ages of 5 and 12, black children are twice as likely to die by suicide as white children, says Arielle H. Sheftall, a senior investigator at the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio.

Children who identify as gay or bisexual, and those with lower family incomes, are at higher risk of suicide, research shows.

Some health care clinicians also believe that exposure to violence in the home, in their community and in the media contributes to the development of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in young children. And the suicide of some can drive other vulnerable young people to end their lives as well, in what researchers call suicide contagion, which can contribute to an already higher than normal number of suicides.

What particularly worries therapists and parents is that suicidal thoughts and behaviors tend to persist and that young people use them as a way to manage distress, says Joan Luby, professor of child psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine of St. Louis.

“As these children get older, they may engage in increasingly dangerous behavior, which increases the number of acting out events,” she explains.

Much of the new data on pre-teen suicides comes from a ten-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 to be collected when these children were 9-10 years old.

In this age group, intense family conflict is linked to suicidal thoughts, according to a 2020 analysis published in the journal JAMA Network Open. “We think the phenomenon is fueled by feelings of not being connected to others, feeling unloved, or feeling like a burden,” says Deanna 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 out on impulse in a moment of distress.

Dr. Barch and her colleagues also found that low parental engagement — such as not knowing where the kids are after school or what they’re doing online — was linked to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. A low level of supervision can increase the risks of children accessing suicide information or becoming victims of cyberbullying. It might also indicate not being able to get help to overcome difficult emotions and experiences.

Parents are generally unaware that their children may be affected: 77% of parents in the group of children who said they had had suicidal thoughts themselves said that their children had no suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

Several studies show that those with ADHD and behavioral problems, such as when they tend to fight, are more likely to have these kinds of thoughts and behaviors. “When a child grows up with undiagnosed symptoms, they feel like they suck at their friends at school,” says Ran Barzilay, a child psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. For children with severe behavioral problems, taking ADHD medication is linked to fewer suicidal thoughts and acting out, according to a study by Dr. Barzilay and his colleagues. colleagues and published in 2021 in JAMA Network Open.

For Dr. Sheftall, some children diagnosed with ADHD may actually have depression. While it is generally agreed that this manifests itself in sadness and loneliness, according to her, in younger children, it can result in irritability and unruly behavior.

Doctors recommend that parents discuss their feelings with their children, including sadness and frustration, even with younger children. Share ways to deal with complicated emotions and tell your children that your love is unconditional. Ask them directly if they are having suicidal thoughts. And keep firearms, cleaning supplies and medications locked away.

Even children who have no obvious risk factors can act out on impulse during a moment of distress, psychiatrists point out.

Mr. Wright says that since his daughter’s suicide, he inquired about the risk factors for suicide and that Kelly had none. “She grew up in a very loving home. She was our whole life,” he says.

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

“If I could go back, I would have a conversation with her, I would ask her, ‘Have you ever thought about hurting 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 picture and, when he is home, always has a burning candle. In April, he celebrates each of his daughter’s birthdays with cake and balloons.

“I talk to Kelly, and I tell her this candle represents the light you put in our lives,” he continues. “This light will not go out as long as I live. »

(Translated from the original English version by Bérengère Viennot)

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