What drives children to suicide?

Anyone who takes their own life leaves their relatives and friends a heavy burden of grief and unanswered questions. And how much harder it must be to understand the motives when a child has committed suicide.
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The Independent Online

It has been almost two weeks since the death of Robin Dunn, the 12-year-old son of a Nottinghamshire doctor, and the strange circumstances are still hard to take in. At morning break-time on 18 October, Robin rushed from a classroom at George Spencer Foundation School in Stapleford, and ran to a nearby footbridge. The fair-haired little boy climbed on to the railing of the footbridge, which connects two parts of the George Spencer school and hovers above a busy dual carriageway. He then tumbled 30ft on to the A52 between Nottingham and Derby. Cars managed to avoid him, but the boy died of his head injuries before he even reached hospital.

It has been almost two weeks since the death of Robin Dunn, the 12-year-old son of a Nottinghamshire doctor, and the strange circumstances are still hard to take in. At morning break-time on 18 October, Robin rushed from a classroom at George Spencer Foundation School in Stapleford, and ran to a nearby footbridge. The fair-haired little boy climbed on to the railing of the footbridge, which connects two parts of the George Spencer school and hovers above a busy dual carriageway. He then tumbled 30ft on to the A52 between Nottingham and Derby. Cars managed to avoid him, but the boy died of his head injuries before he even reached hospital.

On Friday, a coroner's court heard that, minutes before he died, Robin "doodled" a "will" in front of classmates, leaving his computer fantasy war games to close friends and everything else to his family. He had then handed his schoolbag to a friend, saying he would see him later, before making for the bridge. Witnesses told police that Robin hoisted himself on top of a railing and appeared to seesaw on his stomach before plunging over the side.

In the days after his death, Robin's distraught father Ian, 46, believed his son, the youngest of three children, had deliberately taken his own life. But on Friday the Nottingham coroner Dr Nigel Chapman said Robin's death did not appear to have been a planned act and gave a verdict of accidental death. "We find no evidence other than he was on that bridge and he has leaned over, as children do, and lost his balance." After the inquest Ian Dunn, still struggling to come to terms with Robin's death, said that perhaps "Robin was looking for an experience and pushed it too far".

Robin's death has traumatised those who witnessed it and stunned family, teachers and friends. Robin was, by all accounts, both popular and intelligent. Headmaster Tom Clark, who rushed to Robin at the side of the A52, and had the unenviable task of breaking the news to Ian Dunn and his wife Susan that Robin had died, says that what happened was "beyond my comprehension". Clark described Robin as "lively, popular and well above average intelligence... a very straightforward kid who seemed mature". He added: "As human beings, we try to make sense of it but we can't."

There is no evidence that Robin, an avid science fiction fan who had just started trumpet lessons, was bullied at school or was in any way under pressure.

After Robin died, Ian and Susan Dunn trawled through his belonging for clues. Ian Dunn said he was sure his son understood the concept of no more tomorrows. Death was not a mystery to him, he said. He had already experienced his grandfather's death and the death of pets. When Dr Dunn's patients passed on, it was openly discussed at home with Robin and his brother Andrew, 15, and sister Katie, 14.

Ian and Susan racked their brains for missed signs of distress. "But there was nothing different about him when he went to school", says Ian. Robin seemed to be making plans for the future. On the morning of his death, he had even being discussing the colour he wanted his room painted. And he had had a busy week, "guffawing over Men in Black" on television, visiting the theatre and going swimming. "We've looked at photographs and in most of them Robin is giggling," said Dr Dunn miserably. Robin had no history of mental or physical illness.

While his death is recorded as an accident, its circumstances focus attention on whether it is possible for a child to spontaneously and impulsively, without displaying warning signs, take his own life. While the incidence of suicide amongst the most susceptible group - young men aged between 18 and 24 - has rocketed over the last few decades, and the incidence of suicide among adolescents has also risen, suicide among young children is still very rare. But even among under 14s, the number of suicide bids appears to be rising. According to Professor Keith Hawton of the Centre for Suicide Research in Oxford, girls largely account for the rise in non-fatal overdoses and non-fatal self injuries, out-numbering boys by at least six to one. In most cases, he believes, the children are sending a simple message, "I feel so bad I could die".

He says the average 12-year-old understands that suicide means the end. "People used to think the concept of death developed around puberty", he says. "Now we think it develops at eight, seven or even six". But he agrees that the concept of personal mortality might not be as rounded at 12 as it is by adulthood.

Robin's parents and teachers saw no signs of depression in little boy. But then, is depression really always a pre-requisite for suicide? Professor Hawton's own painstaking screening of young people who have attempted suicide shows that, in most cases, there is an underlying depressive disorder. "I have looked at kids who have taken overdoses who thought about it for less than an hour before they did it", says Hawton. "But it usually turns out that it has crossed their minds before - they are bombarded with it on TV". Research shows that, when an episode of Casualty (the BBC hospital drama) has featured an overdose, an increase in suicide attempts has followed.

But he concedes that causes are not always found. "Some suicides do appear to have been impulsive", he says. "And I think kids are more likely to be impulsive than adults".

Others insist that, however inexplicable a suicide may seem, there are always causes. Eileen Orford, chair of the Child Psychotherapy Trust, says that there is no such thing as a sudden suicidal impulse.

"Children who commit suicide feel very trapped by expectations or difficult situations they can see no way out of", she says. She adds that in most cases, there is usually some kind of problem with communication. For example, a child does not kill himself because he is being bullied, but because something stops him from talking about the bullying.

Orford agrees with Hawton and Ian Dunn's assertion that by the age of 12, children know "it's not bang, bang and you then get up and walk away", unless they are living out some undetected private fantasy. Despair, she says, is present in all the children she has dealt with who have attempted suicide. Her most recent failed suicide bid case involves a 13-year-old girl, in foster care, whose appalling childhood left her with "no trust in anyone".

Dr Madeleine Portswood, senior educational psychologist with Durham local education authority, deals with troubled youngsters, many of whom abuse drugs and solvents. Some are as young as eight. The suicide bid rate among her children is very high. She makes a distinction between girls from troubled and "normal" backgrounds. The latter, she says, are more likely to embark on "returnable" suicide methods, such as overdoses, whereas the former are more likely to opt for more certain methods such as high buildings, hangings or severed veins. Boys, however, tend to opt for the non-returnable route, whether or not they come from troubled backgrounds. But, she argues, all suicides have root causes. "Children do not spontaneously jump off a bridge, unless they are high on drugs", she says.

For Peter Wilson, director of the child mental health charity, Young Minds, the number of children and adolescents attempting suicide is an indictment of an increasingly unstable society. Children are living through great technological changes at a time when families, which once they could, at least, rely upon to remain relatively stable, are now being endlessly dismantled and reconstructed. The old, solid boundary that separated child and adult lives has dissolved, he says, and in the absence of 9pm watersheds and censorship, children are exposed to a far greater variety of influences.

While he does not think serious psychiatric illness has increased among children, he believes that many more are depressed, anxious and overwhelmed.

"When you add it all up, it's a very tumultuous time to be growing up", he says. "Research shows that children are more agitated, distressed and upset. It also shows that one in 10 will suffer some kind of mental disorder between the ages of five and 15".

But interestingly, he says that he is becoming more receptive to the idea that some suicides - whether among children or adults - "don't quite add up. I think some suicides are just mysterious. I'm increasingly open to the notion of a spontaneous, self-destructive impulse".

Verdicts of accidental death do not end the agony of many parents. When a child dies in Robin's circumstances, doubts inevitably linger - and so do questions. No one can ask Robin what he thought he was doing on the bridge. That is a terrible burden for parents, siblings and friends to bear. It is also a major obstacle to research. And, as Professor Hawton points out, the insurmountable problem for doctors trying to explain child suicide is that those who have the answers are no longer around to help.

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