This is a topic no one likes to discuss, and no parent wants to even contemplate, but suicides in children and young people do happen. While older adults are far more likely to commit suicide than children, according to 2006 data from the National Institute of Health's National Institute of Mental Health, suicide was the third leading cause of death for young adults ages 15 to 24. It is the leading cause of death for gay and lesbian youths, and it's estimated 1,500 end their lives every year.
The statistics tell a grim story. For children 10 to 14, one per 100,000 young people died by suicide, for adolescents 15 to 19, eight per 100,000 died by suicide, and for young adults 20 to 24, twelve out of 100,000 took their own life. Children as young as five years old have committed suicide, and for every completed act of suicide there are over 100 attempts.
Unfortunately, adolescents also mimicked their elders in this behavior. Guns, suffocation, and poisoning were the main methods for committing suicide, with suffocation being the method most used by children. Suicide is far more common with males. For those aged 15 to 19, four times the number of boys committed suicide compared to girls. For those aged 20 to 24, six times as many boys chose suicide compared to girls.
Suicide Risk Factors
Mood disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, and severe anxiety disorders along with an alcohol or substance abuse disorder are the biggest risk factors for suicide. According to the office of the U.S. Surgeon General, over 90% of children and young adults who commit suicide have a mental illness.
The top two most important risk factors for suicide for girls is major depression and a previous suicide attempt. For boys, the top risk factor is a previous suicide attempt, followed by depression, disruptive behavior, and substance abuse.
There are several warning signs that someone may be at increased risk of suicide, and they are:
- suicide notes — these should always be taken seriously
- threatening suicide — direct or indirect
- previous attempts of suicide
- depression, particularly in the presence of thoughts of helplessness and hopelessness
- risk-taking behavior, particularly anything involving gun play, aggression, or substance abuse
- making final arrangements — this might involve giving away prized possessions
- efforts to hurt themselves, such as self-mutilating behavior and self-destructive acts
- inability to concentrate or think rationally
- changes in physical habits and appearance, such as insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping far too much), sudden weight gain or loss, disinterest in basic hygiene
- great interest in death and suicidal themes — it might manifest in their journal, school papers, drawings
- sudden changes in friends, personality and behavior, or withdrawal from family and friends
- increased interest in things dealing with suicide — a sudden interest in guns or other weapons, pills, or even alluding to suicidal plans
- vulnerable teens and young adults swayed by media reports of celebrity suicides, or the romanticized representation of suicide in movies and television
- low levels of communication between parent and child — family discord has not been decisively shown to be a major risk factor for suicide, but it further exacerbates other problems such as depression, alcohol and drub abuse
- being bullied or victimized, or being a bully
Unfortunately, many family and friends are left completely bewildered and shocked by the suicide of a young person. It is not uncommon for families to never learn what brought someone to take their own life.
Parents, caregivers, and teachers are the best observers of an adolescent's behavior, and the best judges of suicidal tendencies in children and young adults. If you notice any of the above risk factors, notify your physician, the school counselor, or take them to see a mental health professional immediately. Don't dismiss your instincts or their feelings. If you think something is wrong, it probably is.
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