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Wash U Professor Says Young Children Think About Suicide, Too

Dr. Deanna Barch, shown here in her Washington University Office, has found the prevalence of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in young people is higher than once believed.
Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Deanna Barch, shown here in her Washington University office, has found the prevalence of suicidal thoughts and behaviors in young people is higher than once believed.

The suicide rate among children age 10-14 in the U.S. tripled between 2007 and 2017, but health experts know little about why young children think about suicide.

Dr. Deanna Barch, Washington University psychology and psychiatry professor, and her colleagues studied nearly 12,000 chidren age 9-10 and found that up to 6% had thoughts about, planned or attempted to die by suicide. Barch found a link between family conflict plays and suicide risk.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Sarah Fentem talked to Barch about how adults can help children who are struggling and thinking of killing themselves. 

Sarah Fentem: Why have we for so long just thought about [suicide] as something that shows up in someone's adolescence and teens?

Deanna Barch: For a long time, I think psychologists and psychiatrists didn't think that younger kids were capable of experiencing depression. Now, we know that kids as young as 3 can experience depression. … It doesn't look exactly like adult depression, but it has some of the same sad symptoms, like a lack of joy, a lack of pleasure, guilt, depressed mood.

And I think for a long time people thought, "Oh, kids don't really understand death," you know? And maybe it's not really suicidal ideation. "They’ve been watching too many video games, and they see Mario die and perk back up again."

But we were doing this work with preschoolers who had depression, and we saw these high rates of suicide. We saw actually that the kids with suicidal ideation had a more accurate understanding of death than the kids who did not have suicidal ideation.

Fentem: That sort of leads to another question that I had. Is it something that they're told about? Do they start to understand it intrinsically? How do they know what suicide is?

Barch: I don't think we know exactly the answer to that yet. We do know that kids who grow up in families where other people in the family have attempted suicide or had suicidal ideation are more likely to have those thoughts and feelings, but it certainly can happen amongst kids whose families didn't have any.

But I think we're also going to find that there are some kids where it really is sort of a spontaneous idea, that it's not that they had to be exposed to specific thoughts about that.

Fentem: Why do kids want to die by suicide? Are the reasons the same as adults?

Barch: What kids have said to us in our research projects, you know, and they certainly are reminiscent [of adult problems]: “I'm a terrible kid. Nobody loves me. I'm making life worse for my family.” There's a lot of guilt among the kids who are depressed and having suicidal ideation. There's a really excessive amount of guilt.

Fentem: That leads to another thing that you found in your research, which is that family plays a big role and family dynamics play a big role in how likely someone is to think about or die by suicide. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Barch: We don't know exactly the causal relationship. It is certainly the case that we see that if a child reports that there is more conflict in the family, they are more likely to express suicidal ideation or to say that they've engaged in some sort of suicidal behavior.

We also know that living in ... greater poverty is associated with children having more mental health problems in general and greater suicidal ideation and behavior. And we know that families who are living in poverty are experiencing tremendous stressors: housing instability, food instability, things that you can imagine are certainly not contributing to a hopeful viewpoint on the part of kids.

Fentem: Any final thoughts on how to help children if you see someone who might need help?

Barch: Frankly, if you have a concern about a child, the best thing to do is to ask about their mental state. Probably the biggest risk factor is a kid telling you, “I'm having thoughts about suicidal ideation," or, "I want to hurt myself.”

I think we have been hesitant to ask, historically, because we're afraid that that's going to create thoughts where none exist, but the evidence just doesn't suggest that. And you know, and maybe they're not, and that's fine. And you could say, "OK, great," you know, but if they are, maybe you've just created a pathway or an opening for them to talk to you, or for you to be able to refer them to someplace else.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.