Can child really be a suicide? Experts question whether kids can understand act

June 16, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MIAMI -- Can a 6-year-old child really want to die?

Childhood specialists say suicidal thoughts and depression are not uncommon among kindergartners like Jackie Johnson, the Dania, Fla., girl who ended her life on the train tracks yesterday.

But the finality of death is something far beyond the comprehension of young children, most experts agree. Instead, kids this age often associate dying with sleep or with fantasies.

"They may think something wonderful is going to happen," says Jon A. Shaw, the director of child-adolescent psychiatry at the University of Miami. "Some fantasize that if they die, Mom and Dad will get back together or there will be a reunion with a dead parent."

Some specialists theorized yesterday that Jackie could have been suffering from separation anxiety -- fear that her mother, who is dying from an illness, would be leaving her soon.

"During Vietnam, a lot of 6- to 9-year-olds I treated talked about suicide so they could join their fathers in heaven," said Michael Peck, the former director of youth services for the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center.

"In many cases, their fathers weren't even dead, just away for a long time. It didn't make a difference to the kids."

Genetic disorders and stressful experiences early in life also can sometimes make children more susceptible than others to suicidal thoughts, specialists say.

Suicidal deaths among children are extremely rare and even more uncommon among little girls.

Only four children between the ages of 5 and 9 committed suicide in the United States in 1989, according to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Three of them were boys.

The phenomenon is overshadowed by the explosive teen-age suicide rate.

More than 2,000 teens between the ages of 15 and 19 committed suicide in 1989. Four out of five of them were boys.

Behavioral scientists speculate that girls are more apt to find other ways to express sadness or depression.

Young children most often will attempt suicide by throwing themselves into traffic or trying to drown themselves, they say.

But some specialists argue that because most children don't understand the consequences, their deaths should rarely be classified as suicides.

"The truth is most adults don't even have a conscious idea of what is going to happen if they kill themselves," says the University of Miami's Mr. Shaw. "I don't think we can ever know for sure what was on her mind."

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