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Some kids' suicidal behavior linked to lots of family moves

June 1, 2009 |  1:00 pm

The more often a family moves, the higher the likelihood that a child dragged along to a new home will attempt or commit suicide, a new study of Danish children suggests.

Combing through a Danish national database of children who have attempted or committed suicide, researchers at University of Aarhus in Denmark, found that most -- 55% -- of these children had changed residences more than three times in their childhood. Among the comparison group of children who had never attempted or committed suicide, fewer than one in three (32%) had made more than three household moves.

One in five families in the United States moves each year, making Americans among the most transient people in the industrialized world. For some children, including corporate kids and military brats, a childhood spent moving every two to three years is not unusual. In 2004, the last year for which child suicides were counted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4,599 youths between 10 and 24 years old committed suicide.

The study underscores "the importance of stability on a child's psychosocial well-being," according to the authors, led by Dr. Ping Qin. Children who move frequently suffer a break in their relationships with friends and classmates, disruptions in their participation in organized activities, distress and worries, the authors wrote in the latest issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry. And because their parents are often preoccupied by a new home, new job and new environment, children may often find they have nowhere to turn with their troubles.

"A suicide attempt may, to some extent, express the need for more attention from their parents," the authors noted, adding that schools as well as parents and caregivers should pay more attention to the distress of kids with a history of being uprooted frequently.

In short, when you move, don't forget the kids!

A small group of the children who acted to end their lives -- 7.4% -- had moved more than 10 times by the time they were in the 11-17 age bracket studied. Only 1.9% of the comparison group of children -- those who had not attempted suicide -- had had so many household moves. But the researchers found what they called a "dose-response relationship" between moving and attempting suicide, meaning that as household moves increased, so did the likelihood that a child would try to kill him or herself. 

The authors stressed they cannot tell whether frequent moves were the immediate cause of the suicidal gestures. It could be, for instance, that parents with mental health issues are more likely to move frequently, and that their children are more vulnerable to mental illness themselves because of genetic inheritance and upbringing. But even after researchers took account of parents' mental health in their calculations, children who moved more often were more likely to try to kill themselves.

If you've had a child who committed suicide, here's an online community you might check out.

-- Melissa Healy