Feature

There’s a wealth of data on adolescent suicide, and numerous programs and interventions are designed to prevent it. But what about even younger children? In 2006, 56 American children under age 12 committed suicide. Unfortunately, so far, there’s been little research into suicidal behavior among pre-adolescents, said panelists at APA’s Annual Convention.

As a first step toward addressing that problem, the panel discussed what’s known about pre-adolescent suicide, how it differs from other types of suicide, what still needs further research and what can be done about it.

Christopher Button, PhD, a recently graduated health psychology student now a policy adviser with the U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy from the University of Iowa, explained that pre-adolescents lack the abstract thinking skills to allow them to fully appreciate the finality of death. Young children are also inherently impulsive and may lack the cognitive skills necessary to imagine a better future or realize the fleetingness of many of their troubles. These pre-adolescents also lack the strategies older kids have to seek help or cope with problems.

Ninety percent of young children who commit suicide have some kind of mental health disorder, usually major depression, Button said. They’re also likely to be victims of sexual or physical abuse and to engage in antisocial behavior, such as shoplifting, fighting or starting fires.

Many parents and teachers ignore warning signs, such as talking about or threatening suicide, because they think kids don’t understand suicide and wouldn’t attempt it. “There’s a high potential for adults to dismiss the possibility due to the perceived incongruity between children and suicide,” Button said.

University of Iowa graduate student Kari Shaw said most pre-adolescent suicides involve hanging, with a minority involving firearms, asphyxiation and poison (Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, Vol. 37, No. 5).

According to 2006 data culled from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, pre-adolescent boys are also more likely to complete suicide than are pre-adolescent girls (45 boys and 11 girls). Evidence suggests that sexual orientation might also be a factor, with suicide risk relatively high among young boys who suspect they might be gay, Button said.

The panel’s discussant, Jim Rogers, PhD, a psychologist and suicidology expert at the University of Akron, said the dearth of research into understanding and preventing pre-adolescent suicide stems from the fact that we tend to treat these kids as just small adults and believe that adult-oriented interventions will work just as well with them. But their cognitive experience of the world is very different from adolescents and adults due to their still-developing brains and inability to generate multiple solutions to problems.

So what can be done to prevent these suicides? Another Iowa grad student, Christine Skow, said teachers and parents can foster early coping skills in children, especially those who have histories of abuse or especially stressful lives. Also, psychologists can raise awareness among media producers of the glamorizing effect television, films and books have on kids’ perception of suicide.

After a suicide takes place in a community, teachers and authorities should focus on preventing copycat suicide attempts, Skow said. That means not glamorizing or dramatizing the suicide, including not presenting a uniformly glowing image of the person who died, as is sometimes the tendency after a death.