A few weeks ago in Chester, Ill., a boy suffocated himself with a plastic bag. That same day, he had handed in a school essay detailing a similar suicide by a boy named Dan. But by the time his teacher tried to seek help for the boy, he was dead. He was 11 years old.
Few children in this age group resort to suicide -- but each year some do. Dr. Cynthia Pfeffer, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Cornell University Medical College, and author of the just-published book "The Suicidal Child" (Guilford Publications) has worked with children who attempted suicide. Clinical evidence shows that children as young as 5 or 6 have indicated the wish to die, and have attempted to kill themselves, she says.
Numbers are hard to determine because few official sources list a young child's death as a suicide. However, in 1983, the last year for which published figures are available, there were 205 confirmed suicides in the 5-to-14 age group, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Dr. Kathleen M. Myers, a child psychiatrist, identified risk factors for suicidal children in a paper published in the July 1985 Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry. Suicidal children are more likely to be depressed, to have a family history of suicide, and to have experienced recent stressful events such as divorce, a move, or an illness or death in the family, she said.
Warning signs of suicidal behavior in children are similar to those for adolescents. (See list, above.) "One should look for changes in behavior that have to do with withdrawal, and for definite statements about wishing to die or suicide," says Pfeffer. While the numbers for children compared with adolescents are low, Pfeffer believes that professionals who deal with children should be aware that a potential for suicide nonetheless exists in this population.
"The issue is that younger children can also think about taking their lives," Pfeffer says, "All suicidal fantasies and actions in children should be taken seriously."