Gone too soon

Last updated 05:00 07/10/2012

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In the past few years a handful of children have deliberately taken their own lives, including one under 9. Kirsty Johnston reports on the unthinkable truth of pre-teen suicide.

Krystal was 12 when she killed herself.

The Auckland foster child had just had a violent argument with her 7-year-old sister over pocket money and both girls were sent to their room without dinner.

At the time, her foster mother knew Krystal was dealing with a lot, including guilt for breaking up her family of eight children after making allegations of sexual abuse against a former caregiver. She was missing her siblings.

But the woman, a caregiver with nine years' experience, felt the little girl from Northland was making progress - she had new friends, new clothes and a new Bebo page.

The last thing anyone expected was for Krystal's younger sister to come back downstairs just hours after the fight saying Krystal was dead.

"Krystal was more emotionally fragile than anyone realised at the time,” a Child, Youth and Family manager told the inquest into her death last week. She was the youngest child to take her own life in state care. Social workers were unaware of the suicide risk because of her age, the manager said.

Krystal, whose last name is permanently suppressed to protect her siblings, died in 2008. Her death is yet to be ruled on by the coroner but there seems to be no doubt it was self-inflicted by a method that cannot be made public. Since then, there have been a handful of other pre-teen deaths that are also believed to be suicides, including a 10-year-old who died from a gunshot wound to the head, and a child aged between 5 and 9 who died last year.

“I think that kind of stuns people a bit to think that people that young could commit suicide,” says chief coroner Neil MacLean.

“Most people struggle to even understand teen suicide - unless they're a teenager - so this is one of those things that really hit home.”

T HE QUESTION for most adults is whether children can be deemed to understand enough about life to wilfully want to end it.

Child psychologist David Stebbing says the age that children begin to understand death is disputed, but it's linked to the ability to think in an abstract way.

“A young child does not have that concept of finality that an older child would start to develop as they hit the teen years,” he says. “A kid's perspective of the future is so limited.”

Studies have suggested that children as young as 5 could be considered capable of committing suicide, but that would be extremely rare. Stebbing had never heard of a child so young taking his or her own life.

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Often, MacLean said, with very young children where there were rumours of suicide it was likely to be an accidental death - hanging from a curtain cord or a clothesline, for example.

Last year children in South Auckland were playing strangulation games that police had to stamp out abruptly. But MacLean said there was no doubt children could want to die and do something deliberate about that.

“But do they actually understand the finality of it? Who knows? Does anybody?”

He said children seemed to be maturing earlier so perhaps it was not surprising to see younger children doing things that had previously been in the realm of teenagers. “At my age I can't even begin to understand how children's minds work. It's never easy to put yourself in the mind of someone who's no longer around to tell you what they meant to do.”

It is, however, also possible that many of the young who commit suicide were simply crying out for help. The problem, says Stebbing, is that many chose to hang themselves, which is far more dangerous than methods like slitting their wrists or overdosing.

“Hanging is bloody dangerous. I had one kid, who I think he was 9 at the time. He didn't die. That is very, very rare.”

Where children learn about suicide and, particularly, hanging, is a constant source of often heated debate. Some experts believe it is from the media and television.

Earlier this year new media guidelines were released on the reporting of suicide, to a backlash from medical professionals who thought they'd gone too far. MacLean does not believe children get their information from the news media.

“Children get their information from their friends. Always have done, always will do,” he said.

Social media and texting are also information hotspots, and can contribute to suicide “contagion” - where one death leads to another. “There's massive amounts of texting. Every time there's a suicide in a school the texting traffic goes viral. And it doesn't just stay in one school, it's the whole community.”

Dealing with the aftermath can also lead to problems. For example, if a child dies, the school will hold a funeral or a special assembly, including a haka. That can send mixed messages, MacLean says.

“Sometimes with young kids who see the drama of the funeral and the nice things being said about them and think ‘that got a lot of attention, maybe that's a good thing for me to do' without realising the finality of it.”

For that reason schools need to have more information about both prevention and reaction to suicide, he says, as do parents, families and social workers - and MacLean is fighting to give it to them.

“It's so unpalatable and so unpleasant that on one hand no one wants to know about it. But then on the other hand when it happens to you, all you think is - what did we miss? Are we at fault? So there are people who want to know more about this.”

Stebbing, who works with at-risk children on a regular basis, says children who are most vulnerable to suicide are those with issues such as family chaos, abuse, trauma, depression, impulsivity and substance abuse.

Warning signs include not just talking about suicide, but a fascination with death or a sudden refusal to talk about the future. Children may also give their possessions away or begin to tidy in an uncharacteristic way.

The incident that eventually pushes them over the edge is often trivial - in younger children it's often a disciplinary issue - which is linked to their inability to have perspective on the world, he said.

“For you or I it would be so trivial but for them it's the final straw,” MacLean says.

F OR KRYSTAL, the last straw came at the end of a series of events her caregiver was largely unaware of, due to the failings of Child, Youth and Family. The agency did not provide her foster family with details of her tumultuous history, including the fact she had recently given video evidence against an alleged abuser.

The Ministry for Social Development also admitted last week that social workers had incorrectly interpreted a suicidal risk screening test completed by Krystal that meant she didn't get the support and counselling she needed. The ministry apologised for the failings, but Krystal's mother is still angry and yet to come to terms with her daughter's death.

“They're changing their policy - but it should have already been like that for Krystal,” she said. When Krystal died, she had been trying to get hold of her, to have a phone call with her, to tell her that everything was going to be OK and it was not her fault the family had been split up.

“If only we could have had that phone call but then we never expected her to go the way she did.

“She was a really good girl. She was into sports, hockey, hanging out with her friends. I mean, she used to argue with the other kids but that was just our house, chaotic.”

The other children in the family - seven of whom were taken into care with Krystal when her mother and her husband were arrested on drugs charges - were now back with the couple. They too are damaged, Krystal's mother said.

“All the kids are hurt that it happened to us. They really miss Krystal. They talk about her all the time.”

Although they knew Krystal was going through “a lot of stuff” they hadn't thought for a minute about suicide due to her age.

“We wouldn't have thought she would have done that,” she said.

“I kind of understand but actually I don't think I'll ever really understand why she went that way at all.”

STATS ON SUICIDES

A total of 547 suicides were referred to the coroner for the year, a slight decrease on the 558 from the previous year. Teenagers aged between 15 and 19 recorded the highest level of suicide, with 80 people taking their lives. This was a jump of 24 from the previous year, a spike chief coroner Neil MacLean singled out as a concerning trend. The high number of Maori suicides was also extremely worrying. There were 37 suicides among Maori youth. the annual average was 21. Overall, suicide among Maori increased from 101 to 142.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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