ST. LOUIS — A suicide is undoubtedly always a great tragedy, but it is that much more heartbreaking when it involves an adolescent. It’s a statistic that many will find hard to believe, but according to the CDC, by the ninth grade 10-15% of students have already had thoughts of suicide. Now, after conducting a research project aimed at better understanding the onset of suicidal thoughts in young people, a new study finds some children experience these thoughts as early as nine and 10 years old.
The study’s authors, based out of Washington University in St. Louis, also concluded that family dynamics at home play a major role in the potential onset of suicidal thoughts in children. Factors such as frequent inter-family conflict or lack of adequate parental monitoring usually go hand-in-hand with subsequent thoughts of self-harm. Moreover, among adolescents who participated in the study and did in fact have suicidal thoughts, the vast majority’s caregivers either didn’t know, or didn’t report, that their child was experiencing such thoughts.
“There’s already been press about suicidal ideation in teenagers,” comments Deanna Barch, chair and professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences and a professor of radiology in the School of Medicine, in a university release. “But there’s almost no data about rates of suicidal ideation in this age range in a large population sample.”
A total of 11,814 nine and 10 years-olds were analyzed for this study. All of those children had originally taken part in a national study focusing on adolescent brain health and development, that also included their caregivers.
After looking over the results of that study, the research team noted that 2.4%-6.2% of the children admitted they had experienced suicidal thoughts. Those thoughts ranged from “wishing I were dead,” to actually devising a suicide plan but ultimately not following through. As far as taking action, 0.9% said they had tried to commit suicide, and 9.1% said they had inflicted some type of non-lethal self-injury on themselves.
As shocking as these findings may seem to the average reader, Barch actually says she expected such results.
“There were two reasons I was sure,” she explains. “When you look at the CDC rate of kids in middle and high school who have these thoughts, it’s pretty high. It’s clear that they weren’t arising out of the blue.”
Unbelievably, Barch also mentioned that she has even seen suicidal thoughts in preschoolers over the course of prior research.
This study also noted some interesting discrepancies among boys and girls; young boys tend to have more suicidal thoughts than young girls. This is especially noteworthy because the opposite is usually true as adolescents age and become teenagers.
“We don’t really know why,” Barch comments. “By the time adolescence hits, the rates go up for everyone, but they go up disproportionately for girls. The discrepancy was completely unexpected.”
Regarding the study’s findings about caregivers, while it is certainly normal for children to start to drift away from their parents around adolescence, the extent to which caregivers are in the dark about their children’s feelings is worrying. In more than 75% of reported cases, the caregivers of children who admitted to suicidal thoughts or self-harm had no idea their child was dealing with these issues.
Most parents don’t even think to talk with their kids about suicide until they are teenagers, if at all, but the study’s authors say their findings indicate that parents should be confronting these issues head on.
“Our data suggests that’s absolutely not true. Kids are having these thoughts. They’re not at the same rates as adults, but they are nontrivial.” Barch concludes. “If you have kids who are distressed in some way, you should be asking about this. You can help identify kids that might be in trouble.”
The study is published in the JAMA Network Open.