Could ADHD Increase Your Child’s Risk of Suicide?

 ADHD Weekly 2016-09-29

Your elementary school-aged child’s risk of death by suicide is very, very low. But a recent study indicates that children affected by ADHD may have a slightly higher risk for suicide than their peers without ADHD. Researchers are working to determine why that could be and think it may be related to impulsivity and the lack of availability of child mental health resources.

Research recently published in the journal Pediatrics examined data from 17 states between 2003 and 2012 for children ages 5–11 who died by suicide. The rate of suicide was low within this age group, with less than one suicide out of 500,000 children (a rate of .17 per 100,000). In comparison, the teenage rate was 5.18 deaths per 100,000.

The study included information only on children who had completed suicide and did not include uncompleted suicide attempts by children who survived. It did not examine data correlations between ADHD and childhood depression and how the disorders as co-occurring conditions may have been influencing factors in the study. The study also did not break the numbers down by location within the included states.

Child deaths by suicide have remained steady, and low, for more than 20 years. However, for African American children between 5-11 years old, suicide has increased as a cause of death, rising from the 14th leading cause of death in 1993-1997 to the 9th leading cause of death in 2008-2012. In contrast, for white children during the same time periods it rose from the 12th leading cause of death to the 11th leading cause. (Suicide Trends Among Elementary School–Aged Children in the United States From 1993 to 2012)

The data showed that children who died by suicide more often had been diagnosed with ADHD but less often had been diagnosed with depression. These children were also more likely to have some type of problem within their family relationships, including arguing with family members.

The researchers state that impulsivity may play an important role in suicide with this population. According to lead author Arielle H. Sheftall, PhD, “Among study decedents with known mental health problems, children who died by suicide had higher rates of ADD/ADHD than early adolescent decedents, suggesting that they may have been more vulnerable as a group to respond impulsively to interpersonal challenges.” In other words, when having difficulties in their relationships or communicating with others, the children may have reacted impulsively because of their ADHD and committed suicide.

Dr. Sheftall and her colleagues are concerned that 36.8 percent of the deceased children included in the study were African American, a higher percentage of African American young people than seen among early adolescent suicide deaths, which was 11.6 percent in this study.

“We were especially interested in examining potential racial differences in precipitating circumstances given that black youth may experience disproportionate exposure to violence or traumatic stressors, both of which have been associated with suicidal behavior,” they write. “Also, research has shown that black youth are less likely to receive services for depression, suicidal ideation, and other mental health problems compared with non-black youth.”

The researchers are interested in how their results can be used toward suicide prevention among children, particularly among children diagnosed with ADHD. They suggest suicide prevention approaches developed specifically for children affected by ADHD would be more effective for this population. They add teaching children problem-solving skills and helping to build strong emotional and interpersonal skills with children affected by ADHD may be two prevention approaches to explore.

They point out that among the children in the study, 29 percent of the children had spoken with someone else about taking their own lives.

“This finding highlights the importance of educating pediatricians, primary health care providers, families, school personnel, and peers about how to recognize and respond to the warning signs of suicide and to treat all disclosures of suicidal thoughts and behaviors seriously,” they write.

Previous studies have shown that girls diagnosed with ADHD have an increased likelihood of depression and self harm.

For more information on preventing suicide among teens and children, visit Suicide Prevention or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).