It’s hard to imagine someone as young as 10 choosing to take their own life.
But it does happen, and it seems to be happening increasingly more often.
In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), twice as many children and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 14 died by suicide in 2014 than in 2007.
Although it’s still rare, suicide is now the second leading cause of death for middle school-age kids.
In 2014, the last year for which data is available, 425 kids in that age group took their own lives.
“That’s 425 too many. We’ll all agree to that,” David Miller, Ph.D., president of the American Association of Suicidology, told Healthline. But “the reason suicide is second is that fortunately so few kids between the ages of 10 and 14 die of any cause.”
The CDC announcement was coupled with another statistic. Children are now much less likely to die from car accidents, making death by suicide about as likely as death by car accident in that age group.
Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told Healthline that it’s important to note the “phenomenal” success that the country has had in keeping kids safe in cars.
Like traffic accidents, deaths from suicide can be prevented.
“While we don’t have as simple a solution as seatbelts and not driving distracted and drunk, we do have solutions,” she said.
Searching for reasons
It’s unclear why more kids of this age are dying by suicide.
But it does fit into a trend of more suicides among the general population. The overall suicide rate in the United States increased by 24 percent between 1999 and 2014.
Among young people, researchers have suggested that social media, cyberbullying, and earlier puberty might be responsible for the increase.
But the reasons a person might attempt to harm themselves are complex — mental health, family history, race, gender, sexual orientation, and even geography all play a role.
And the warning signs might look a little different in middle school than in high school.
First, younger kids who died by suicide are more likely to have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorders than depression, according to a study that came out in September.
That could mean a couple of things, Arielle Sheftall, Ph.D., the lead author of the study, and postdoctoral researcher at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, told Healthline.
Perhaps depression in children looks different than in older people and is missed by clinicians. Or, perhaps suicide in younger children is more likely to be an impulsive act.
Ethnicity, gender, guns
Sheftall and her colleagues were surprised to find that a disproportionate number of the youngest people who killed themselves were African-American. Generally, suicide rates among African-Americans are lower than the national average.
Sheftall says that one possible explanation is that fewer African-Americans may be turning to religion and spirituality than in the past, without an accompanying surge in seeking out mental health services.
“We know that some studies have shown that African-American youth, when they do experience depression or anxiety or other mental health problems, they’re not as likely to get into services with a therapist or psychiatrist as white children,” she said.
Those who look for help also may not be able to find it.
A pair of studies from earlier this year found that messages left on counselors’ answering machines seeking appointments were less likely to be returned when the caller sounded African-American, or even if the caller identified herself as Lakisha rather than Allison.
There are other, telling trends.
Native American young adults kill themselves at a rate almost double the national average.
LGBTQ kids also are more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.
Males of all ages are more likely to die by suicide, while females are more likely to attempt it.
And suicide rates are higher in Western states than other parts of the United States, possibly due to isolation and access to guns.
Although mental health experts disagree on whether suicides are ever the result of acting on an impulse, most agree that keeping potentially lethal weapons out of the reach of youth and those who might be considering suicide is a good strategy.
Firearms are a particularly deadly method of suicide and are more often used by boys than girls.
Talking is beneficial
The field is also in agreement that one myth in particular needs to be shattered: that talking about suicide can encourage kids to attempt suicide.
“There’s no evidence for that. In fact, it appears to be just the opposite,” Miller said. “Talking with students openly about suicide gives them the message that we’re willing to talk about this, we care about them, we want them to get the help they need, we want to support them in clear, direct, unambiguous language.”
Parents, too, should feel comfortable broaching the subject with their children, experts say.
“It may be as simple as just talking to the child and giving them better coping mechanisms,” Sheftall said. “It’s really about being in tune and not ignoring the signs. That’s probably what I would hope that others would learn from our research, that yes, it is happening but there is something that we can do about it.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, there are many places to turn for help.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is staffed 24 hours a day. Help can also be found by texting the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Or check out the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website.