Did you know that suicide is the third-leading causing of death in children ages 10 to 14? A recent CNN article, referencing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, noted that every five days approximately one child under the age of 13 dies by suicide. So, why is the topic of suicide often considered taboo when talking with our kids?
While discussing suicide may be uncomfortable for parents, teachers and others, our youth need to be educated about it.
Children are our hope for a better future. However, what happens when a child loses hope and ends his or her life prematurely by committing suicide? Why are some children more at risk for suicide, and what is the cause of this epidemic? The answers to both questions are complex.
Why are children committing suicide?
There are a number of factors that could pose an increased risk for your child committing suicide, including being male, having an underlying psychiatric condition, prior suicide attempts, a family history of suicide and exposure to abuse. Specifically, drug and alcohol use, significant stressors such as relationship problems or being a victim of bullying can increase the risk of children killing themselves.
Another problem is today’s children are accustomed to immediate gratification. This can lead to poor frustration tolerance, causing them to act out thoughts of self-harm impulsively without considering consequences.
Additionally, children younger than 6 or 7 may not understand that death is final. For example, a 6-year-old may see death as something from which you can wake up. They do not realize that committing suicide is permanent.
Finally, the media is a growing concern. For some children, hearing about suicide attempts in the media may lead to imitating the suicides. More than ever before, young children have access to media via smartphones and technology. They can find news on suicide easily.
A recently published JAMA article in reference to the series “13 Reasons Why” highlighted that online suicide search trends correlate with actual suicides, and media coverage of suicide concurs with actual suicide attempts. While this publication was not specific to children, there is concern that following exposure to media about suicide, children may look for more information about how to kill themselves.
How we save our kids
As a society, we need to help children by recognizing the warning signs of suicide. Children who are severely depressed with feelings of hopelessness or helplessness should be monitored. Be watchful of children who isolate themselves or have a history of aggressive or impulsive behavior. You can also:
▪ Ask children about thoughts of suicide if you’re concerned. Contrary to what some may believe, asking about suicide does not lead to increased risk. Rather, it helps you understand if your children are thinking of self-harm.
▪ Take your children to an emergency room or call 911 if they talk about a plan or intention to harm themselves or have already exhibited self-harm. If a child makes comments about death wishes or not waking up, have your child evaluated by a medical professional immediately.
▪ Keep your children safe by making sure they are not left along during the process of getting help. Keep any medications, weapons or potentially dangerous items locked and away from the kids.
▪ Stay in contact with your pediatrician and consider having your children see a mental health professional is you suspect they are suffering from mental illness.
Early intervention is key to preventing suicide. Encourage your children to get involved in activities, develop coping skills and connect with those around them. Strengthen their ability to work through stressful situations. These skills help decrease the risk of having suicide as an option.
If you are concerned that your child is on the path to self-harm, act immediately. Call 911, the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255, report to an emergency room and seek help from a mental health expert. The action you take might be the difference between life or death for your child.
Julie Furst, M.D., and Samantha Saltz, M.D., are behavioral health experts under the guidance of Judith Regan, M.D., MBA, JD, who is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.