The death by suicide of a nine-year-old Alabama girl this month has drawn attention back to the alarming increase in suicide by youth, and to the question of whether bullying is playing a role.
It was at least the third death by suicide this year of a child younger than 12 who had been harassed by peers. Mental health professionals say bullying can be a factor in a child’s decision to attempt suicide, but is typically one of several.
“There is not a causal link between bullying – either being victimized or being a perpetrator – and suicidal ideation and attempts,” says University of Florida psychology professor Dorothy Espelage, lead author of a 2013 study on bullying and suicide. “It is one potent predictor of suicidal ideation and attempts, (but) it’s one of many.”
The family of McKenzie Adams, who was black, told the Tuscaloosa News that the girl was bullied with racist taunts at the school where she attended fourth grade and at a school she attended briefly in kindergarten.
The schools told the Alabama newspaper they didn’t receive reports of bullying.
Data on the link between bullying and suicide is available for teens. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report covering 2007 though 2017 found that 17 percent of high school students are bullied. About 7 percent attempted suicide.
Psychologist John Ackerman, the suicide prevention coordinator at the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, warns against oversimplifying the complex causes of suicide.
“We don’t want to send the message that if you’re being bullied, it’s inevitable that you will suffer and think about killing yourself,” Ackerman says. “Families and schools can be in a position to identify that (bullying) is going on, address it and help children develop coping skills.”
There can often be underlying, undiagnosed depression or anxiety, he says, and other life circumstances that are “really conflicted, messy scenarios.”
It’s important for children to be able to find supportive people at home or in school, he says, and also to “learn how to shut things down in the social media space.”
Espelage says “chronic victimization” such as bullying leads to depression and anxiety, withdrawn behavior and “kids feeling as if they’re a burden to their family.” When that isn’t addressed, she says, suicidal thinking can spike and attempts can happen.
Unlike teenagers, for whom romantic relationships are more likely to affect suicidal behavior, younger children are more affected by family conflict.
“They have less choice who they spend time with,” Ackerman says. “If the situation is they constantly have negative interactions and stressors, they’re going to be more and more reliant on social networks.”
Social media can be “negative and hostile,” he says, and children don’t have much downtime to process what they are seeing.
Espelage says “the conversation needs to be around how we get schools to be proactive in preventing the onset of bullying.
“How do we get families to know how to be proactive and advocate for their kids?”
Suicides among children who aren’t yet teenagers are rare, but they are increasing.
Suicide was the 10th leading cause of death for elementary school-aged children in 2014, the CDC reported. The suicide death rate among 10- to 14-year-olds more than doubled from 0.9 per 100,000 in 2007 to 2.1 per 100,000 in 2014.
Nearly 13 percent of the children 17 and under who were hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or attempts between 2008 and 2015 were aged 5 to 11.
Suicide has run in Razy Sellars’ family. His father, Andrew, died by suicide before Christmas 2011, and his mother’s father shot himself to death in 1992 while his mother was sleeping upstairs.
Razy, who lived in Akron, Ohio, died by suicide in May. He was 10.
“There’s a lot of discord and dysfunction in his family,” says Dolores Fay, Razy’s maternal grandmother. “He was also in a vulnerable state.”
Jamel Myles would have turned 10 on Thursday. The Denver boy died by suicide in August.
His mother, Leia Pierce, has said repeatedly that he killed himself because he was being bullied for identifying as gay. A police report has not yet been released.
Jamel’s father, Kenny Myles, says he believes there is convincing evidence about bullying. But he also notes that he and Jamel’s mother broke up before Myles turned three because “I couldn’t stay out of incarceration.”
In more recent years, Myles says, it was difficult to see his son often. Even when he and a sister in Myles’ custody did meet, he says, the boy was “within himself personally.”
Jamel didn’t talk much about thoughts of suicide, “and when he did, it was too late.”
As with Sellars, Myles’ is an example of the kind of complicated life story many children who attempt suicide may have.
“A young person’s circumstances before and after a death is not characterized by one simple risk factor like bullying,” Ackerman says.
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