Almost 40% of kids attempting suicide make their first try in middle or even elementary school, according to research that suggests that kids who think they want to kill themselves are considering it long before previously assumed.
Suicide attempt rates rose steeply at age 12 — around sixth grade — and peaked two to three years later. The 39 teens who said they had tried to commit suicide multiple times reported first attempting when they were as young as 9, which is the average age of a third-grader. Teens who said they had tried just once were more likely to have attempted suicide later, in high school.
The teens who participated had been asked previously, since they were in first and second grade, about their levels of depression and anxiety but not about suicidal behavior. To verify that their suicide attempt recollections were accurate, researchers compared the self-reported results with the children's depression scores in the year that they first attempted suicide. "We found a significant bump," says Jim Mazza, lead author and a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington.
Kids who try to commit suicide have traditionally been assumed to be high schoolers, but indications that a significant proportion are considerably younger raises questions about how and when to target preventive efforts. "All high schools are supposed to have suicide prevention programs, but this suggests to us that assessing kids' mental health in younger years is advisable."
Schools conduct academic testing all the time; Mazza says mental-health testing is just as critical. "My belief as a school psychologist is education does not equal just academics," he says.
Coping strategies and decision-making skills should be emphasized and honed, he says, or a worst-case scenario may follow, particularly since children seem to be under more pressure to succeed than they were a generation ago.
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