CHICAGO, March 5 (Xinhua) -- Depressed children aged 4 to 6 who think and talk about committing suicide understand what it means to die better than other kids, according to a study posted Tuesday on the website of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
The researchers studied 139 children: 22 of them were depressed and expressing suicidal ideation, 57 had depression but no suicidal thoughts, and 60 didn't suffer from depression.
The children in the study were interviewed about death to measure their understanding of five concepts. They were asked about death's universality, the fact that all living things eventually die. They also were asked about the specificity of death to help determine whether children understood that although their grandparents could die, their stuffed animals could not. Other questions dealt with death's irreversibility, the cessation of bodily functions that occurs with death, and potential causes of death.
The depressed children with suicidal ideation understood all of the components of death better than children in the other two groups. In addition, all of the depressed children with suicidal ideation were able to describe something that could cause death, compared with 61 percent of the other children with depression, and 65 percent of the non-depressed children.
"The first cause of death that seemed to pop into the heads of kids with suicidal ideation was something like getting shot or stabbed," said first author Laura Hennefield, a postdoctoral research scholar in the Department of Psychiatry and in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences. "Poison came up a few times, too. That was a bit surprising, given that accidents and illness actually are much more common causes of death across the life span."
"The historic take on young children and suicide has been that they have no idea what they're talking about, that maybe they're repeating something they've heard or doing it for attention," said senior investigator Joan L. Luby, a professor of psychiatry at the university. "Our findings refute that. It really does seem that children expressing suicidal ideation understand what it means to die, and they understand it better than their peers."
The researchers will continue following these children to learn whether a parent-child interaction therapy might help improve health as the children begin school and grow into adolescence.
The study has been published in the March issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.