By Sarah D. Sparks and Alex Harwin
Educators trying to halt the skyrocketing number of young people killing themselves need to intervene far earlier than they might think: A new study finds children as young as 9 and 10 report suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Suicide among young people has reached a 30-year high, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide rates for teens ages 15 to 19 jumped by 76 percent from 2007 to 2017, but suicide rates for younger adolescents, ages 10 to 14, nearly tripled during that time. And the CDC has found 10 to 15 percent of middle and high school students consider killing themselves at some point.
But in a new study, published Friday in JAMA Network Open, brain researchers Deanna Barch and Diana Whalen of the Washington University in St. Louis found some tweens harbored those destructive thoughts years before.
Of more than 11,800 children ages 9-10 participating in the longitudinal Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study, Barch and Whalen found 2.4 percent to 6.2 percent of the children reported thinking about or planning suicide. A little more than 1 percent of the children actually attempted to kill themselves, but nearly 1 in 10 reported “non-suicidal self-injury” such as cutting, pinching, and burning.
An even more chilling finding: More than 3 out of 4 times a child had suicidal thoughts or destructive actions, her caregivers had no idea.
“I think there has been a belief that we don’t need to ask kids this age about suicidal thoughts or ideation if they’re distressed because, you know, well, kids don’t experience that yet,” said Barch, a psychiatry professor and chair of the department of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University.
“It is certainly the case that the rates for children are lower than they sadly will be when they’re adolescents. But they’re non-trivial by any means,” she said. “And to me, the take-home message here is that, if you have kids that seem to be having mental health problems or seeming really distressed, [you] should be regularly asking about suicidal ideation.”
That’s as important for teacher and principals as for parents, as unlike adults, who tend to commit suicide during summer months, children are most likely to kill themselves during the school year.
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741
Three common misconceptions may lead parents and teachers to overlook warning signs that a younger student may be experiencing suicidal thoughts:
Misconception: Younger Students Don’t Understand What Suicide Is
Adults can mistakenly believe that elementary-age children don’t comprehend the permanance of death well enough to really consider suicide in the same way a teenager or adult would. But in prior research, Whalen found even early elementary children who are depressed or suicidal have a more accurate understanding of death than children who are psychologically healthy. “I don’t think it’s that they say, ‘I want to kill myself,’ but they don’t really get what that means. I think they do,” Barch said.
Misconception: Younger Students Don’t Have the Same Kinds of Problems as Suicidal Teenagers
Tweens and teens gave similar reasons for feeling suicidal or wanting to harm themselves, Barch found.
“Kids may be having suicidal thoughts or even acting on them because they’re having conflict with their family or friends, they’re being bullied,” Barch said. “The specifics are going to be developmentally different: The kind of conflict or difficult family situation you have when you’re 9 or 10 might look different than when you’re 15 or 16. Difficulties with your friends when you’re 9 or 10 might look different than when you’re 15 or 16. But it is still, I think, a reflection of kids having significant distress, depression, feeling like they’re in really difficult life circumstances.”
The study found children with a lot of family conflict were significantly more likely to have thoughts of suicide or to harm themselves.
Misconception: Children Have to Be Depressed to Consider Suicide or Self-Harm
Children in the study who reported suicidal thoughts or harmful behaviors were more likely to have a family history of depression or suicide, or to have depression or anxiety problems themselves.
But as Barch noted above, children frequently reported thinking about suicide in the context of stressful or sad situations. “Suicide can happen in the context of things other than full-blown depression. We also see kids who are experiencing distress because of anxiety, or because of peer or family or other environmental things who don’t meet the criteria for depression,” she said. “We shouldn’t assume that if a child doesn’t appear depressed, that that means there’s no possible way they could be having suicidal ideation.”
The study found no difference in suicidal thoughts or destructive actions by race, but students in poverty were significantly more likely to think of or actively try to kill themselves or to self-harm without intending suicide.
Among younger students, there were no differences in actual suicide attempts between boys and girls, but boys were significantly more likely than girls to think about and plan suicide as well as to cut, burn, or otherwise harm themselves. That was a surprise, Barch said, because gender differences flip after puberty, with adolescent girls more likely to self-harm and consider or attempt suicide.
Earlier this month the CDC released a report finding the national suicide rate for adults has increased by 1.4 percent between 2017 and 2018, but the 2018 data for children and teens has not yet been released. The ABCD study will continue to track the students over time, to try to identify factors that may predict which students will recover from suicidal thoughts or develop them over time.
In the end, the findings suggest educators and parents should take more time to listen to students and ask follow-up questions. “Kids are under a lot of pressure. Parents are under a lot of pressure as well. Society has put a lot of pressure to achieve more,” said Susan Tellone, the clinical director of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide.
“If a child comes to you, you don’t shut down that conversation,” Tellone said. “You use three words. You say ‘Tell me more.’”
For more on how educators can help prevent child and adolescent suicides, see:
- 1 in 7 Students Report Having Seriously Considered Suicide, Survey Finds
- Mother’s suit blames suicide of 9-year-old girl on bullying
- Teen Suicides Rising Sharply, Federal Data Show
- Threat of Child Suicide Highest During the School Year
Do you have a question about education research, or just want to know what the evidence says about that pesky instructional problem? Let me know! Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, or
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.