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Could Your Child Commit Suicide?

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The tragic suicide of a 9-year-old Dallas boy who was found hanging in a school bathroom this week has sparked much commentary about depression in children.

boy with head on table

Dr. Wendy Walsh: Depression is associated with the rising rate of child and teen suicides. The statistics are not new. Back in 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Annual Summary of Vital Statistics reported that the suicide rate rose more than 18 percent in children and adolescents ages 1 to 19 years old.

The reasons for this increase are unclear, but some experts suspect the inappropriate monitoring of children on antidepressant medications is one factor. The rise in the youth suicide rate occurred at the same time that the Food and Drug Administration mandated heightened warnings on the labels of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a particular class of antidepressant medications that includes Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft.

The theory is this: Antidepressants act as a brain stimulant. One symptom of depression is lethargy and inactivity. Some psychologists believe that depression is nature's way of keeping the body low while the mind is hurting. In many patients, the first thing an antidepressant does -- before elevating mood -- is elevate energy. Now the sad and angry child has the physical power to do something about his or her pain. Thus the suicide thought can more easily become a suicide action.

"At age nine, kids are just beginning to understand that death is final," says University of Texas' Dr. Betsy Kennard. Dr. Kennard, who specializes in the treatment of depression and suicide in adolescents, told the Dallas Morning News that "youths typically don't have the long-term view of the world that adults do. They may think their despair won't go away, so there's more hopelessness," she said. "Youths are also more impulsive, which puts them at higher risk."

About 5 percent of children and adolescents are suffering from depression at any given time. That's about one or two children in each classroom. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the behavior of depressed children and teenagers may differ from the behavior of depressed adults. Child and adolescent psychiatrists advise parents to be aware of signs of depression in their youngsters.

If one or more of these signs of depression persist, parents should seek help:

  • Frequent sadness, tearfulness, crying
  • Decreased interest in activities; or inability to enjoy previously favorite activities
  • Hopelessness
  • Persistent boredom; low energy
  • Social isolation, poor communication
  • Low self-esteem and guilt
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
  • Increased irritability, anger, or hostility
  • Difficulty with relationships
  • Frequent complaints of physical illnesses such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Frequent absences from school or poor performance in school
  • Poor concentration
  • A major change in eating and/or sleeping patterns
  • Talk of or efforts to run away from home
  • Thoughts or expressions of suicide or self-destructive behavior

A child who used to play often with friends may now spend most of the time alone and without interests. Things that were once fun now bring little joy to the depressed child. Children and adolescents who are depressed may say they want to be dead, or may talk about suicide. Depressed children and adolescents are at increased risk for committing suicide. Depressed adolescents may abuse alcohol or other drugs as a way of trying to feel better.

Children and adolescents who cause trouble at home or at school may also be suffering from depression. Because the youngster may not always seem sad, parents and teachers may not realize that troublesome behavior is a sign of depression. When asked directly, these children can sometimes state they are unhappy or sad.

The good news is that depression is treatable. Individual and family therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy have been shown to be very effective. And for many people, antidepressants do work well, but they must be prescribed by a psychiatrist who can monitor mental health. All too often, pediatricians and gynecologists dole out pills without the psychotherapeutic follow-up. That's the danger.

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21 comments so far | Post a comment now
me January 28, 2010, 5:14 AM

This is the thing too— kids that don’t act depressed can commit suicide— that’s what makes it so scary—-

Mike Boyd January 28, 2010, 7:36 AM

Why no mention that most of these successful suicides are young males?

Loreta Doga January 28, 2010, 7:40 AM

It is very scary to know how kids are able to commit suicide…, but that’s not an act we, moms, cannot prevent.
These last months I found out that kids are in a lot of need for their parent’s attention and security; the need to confide in them without being judge; they really need to be taught not only about life’s beauty but also about the real difficulties in life and how to deal with them.
Many parents, esp. moms, are caught to much in their daily stressful lives and forget the most important thing they were born to do: raise their children. Happiness does not have to cost a life!

la mere January 28, 2010, 9:40 AM

In response to “me” up top, it’s so true. I speak from personal experience. A teenager can act like there is nothing in the world wrong, even be especially kind and sweet that day and then commit suicide 10 minutes later. Sometimes there are absolutely no warning signs for the family to see.
That’s what makes it so scary.

ASL January 28, 2010, 11:35 AM

Dr. Walsh, I saw you on CNN this morning, where you also suggested that the rise in depression among children may be attributable to not having a parent who stays at home, and you wondered aloud at “who is raising our children?” Well, I work outside of the home, and I can assure you, my husband and I are still raising our children.

I’m glad to see that you at least didn’t make such an unfounded assertion in this article, but it seems extraordinarily hurtful that you would imply that this child’s death might be due to both of his parents working, especially when we have no way of knowing what their financial situation is.

Maris January 28, 2010, 11:50 AM

I am very disturbed about childhood suicide qnd equally disturbed at a comment I heard from you on CNN this morning when questioned about the causes. You stated “Who is raising our children?” and then commented on working mothers implying that mothers are not at home anymore to raise their children and are unaware of what is going on with them. As a single working mother I take offense to your statement and implication. I was lucky enough to be able to stay home until my youngest was 10. When I had to return to work to put food on the table for them and keep shelter over their head, I managed to be aware of their needs. Believe me, the last thing I wanted to do is to leave my kids at home while I had to work and have them labeles as latch-key children. I’m sure most of the owrking moms today feel the same way. Please don’t blame suicide on lack of parental attention.

gloria January 28, 2010, 6:37 PM

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Randy January 28, 2010, 7:03 PM

Pointing fingers and attempting to lay blame for child suicides helps no one, regardless of whether you find fault with the parents or the kid’s doctor. Why? Because doing so assumes that you have complete control over another person’s behavior. What are they supposed to do, strap the kid to a hospital bed for 18 years? It’s not only unhelpful but unhealthy, because blame assumes responsibility for another’s decisions, and no one (parent, doctor, educator) should be forced to bear that. The kid would still be just as dead if he hanged himself at home, or in the shrink’s waiting room, or in a hospital bathroom.

You’re going about finding a solution with a faulty premise: The question is NOT, “How do I prevent my child from killing herself.” The question is (and should be) “How can I improve the quality of life for this child so that suicide ceases to be a fitting response to her problems?”

Lydia Kolman February 4, 2010, 6:28 AM

Unfortunately, childhood depression is more common. The strss kids are under and the unchecked bullying often contributes. Diagnosing it is only the beginning - the hard part as a parent is coordinating the help for your child. The options are many and each child’s needs are individual. Nothing prepares parents for this challenge.

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