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Crime Explainers

In Wake of Michigan Boy Killing Himself, How Common Is Youth Suicide? What Parents Should Know

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An 11-year-old Michigan boy’s death last week — three weeks after he hanged himself — has drawn national attention to youth suicide prevention and how that intersects with social media.

Police in Marquette, Michigan, say they have brought charges against an unidentified juvenile after a boy was found unresponsive following a reported suicide attempt on March 14. Though authorities declined to identify either child involved, Katrina Goss told PEOPLE her son Tysen Benz was the boy who died.

Goss claimed the child who has been charged is a girl Tysen knew, who faked her own suicide on social media before Tysen killed himself. (The girl’s family did not return messages seeking comment; it’s unclear if the child who has been charged has entered a plea.)

PEOPLE spoke with multiple experts to better place Tysen’s case in context and to provide information and resources for other families.

The experts reiterated a common point: Suicidal crises can be overcome with help, and help is out there.

If you or someone you know is showing warning signs of suicide, consider contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK, texting the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or seeking help from a professional.

How Common Is Youth Suicide?

People who are 20 years old or younger have the lowest rate of suicide among all age groups, according to statistics through 2015 from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Suicide in pre-adolescent children is “really pretty rare,” according to Dr. Victor Schwartz, the chief medical officer for the non-profit JED Foundation, which focuses on preventing suicide in teenagers and young adults.

Schwartz cites several reasons for this: Young children likely experience fewer suicidal feelings, are less likely than older teens and young adults to have begun experiencing major mental illness and they often do not have access to the ways and means of suicide.

There were three suicides per 100,000 people 20 years old or younger, according to the AFSP’s 2015 statistics. That rate is only slightly higher than it was 10 years ago, though the nation’s overall suicide rate rose more quickly during that time span.

At the same time, suicidal thoughts affect more teenagers: 16 percent of students between grades nine and 12 reported “seriously considering suicide” in the previous year, according to a nationwide survey cited by the Centers for Disease Control.

In 2014, suicide was the second leading cause of death for kids and young adults ages 10-24, according to the CDC, though there was a stark difference between the rates in kids ages 10-14 and kids and adults ages 15-24.

AFSP’s 2015 statistics also show a spike in the suicide rate for teens and young adults 15-24, compared to those 14 and younger.

The CDC says that boys are much more at risk of killing themselves than girls, while girls are more at risk for reporting suicide attempts.

Youth suicide rates can also vary by culture, according to the CDC, with higher rates reported among Hispanics and Native Americans.

Could Kids Be Triggered by a Single Traumatic Incident?

Experts agree that the majority of suicides have multiple causes that can interact in complex ways. Mental illness is a common contributing factor. In older teens and adults, substance abuse is often present.

While Dr. Schwartz says there may be a “final” or “acute precipitant” in some cases, suicide is not the common result of a single difficult experience — such as an episode of bullying. Kids may sometimes have “catastrophic” emotional reactions leading to self-harm, he says.

Other experts note that people, including children, can seek out help from others when facing hardships and that “treatment works.”

Schwartz cautioned that he was not drawing any conclusions about Tysen’s case in Michigan, but said that for a child to be triggered by a single incident would be the “rarity.”

(Tysen’s mom says he attempted to kill himself less than an hour into the alleged prank, while Marquette County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Wiese told The Washington Post, “He did this within hours” of it.)

More common are cases where people face multiple problems over time — with a suicide after a final event in a chain of other events. For example, according to Schwartz, “with college kids we know that 50 percent of suicides happen within two weeks of a break-up.”

“In all likelihood this [doesn’t] happen out of the blue,” Schwartz says.

What Can Friends and Family Do?

Dr. Dan Reidenberg says the simplest thing is: If you see something, say something and if your gut is telling you something is wrong, now is the time to do something.

“If you know how to say it, go ahead and bring it up,” Reidenberg, the executive director of the non-profit SAVE, tells PEOPLE.

He says that research shows such outreach is not going to plant the idea or lead someone to suicide and can, in fact, relieve anxiety and possibly prevent an attempt.

Experts say some common warning signs of youth suicide include discussing a desire to die or self-harm; feeling hopeless or in pain; withdrawing from others; and appearing unusually angry, anxious or worried.

discussing a desire to die or feeling hopeless, like a burden, or trapped or in pain; withdrawing from others; extreme mood swings, including anger and recklessness; and abnormal sleep patterns (sleeping too much or too little).

But, according to Dr. Schwartz, children who are suicidal “don’t always look the way we imagine suicidal people to look.” They may seem “rageful,” not depressed.

Many of the warning signs may be seen online, in social media posts or web searches.

Reidenberg points to tools developed by Internet companies such as Facebook, which allow users to anonymously report worrying posts they see from others — for example, someone talking about death or about not wanting to go on anymore.

The site will then prompt the suicidal user, offering them multiple resources and ways to connect with their friends or a professional.

(Reidenberg was one of several consultants on such tools.)

“Everyone has a role in saving someone’s life,” he says, emphasizing that reaching out is not only appropriate, it could be crucial.

Schwartz frames it this way: If you have some sense your child has problems with impulse control, emotional problems or “reality testing” — that is, grasping the difference between what’s real and what isn’t — they may be more vulnerable to bullying or shaming or other interpersonal conflicts.

He says it is also important to talk with your child about their behavior online: not spying on what they do so much as talking to them about how they treat others and are treated by others online.

And kids should also know that if someone is harming them online, there are solutions.

“Getting ahead of the issue is probably the most valuable thing you can do,” Schwartz says, “because the reality is the worst case scenario is pretty rare. But there’s a lot of pretty bad scenarios out there that we need to think more about how to address and how to prevent.”

Visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for more information.