Suicide can strike children as young as 5

A startling new study warns that some preteen children; even as young as 5 years old; may be at risk of suicide.

Suicide in elementary school–aged children is not well studied, despite a recent increase in the suicide rate among US black children. The objectives of a new study were to describe characteristics and precipitating circumstances of suicide in elementary school–aged children relative to early adolescent decedents and identify potential within-group racial differences.

The researchers launched their study as a follow-up to their previous findings that suggested an increase in suicides among young black children from 1993 to 2012 and a decrease among young white children, said study lead author Arielle Sheftall. She's a postdoctoral research fellow with The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

The new study, Sheftall said, aims to understand more about the possible reasons why young children kill themselves.

The researchers looked at suicide statistics in 17 states for various periods between 2003 and 2012 and focused on kids aged 5 to 11, and 12 to 14.

“Children who died by suicide were more likely to have relationship problems with family members or friends whereas early adolescents were more likely to have boyfriend or girlfriend relationship problems,” said Arielle Sheftall, postdoctoral research fellow at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in the US.

“These differences tended to fall along developmental lines given elementary school-aged children are more likely to spend time with family and friends and less likely to engage in romantic relationships, which become more common during adolescence,” said Sheftall.

The study highlights the importance of educating pediatricians, primary health care providers, school personnel and families on how to recognise the warning signs of suicide and what steps to take when suicidal intent is disclosed.

“These warning signs include a child making suicidal statements, being unhappy for an extended period, withdrawing from friends or school activities or being increasingly aggressive or irritable,” said Sheftall.

Also, close to 37 percent of children ages 5-11 who died by suicide were black, the study found. That's a startling percentage, given that African-Americans account for about 12 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. "Black youth may experience disproportionate exposure to violence or traumatic stressors, both of which have been associated with suicidal behavior," the study states. "Also, research has shown that black youth are less likely to receive services for depression, suicidal ideation and other mental health problems compared with nonblack youth."

On the other hand, suffocation and strangulation (such as hanging) were the most common methods of suicide among the younger children. For the older group, deaths by firearm were more common, the study found.

Given how unnerving these findings are, what can adults do to prevent suicide by young children?

"It is important to ask children directly about suicide if there is a safety concern," Sheftall said. "Parents can ask, 'Are you having thoughts about killing yourself?' Asking kids about suicide is safe and does not put ideas into their heads." she added.

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