A 7-year-old Texas boy who was found earlier this year hanging from a hook in his school bathroom did not commit suicide, according to a police report released Thursday. Instead, his shirt had apparently caught on the hook, perhaps during a game of “run and jump.” Do kids that young ever kill themselves?
Yes, but rarely. About four children out of every 500,000 below the age of 12 commit suicide annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number has doubled since 1979, but in recent years it’s been only the 14th leading cause of death for kids in that age group, just after meningitis and anemia.
The numbers are low for several reasons. For one thing, the factors that correlate with suicide—depression, drug use, peer pressure—don’t usually hit until puberty. In fact, autopsies of children who kill themselves show that a higher-than-usual proportion are tall for their age—a good proxy for pubertal status. As you’d expect, the suicide rate climbs among adolescents aged 10 to 14 (1.3 per 100,000) and spikes among teenagers 15 to 19 (7.67 per 100,000). Another reason for the low suicide rate among children is parental supervision. The younger the child, the more likely a parent will be nearby to intervene.
There’s also a labeling problem—what’s a suicide? Child suicides aren’t like teen or adult suicides, which usually start with an idea, proceed with a plan, and end with action. Suicide among children is more likely to be spontaneous and less connected to psychiatric disorder or aggression. This is often reflected in the method: Instead of hanging or cutting or using a gun, “suicidal” kids tend to kill themselves by doing things their parents have warned them against, such as running into traffic or jumping out of a window.
As a result, it’s often hard to tell the difference between a suicide and an accident. (Official definition of suicide: “Fatal self-inflicted destructive act with explicit or inferred intent to die.”) For example, a medical examiner might be presented with the case of an autistic child who jumped off his bunk bed in a hospital, hit his head on the floor, and died. Or a little girl might jump out the window in the course of a fight with her older brother.
The factors that cause children to commit suicide differ slightly from their older counterparts. Depression can play a role, but among the youngest suicides, a predisposition to impulsiveness is just as important. Children who kill themselves often have a mood disorder, ADHD, or a “conduct disorder,” which basically means antisocial behavior. Living an in abusive household can lay the groundwork for suicidal behavior, and an incident like getting kicked out of school or a dying relative can trigger it.
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Explainer thanks Martin Drell of Louisiana State University and David Shaffer of Columbia University.