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Because younger children are increasingly dying by suicide, efforts are being made to improve detection and prevention

Jason Lance thought January 21, 2010 was a day like any other, until the phone call came.

He had dropped off his 9-year-old son, Montana, that morning at Stewart’s Creek Elementary School in The Colony, Texas.

“There were no problems at home. He was smart. He wore his heart on his sleeve and he talked and talked and talked,” Lance said. It was “the same old, same old normal day. There were kisses and goodbyes and he said, ‘I love you, Dad.'”

A few hours later, school officials called to say Montana had died by suicide while locked in the nurse’s bathroom.

“I knew there was some trouble at school, but I never saw it coming,” Lance said. His shock and sadness were further complicated by the realization that there may have been other signs that his son was struggling.

Photo of Montana Lance, young boy with a backpack
Jason Lance dropped off son Montana at Stewart’s Creek Elementary School in The Colony, Texas on January 21, 2010. The school called a few hours later and said Montana had committed suicide while locked in the nurse’s bathroom. “I knew there was some trouble at school, but I never saw it coming,” Lance says.

Jason Lance

When children walk across the country back into school routines This autumn it is important to pay attention to this their mental health as well as their academics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and recent studies, suicide is the seventh or eighth leading cause of death among children ages 5 to 11. And figures show that rates among younger children appear to have increased over the past decade, especially among black boys.

A growing body of research shows that “historically we thought suicide was a problem for teens and adults, but younger children express similar thoughts that may have previously been ignored,” says Paul Lipkin, a pediatrician at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. a specialist in developmental disorders such as autism.

Many experts therefore call for lowering the screening age suicidal thoughts in children and developing more effective early detection of suicide risks and targeted prevention strategies. The broad approach involves paediatricians, teachers and parents working with children from an early age to build their resilience and identify and manage their stress.

Research has shown that young children gain insight into death and suicide through television or other media, through conversations with other children, or through exposure to death as a result of a loss in their family or community.

“Childhood suicide was not on our radar decades ago and may have been underreported,” said Holly Wilcox, president of the International Academy of Suicide Research and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. “The truth is, we can do something about it now.”

It is highly likely that the 136 suicides reported between 2001 and 2021 among 5- to 9-year-olds were an undercount.

“Counts are often incomplete and causes of death may still be under investigation, resulting in an underestimate compared to final counts,” said Margaret Warner, a senior epidemiologist at the CDC.

The problems with these numbers are important because, Warner said, “if we miss deaths, or don’t have all the information that leads to them, we can’t develop programs to prevent future deaths.”

Therefore, there are also ongoing national efforts by coroners and medical examiners to improve the quality and consistency of infant mortality investigations.

Suicide prevention leaders hope this broad focus on childhood suicide will also help reduce the rising suicide rate among people ages 10 to 24 in the U.S. suicide is the second leading cause of death in that age group, according to the CDC.

Some of the increase in mental health problems among children has been attributed to isolation and lack of school structure during the pandemic. According to a November 2020 CDC report, pediatric emergency department visits for children ages 5 to 11 increased by approximately 24% as of April 2020.

Children facing a mental health crisis flock to the emergency room


Other factors, such as neurodivergence or having a psychiatric disorder, can make a child more vulnerable to suicide.

A study published in February in Frontiers in Public Health also found that being the victim or perpetrator of bullying is a risk factor for suicide, even when researchers controlled for other risk factors.

Montana Lance was diagnosed with ADHD/hyperactivity, as well as dyslexia, and was often the target of bullying at school.

Lewisville Independent School District officials declined to comment on Montana’s death. His parents filed a lawsuit against the school district, but it was dismissed and the district was found not liable for his death.

Suicide is complex, but recent research has shown that there are things parents, teachers, pediatricians and caregivers can do to protect children from it.

Lisa Horowitz, a child psychologist and staff scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, said, “It’s never too early to start a conversation with children about recognizing mental health problems and doing what we can do to help them get better results.” develop coping strategies and promote the problems. resistance.”

Building resilience in children can help them act as a buffer in times of stress, according to a study published in 2022 in Frontiers of Psychiatry.

“I don’t want people to panic, I just want them to be vigilant for their children,” Horowitz said.

Sometimes that vigilance can be ‘difficult’, because depression can look different in younger children. They may act out, be more irritable and not manifest their symptoms in the same way as teens and adults, Wilcox said.

“We don’t have enough studies on the best way to identify young teens and children at risk for suicide. A lot of times you just have to trust your gut on these things,” she said.

When a child is upset, parents should ask them questions about what they are experiencing, says Tami D. Benton, chief psychiatrist, executive director and chair of the department of child and adolescent psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Children’s Hospital of New York. Philadelphia.

“Parents shouldn’t talk their children out of their feelings or give them examples of when it’s happened to them, or minimize their feelings. It puts them down,” she said.

Parents and children need to come up with a plan together, but also teach their children that they can manage these situations, Benton said.

If parents do not know what to do in difficult situations, they should consult their child’s pediatrician.

In March, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended universal screening for suicide risk in all children ages 12 and older and, when clinically indicated, for children ages 8 to 11. No screening instruments have been validated for use in children under 8 years of age. But Horowitz said younger children can still be assessed and evaluated for suicide risk.

Schools can also play an important role in suicide prevention.

Meghan Feby, a school counselor in the Colonial School District in New Castle, Delaware, said, “I’m the only school counselor in my building. It’s a lot of work. That’s why there are supports there who have eyes where I can.” I don’t have eyes on school computers. Using software strategies like GoGuardian Beacon can really help fill gaps and support.”

The software registers keywords and phrases that may indicate that a child is thinking about suicide and has already been used to intervene when children display behavior via neighborhood computers. It monitors activity on school computers used by more than 6.7 million public school students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Some schools say they are having trouble implementing this type of software because some parents find it intrusive.

Many schools use the Good Behavior Game, a decades-old behavior management intervention for children in first and second grades, and is also used in upper grades. The team-oriented classroom curriculum uses peer pressure to encourage students to be attentive, engaged and work together. Researchers like Wilcox have studied the extensive participation of thousands of students and found that it reduced suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Children who played the game were half as likely as young adults to report suicidal thoughts and about a third less likely to report a suicide attempt.

Lance said the day Montana died by suicide changed his life forever.

‘You’re not supposed to bury your children. They have to bury you,” he said. “All this focus on children’s mental health these days won’t bring my child back, but it could stop another family from suffering.”

KFF Health Newsformerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues and is one of the primary operating programs at KFF – the independent source for research, opinion polls and journalism in the field of health policy.

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