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Child Suicide: French Study Takes A Hard Look At A Heartbreaking Problem

A shocking suicide in central France has prompted authorities to look at why, how and when a growing number of young children decide to take their own lives. Rates are highest in South Korea, lowest in Finland.

Child Suicide: French Study Takes A Hard Look At A Heartbreaking Problem
Martine Laronche

PARIS - Alarmed by the recent tragedy of a nine-year-old girl who threw herself out of a fifth-story window near Lyon, French authorities are starting to think hard about the unthinkable: child suicide.

In February, shortly after the girl's death made headlines, France's youth deputy minister, Jeannette Bougrab, commissioned a study on the subject of child suicide. "A taboo is just starting to be broken," says Jeannette Bougrab. "Until now, nobody dared to confront this sad reality, preferring to deny it or else cover it up."

So how big is this problem in France? "Children increasingly think about killing themselves," says Boris Cyrulnik, the neuropsychiatrist who spearheaded the study. "In France, before the age of 13, 16% of children think death can be a solution to their problems with their family, school or friends."

Based on statistics and international literature on the issue, Cyrulnik believes that nowadays, the idea of death occurs to children earlier in life, with first attempts coming at an ever younger age.

In France, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people under the age of 25. And although cases are relatively rare, some of those suicides involve children under the age of 12. Annually, between 30 and 40 children in the five- to 12-year-old age group takes their own lives, according to the findings of the study released on Thursday.

Those numbers don't include accidental deaths that can be qualified as "suicide equivalents," according to the neuropsychiatrist. Many suicides could be hidden by dangerous behaviors, such as running across the street, or leaning out of a window. "An accident is not accidental when the behavior makes it likely," he says.

Children can become prisoners of their worries, becoming so absorbed by their internal world that they can't analyze outside information. These "suicide equivalents' are very difficult to count, but there could be about 100 cases a year, or even more, Cyrulnik concluded.

"A child who kills himself doesn't necessarily want death," he says. The notion of death evolves throughout childhood. Until the age of five, a child thinks of death as an amusing game, characterized by immobility. Between ages five and seven, it is an invisible place: grandmother has left for a far away place and won't be coming back for a very long time. It's only between the ages of seven and nine that death takes on its irreversible meaning.

Child suicide highest in South Korea

France isn't the only country with these troubling cases of child suicides. Incidents are on the rise in several countries – Russia, central European countries – and are more frequent in countries undergoing socioeconomic upheaval. "These tragedies reveal social disfunctionalities," says the neuropsychiatrist.

Starting at a very young age, children can be made particularly vulnerable by the environment in which they grow up. "Neuroscience has shown that infants who are placed in a deprived sensory situation acquire a neurological vulnerability and remain subject to their impulses," says Cyrulnik. The death of a parent, a mother's depression, a marital conflict or even a precarious social situation that upsets the parents can weaken the child's "emotional niche."

This biological vulnerability explains why feeling upset can lead to suicide. Unlike teenagers whose suicides are preceded by warning signs – such as withdrawal, depression, and aggression – children are governed by their impulses.

The trigger can come from school – a bad grade, a scolding. "Schools are becoming so selective and overinvested that it makes the child develop a sense of danger, alarm and exhaustion. One study found 60% to 80% of French children to be anxious in school," says Cyrulnik.

The researcher holds Finland as an example. There, children start school later, grades aren't given until the age of 10 or 11, and school workloads have become lighter. And over the past decade, suicide rates have fallen by 40%. On the other end of the spectrum is South Korea, where children are over-stimulated in school and given private tutors, showing stellar academic results, but also a very high suicide rate.

Cyrulnik says that identifying and helping families at risk, adapting schools to the child's rhythm, developing after-school activities and places where children can express themselves can help prevent children from going through with suicide.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Ulrica

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