Deadly Impulse: The surge in preteen suicide
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teenagers. The numbers are troubling. But perhaps even more troubling is the fact that the age of children who contemplate or die by suicide is getting younger and younger.
Of Ruth Lee's five children, her daughter, Shakayla Litka, was the only girl.
“She had the brightest smile. She could make anyone laugh. Anyone she met, they were instantly drawn to her,” said Lee fondly. “She was a wonderful, wonderful child. She was a straight A student. She loved to dance. She loved to dance and sing. We just think she was a free spirit.”
A free spirit with a deep, dark secret.
“I had no idea that she would ever try to do something like this,” said Lee.
On May 27, 2015, Shakayla ended her life. She was just 12 years old.
“It's been three years now, and just speaking her name, the thought of her not being here brings me to tears,” Lee said. “There's not a day that doesn't go by that I don't think of her and have some kind of hurt feeling.”
Lee had no idea.
“There was no warning.”
While Shakayla seemed to be a typical, somewhat moody preteen, there was a problem with bullies. When she complained to her mom about bullies on the bus, Ruth talked to the bus driver.
“They addressed the bullying and it stopped for a while, but then I found out later on after she passed that she was being tormented in the classroom,” said Lee.
On that Wednesday in May, when Shakayla came home from school, her mom scolded her about her bedroom.
“So, I told her to go clean up her room, but I didn't say it in the nicest way.”
So Shakayla went to her room, but then went into the bathroom and shut the door.
“I just thought she was using the restroom. She was only in there for ten minutes and her brothers had to use it, so they go to use the restroom and they found her hanging in there,” said Lee through sobs.
Shakayla was taken to the hospital, where she died two days later.
Sadly, Shakayla was not the only child from her school to die by suicide in 2015. A 13-year-old boy died a few months before her. The Centers for Disease Control reports there were 102 children under 13 who took their own lives in 2015. By the next year, that number jumped almost 19 percent to 121 deaths by suicide.
Experts say it's a scary trend.
“The statistics are getting worse, actually,” said Dr. Erin Leonard, a local psychotherapist and author. She says we don't like to think about little kids having suicidal thoughts, but they do.
“Kids feel intense sadness, intense shame, intense anger,” explained Leonard. “Those are feelings that every child feels.”
How they deal with those feelings is important.
Parents, caregivers, teachers and counselors must have empathy.
“The feelings are really what cause the suicidal ideation, so those are the things you want to get at. So you really want to be open to hearing how they feel so you can empathize,” offered Leonard. “Don't shut down feelings ever, even though you don't want to know your child is intensely sad, hearing about it and empathizing about it is the best medicine. The most important thing to remember as a parent is you don't want your child to feel alone.”
Leonard says parents should be empathic and not sympathetic to their children’s problems.
“When a parent has empathy for the child, the child feels connected, they feel understood and they don't feel alone in their issue,” said Leonard. “Sympathy is kind of doing things to fix the problem. Oh, I'll call that coach and tell him to change the rules. Or you poor thing, you don't have to go to school today.”
Leonard says children are impulsive and they're not mature enough to fully understand the consequences of their actions.
“When kids are really, really sad and they're feeling very, very alone, the first thing they think about is an escape,” warned Leonard.
Lee believes her daughter acted on an impulse.
“I don't think she really thought that that was going to be the end,” said Lee. “I think she wanted to make a statement. Basically show that she was hurting. But I don't think she necessarily wanted to die.”
Dr. Leonard says there are three main reasons that put children at risk.
1. Trauma: a traumatic event that has happened to the child or a close family member.
2. The child's exposure to mature material too early. Dr. Leonard says violent videos are an example.
“There are things that they're exposed to that we don't know about,” said Dr. Leonard. “If something that they see traumatizes them or sticks with them, it's a pervasive kind of thought or feeling, you really want to know about it so that you can help them metabolize and dissipate those feelings.”
3. Bullying. If you suspect your child is being bullied or threatened, speak up.
That’s what Lee says she tried to do.
“I was telling her just to ignore them and if they are really getting to you, you need to tell someone,” said Lee. “You just can't keep it inside. You have to tell someone to stop it.”
Lee wants parents to teach their children to help other kids when they're being bullied.
“That's what children need to know. If there's somebody you see that other kids aren't being friendly to, be their friend,” Lee said.
A friend, for kids like Shakayla.
“She was just a wonderful little girl, and she's going to be forever a little girl now,” said Lee.
Here are some of the signs of depression and anxiety in preteens:
- Persistent problems with eating
- Persistent problems with sleeping
- Significant withdrawal from family and friends
The National Suicide Prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255. You can call that number or text the word "connect" to the number 741741 for immediate help.
Their website is
Local assistance can be found at United Health Services Suicide Prevention Center. Their website is
Dr. Erin Leonard has a new book for parents called “How to Raise a Secure Child.” To learn more, visit
QPR stands for Question, Persuade and Refer. Ask your child if they’re having thoughts about harming themselves. Persuade them to accept or seek help, and then refer them to a professional who can help. You can find more information at
Parents, don't hesitate to enlist the help of a school counselor, therapist or your pediatrician.