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Suicide in vulnerable children: research reveals reasons

Children and young people known to the child protection system are at greater risk of suicide, according to research released today by the Queensland Child Death Review Board (CDRB) during National Mental Health Month.

CDRB Chairperson Cheryl Vardon said the research, completed by Brett McDermott, Professor of Psychiatry, James Cook University, provided insights about the drivers behind suicide among children and young people known to the child protection system.

“The research found that suicide is most prevalent in children and young people with a mental health disorder, young people in contact with the youth justice system, and those who have experienced household dysfunction, alcohol or substances issues, or childhood trauma,” Ms Vardon said.

“Childhood trauma—also known as an adverse childhood experience—includes verbal, physical or sexual abuse and physical and emotional neglect, with the research indicating a direct link between the experience and suicidal thinking.

“Sadly, many children known to Queensland’s child protection system are exposed to, or have experienced, one or many of the factors that can contribute to suicide, which increases their risk significantly.

“The research indicates some groups are at a higher risk than others, with rates of suicide up to four times higher in children and young people in out-of-home care and between 4 and 12 times higher in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people.

“Some concerning trends reported in the research include more lethal means being used to complete suicide, particularly among girls, and children experiencing suicidal thoughts at younger ages, with primary school children reported to have thought about suicide.”

Ms Vardon said the research recommended a coordinated approach be adopted across government and the sector to reduce suicide rates among children and young people known to the child protection system.

“The research suggests that greater investment is required to support the mental health of children and young people known to the child protection system, with greater investment in culturally appropriate suicide prevention services required for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children,” Ms Vardon said.

“Greater early intervention support is also needed for families of infants and preschool children to minimise the impact of, or exposure to, factors that may contribute to suicide later in life.

“The research suggests government, health and community organisations that work with children, young people and families should have a shared understanding of the ongoing effects of childhood trauma and treat high-risk children and young people experiencing suicide ideation using a consistent approach, developed collaboratively by clinicians and industry leaders.

“I encourage everyone who works with vulnerable children and young people to read this research to gain a better understanding of the drivers behind youth suicide.”

The research paper, Highly vulnerable infants, children and young people: a joint child protection mental health response to prevent suicide, is now available to view here.

ENDS 09 November 2021

MEDIA CONTACT: Child Death Review Board – Kirstine O’Donnell, ph: 0404 971 164