Tuesday, 29 October 2013

A study of suicide notes left by children and young teens

In 2010 more people died by suicide than were killed in war, by murder, or in natural disasters. In Norway, the location of a heart-rending new study of suicide notes left by children and young teens, suicide is the second leading cause of death for this age group. We need urgently to do more to understand why so many young people are taking their own lives.

The researchers Anne Freuchen and Berit Grøholt predicted that, given their immaturity, the young authors of suicide notes would show signs of confusion. Also, because diagnoses of mental illness are lower in children and young teens, the researchers predicted that the notes would show fewer signs of inner pain compared with notes left by older teens and adults.

In all, Freuchen and Grøholt had access to 23 suicide notes left by 18 youths (average age 14; 5 girls) who took their own lives between 1993 and 2004. They also interviewed the children's parents and referred to police reports. For comparison, the researchers also interviewed the parents of 24 youths who died by suicide during the same period but did not leave a note.

Analysing the notes revealed ten themes, each of which was present in three or more of the notes: they were addressed to someone (most often parents); the author gave reasons for the suicide; they declared their love; expressed a settlement with themselves (e.g. "it's better for me to be dead"); expressed a settlement with someone else (e.g. "I do this for you, dad"); asked for forgiveness; expressed good wishes (e.g. "good luck in the future"); expressed aggression (e.g. "you bastards"); over half included instructions (e.g. "give Peter Playstation 2"); and just under half expressed inner pain.

Contrary to their predictions, Freuchen and Grøholt said that "the notes are coherent and do not reveal confusion or overwhelming emotions. The children and young adolescents emphasise their consciousness of what they are about to do and they take full responsibility."

According to the parental interviews, the children and teens who left the notes had not sought help with the issues that led to their suicide. At the same time, they had communicated their thoughts about suicide more often than those who didn't leave notes. One has to wonder why this did not trigger more effective preventive action. Similarly, three of the notes took the form of school essays, and yet none of them were acted upon by school authorities.

The fact that many of the notes conveyed declarations of love and gave explanations suggests, the researchers said, that the authors were well aware of the implications of their actions. "These children and adolescents somehow retain their dignity," the researchers said. "They act like decent people do, they bear their pain alone, and even manage to take care of others by leaving detailed instructions with respect to giving away their assets."

The researchers do not extract many practical lessons from their findings, other than calling for more research into parent-child/teen relationships in the hope of developing preventative strategies. Moreover, they cautioned that it is not possible to generalise or draw conclusions from this small sample. Another methodological limitation is that the suicide notes are from an era that pre-dates the rise of social media (which can be a source of threat, a support, and an outlet), so it's not clear how relevant insights from this study are for young people today.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Anne Freuchen, and Berit Grøholt (2013). Characteristics of suicide notes of children and young adolescents: An examination of the notes from suicide victims 15 years and younger. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry DOI: 10.1177/1359104513504312

--Further reading--
The mental health charity Young Minds has a helpline for parents.

Mindfull is a new website for 11 - 17 year-olds who are feeling down or depressed.

Occupational hazard - links between professions and suicide risk have changed over time.

What's different about those who attempt suicide rather than just thinking about it?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Anonymous said...

Wow this is the most pointless study I have ever read, were these experimenters even teenagers at one point or did they just skip that age?

Anonymous said...

Really anonymous? We need to understand in order to prevent.

suicide cleaner said...

didnt a study just come out that says bullying doesn't cause suicide in teens?

32-old ex Marine said...

It's obvious to me we are creating a world that they don't want to live in. Some days, I'm doubtful about myself.

Anonymous said...

Most suicides are by far boys / men.. It’s kind of telling that the researcher missed this extremely relevant point and instead reported on girls. One can only conclude this article is pure junk science or the author is a shameless sexist bigot.

Anonymous said...

As an individual who has considered suicide and written several notes, I can offer a little bit of insight:
one. Things like what happens to our stuff is important at that moment because we are not thinking of our selves.
two. Attempts are during times of extreme stress and usually brought about by recurring stress such as an individual that we have to deal with on a regular basis.
three. We express anger and not our inner feelings because we don't want the people that caused us to kill ourselves to have the satisfaction of knowing why we did it, in one of my notes I was particularly angry at the time and didn't put that I hated my dad for saying he thanked god for my would have been younger sister being miscarried.
four. We bargain because we want people to not hate us for killing ourselves despite the fact that we know it will destroy them emotionally, we know people care and we don't want to hurt them so we justify it.
five. At this age our parents are the people that control our lives, I have had to go to church every Sunday even though I hate it, just because it is what my parents believe. This is why all too often the notes are addressed to the parents.
six. We use a large amount of profanity in our notes because we are angry. I can only speak for myself in this case, but I have never tried to kill myself when sad, only when I am angry, I think this is because sadness means that you cared about something and it didn't happen. On the other hand anger is usually caused by something that you didn't want to happen making your life more difficult and using extreme methods of escape like drugs, sex, and possibly suicide.

I know that it's hard to take in, but we didn't need a study for this, life is difficult and some people would rather take the easy way out. The simple truth is, life is going to be hard for everybody and it's the people that can deal with the pain of our boring ritualistic lives that survive, and the people that get angry and make others suffer make life that much worse, so perhaps a suicide here and there will help us to evolve past the point of making our lives hard just to get our kids out of bed in the morning.

Anonymous said...

Actually, females have more suicide attempts. Males are more likely to suicide, successfully. This is usually explained by the ways males and females try to suicide.

Anonymous said...

Females also use a suicide attempt as a cry for help. Using less effective means of suicide lowers the actual risk of dying in such an attempt. I wonder what the numbers would look like if we could add every man who put a gun in his mouth but changed his mind at the last second.

Anonymous said...

Only 5 of the 18 youths were female. Just saying.

Anonymous said...

If you follow a group like Putting a Face on Suicide, you will see an alarming number of children. Child suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens and rising (samaritans.org). Because these children are still in the care of public authorities when not with their parents, child suicide is a public health crisis that should be addressed as fervently as child abuse.

as7 said...

This topic hits close to home with me. So far in my life I've lost two friends to suicide, one a high school friend and the other a close family friend dealing with PTSD after having returned from the military. I've only read the note from the second and it was very coherent and contained a list of final wishes much like the ones listed in the study. So I was intrigued to hear what the people conducting the study found about suicide notes. I'm surprised to hear they found that a majority were coherent, I would have expected most to be off the cuff rambling about life and how hard it is. The fact that 3 of the notes were essays submitted to schools and no action was taken is very disappointing to me, it makes me wonder if those children would still be with us if action would have been taken. Thank you for posting this article, I enjoyed reading it

Unknown said...

This article is interesting, but it does not go very in depth with its research. It only went into depth with girls, not with boys. And it did not explain anything, and left me with many questions. I'm not quite sure what this article was trying to prove, and it did not link any disorders or any explanation to why children would resort to suicide, even if it's just the impulsiveness that occurs in that particular stage in life. I would have liked to see this research pushed further, such as attempting to research more in depth of the leading causes in childhood suicide, since it is the second leading cause of childhood death.

Anonymous said...

what...bullying is one of the most common reasons why someone commits suicide

Apinya said...

Contrary to other comments saying this study is useless I think it is extremely important and a coherent investigation. Firstly it has recognised that suicide is a growing problem amongst youth and secondly, tried to ascertain factors behind why suicide is being committed. In order to identify reasons why the experimenters have done a content analysis of the last written piece of material that a person has written before resorting to suicide. It makes sense to me.

It is not an ineffective and arbitrary study, it was one that was very much necessary in response to a prevalent issue and I think there are implications for the findings, such as the need to emphasise early intervention and support, especially as seen in the case of the school that did not take action in response to the student's essay on intended suicide.

Additionally, parents, teachers, clinicians and gps should not write off adolescents as being moody and reckless, as their thought processes appear to have been reasoned and planned prior to their deaths.

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