Few events could be more heart-rending (and difficult to imagine) than a pre-teen child committing suicide. A new study of this leading cause of death among elementary school children comes to a surprising conclusion. While the overall suicide rate in the United States for this group has remained stable over the past 20 years, a statistically significant increase in the number of black boys committing suicide has been offset by an approximately equal decrease in the number of white boys.

“Hanging/suffocation is the most common suicide method among children and early adolescents in the United States,” Dr. Jeff A. Bridge at the Research Institute of Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, told Medical Daily in an email. “Suicide by firearms is the most common method among older adolescents.”

The truth about suicide among young children is that too little is known about it. Still, past research has noted some stand-out facts. Boys commit suicide much more often than girls, and preteen kids who have attempted suicide are up to six times more likely to attempt it again once they reach their teens. The risk factors for tween-aged girls include depression and mood disorders. By contrast, boys have these same risks, plus others, including disruptive behavior and anxiety disorders. A parent or family member with psychiatric disorders also suggested an increased risk for self-destruction for all children.

At first blush, suicide in the very young is often assumed to be an accidental death by officials. While it may seem unimaginable, young children do consider suicide. The Center for Suicide Prevention estimates 12,000 children between the ages of 5 and 14 are admitted to psychiatric hospital units each year for intentionally self-destructive behavior.

Unusual Trend

For the current study, Bridge and his colleagues examined 20 years of mortality data. In particular, they focused their analysis on the data for children between the ages of 5 and 11. The exact number of 5- to 11-year-old children who completed suicide between 1993 and 2012 totaled 657. Of these, 84 percent (553) were boys and 16 percent (104) girls.

At a glance, the news seemed at least somewhat heartening: The overall suicide rate for children has remained more or less stable when you compare the timespan between 1993 to 1997 and 2008 to 2012. If anything, the rate of suicide decreased ever so slightly from 1.18 for every million children to 1.09 per million. Dig a little deeper, though, and an unusual trend becomes apparent.

The researchers observed a statistically significant increase in the suicide rate among black boys concurrent with a statistically significant decline in the rate among white boys. While the rate among black girls also rose, it was smaller and not statistically significant. The suicide rate for white girls remained stable.

Why the shift in numbers? The authors suggest disproportionate exposure to violence and traumatic stress and an early onset of puberty, among other factors, might be responsible for rising suicide rates among black children.

“We are currently working on a follow-up study of precipitants of suicide in pre-teen children that should shed light on the proportion of pre-teen suicide deaths that are reattempts,” Bridge told Medical Daily.

Source: Bridge JA, Asti L, Horowitz LM, et al. Suicide Trends Among Elementary School–Aged Children in the United States From 1993 to 2012. JAMA Pediatrics. 2015.