Suicide: Specific Childhood Risk Factors
In their 1996 book Suicide Across the Lifespan, Stillion and McDowell list risk factors for childhood suicide. Their ideas represent a comprehensive look at the phenomenon of suicide in the very young, a population whose risk factors have received very little attention in the research and literature. Many of the ideas in this section are based on Stillion and McDowell's text.
Biological Risk Factors
It appears that suicidal behavior can be attributed to impulsivity in children more than in any other age group. Therefore, the suicidal acts of children tend to be more impulse-based (e.g., running in front of a car, jumping from a building) than acts that require planning (e.g., hoarding and taking medication). Children who are at high suicide risk are those who are angry and impulsive and who use an assaultive approach to problem solving. These children are often labeled ADHD, antisocial, behaviorally disordered, or brain damaged. Children in this high-risk group are seen as impulsive, hyperactive, destructive, and hostile. These children may come from homes with parents who display similar behavioral patterns. Thus, it is difficult to determine whether these behaviors are biologically based or simply learned coping patterns.
Emotional Risk Factors
Suicidal children often evidence a variety of mental health issues, depression being by far the most common. Depression is more common among suicidal children than among nonsuicidal children. Severely depressed children "think about suicide and ... they think about it more often than nondepressed children or those who are suffering only mild depression" (Stillion & McDowell, 1996, p. 83). As is true for all age groups, the depressive symptom of hopelessness is a stronger predictor of suicide than is general depression alone. Thus, children who are unhappy, have low self-esteem, and are generally depressed may be at risk for suicide, but when hopelessness about the future is added to the clinical picture, the severity of the risk becomes much higher.
Another psychological risk factor for children is the expendable child syndrome, in which adults communicate to the child that he or she is expendable. In these instances, adults respond to the children with low personal regard and hostility, withdrawing love and affection. Children come to believe that their death will not matter to anyone, and committing suicide is a way to relieve others of the burden of their existence. This phenomenon was first identified by Sabbath in 1969, and since that time, case studies of childhood suicides have supported its existence, although no systematic research has been conducted to determine the prevalence of this syndrome, and it is difficult to determine the magnitude of this occurrence. Nevertheless, mental health practitioners should be aware of the possibility of increased suicide risk if a child feels that she or he is expendable.
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