The mystery of innocent lives cut short

Marie Bentham's case may seem an isolated tragedy but more children than we think have a hand in their own deaths.
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The Independent Culture
TYPICALLY, A girl of eight is a wondrous being. Going on holiday, wearing a new outfit, preparing for Christmas, are all so exciting. Others in the playground say Santa no longer exists, but more than likely she still believes in him. The age of innocence has yet to be superseded by the ennui and knowledge of adolescence. Animal Hospital, Barbie dolls, the latest Disney film, trips to McDonald's, preoccupy her. She still thinks people get pregnant by kissing.

You do not expect a child of this age to hang herself.

Yet last Saturday night Marie Bentham was found dead in her bedroom by her mother, Debbie. She was hanging from her skipping rope. Only a week before, on Boxing Day, she had celebrated her birthday in her home at Irlam, Greater Manchester.

The details surrounding Marie's death are unclear. It seems that, like many a contemporary, she had a row with her mother about going to bed early to prepare for the start of the new term. Like many eight-year-olds, Marie could get very worked up about school. She did not want to go back, because she was being bullied. Then, rushing off to bed at 8pm, upset, she hanged herself. When her mother found her at 10.30pm she could not revive her.

This is a dreadful story that cannot simply be brushed aside on the grounds of its being exceptional. For, though cases of childhood suicide are rare, this partly reflects the reluctance of coroners to ascribe such a verdict. The numbers of children who have had a hand in their own deaths is significant.

In Great Britain, between 1990 and 1995, recorded suicides averaged fewer than seven a year for children under 15. But a broader category - suicides and undetermined deaths (mainly open verdicts) - averaged 60 deaths, of which about 40 per cent were girls. The Samaritans point out that some of these deaths can probably be attributed to unproven child abuse. But there are still a considerable number of children killing themselves.

So we need to think a bit more carefully about the risk to eight-year- olds such as Marie Bentham. Most experts point out that the suicide danger to this age group is low. "They are much more likely to become ill with psychosomatic ailments like tummy aches," says Dr Guinevere Tufnell, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in East London. "It is extremely unusual to come across a case of suicide... they have a limited sense of cause and effect. It is hard for them to compute that `if I kill myself now then I will not have to go to school'."

However, children can have odd ideas about what does happen after death, which can put them in danger. "An eight-year-old may think that being dead means that they go to heaven, which is a rather nice place," says Dr Tufnell. "They may think that dying will allow them to join someone special - a loved one or a pet. But they do not necessarily understand it as a permanent state of affairs."

The Samaritans agree, saying that whereas children over 12 tend to have a full awareness of the finality of death, younger children do not. Some believe death to be a reversible process during which the deceased can still see and hear.

This difference in understanding between the two age groups has two consequences. First, it is difficult to ascribe the term "suicide" to a child under 12, since it is so hard for them to think of themselves ending their lives for ever. But under-12s are at considerable risk of fatally injuring themselves simply because they do not fully appreciate the consequences of their own actions.

This difference in understanding may be reflected in the way children of different ages harm themselves. Dr Tufnell says that children over 12 will take an overdose, then go and tell someone they have done it.

"But it is much less common for children under this age to take an overdose. In the few cases I have come across where younger children have tried to kill themselves, it has often been by hanging. It has usually happened in the context of a game or some kind of pretend exercise that has gone horribly wrong."

This may be how Marie Bentham came to die, Perhaps the loss of her father, Philip, played its part. He died after a heart attack two years ago. Maybe she was interested in reaching him in heaven.

We may never know. But her death will be yet another reminder of the powerful grip that school and particularly bullying can have on a child's mind. There is a steady stream of childhood deaths related to this playground torment.

Dr Tufnell warns that parents should be particularly alert about bullying when it involves juniors such as Marie Bentham. "They may find it harder to articulate what is happening," she says.

But, most of all, it is vital to listen. "In the few cases I have seen like this of children under 12, the parents have all said that they were quite unaware of the level of distress their child was experiencing."