Why do teenagers kill themselves?
In his funeral service for a young girl who died by suicide, the celebrant asked the question “Why are our young people killing themselves?” His words struck fear into the hearts of parents across Ireland and anyone concerned with helping young people to find their path into life.
Any attempt to answer this question is bound to fall short; because there is no one clear answer. The only benefit in trying to answer is that it may help us to understand and connect more deeply with the way our young people experience the world.
It’s hard for adults to remember what it was like to first wake up to life as an adolescent. Everything looks different.
The world you have known until now, the rules and ideals that you’ve taken for granted, counted on for stability, that world suddenly crumbles away.
The collapse of childhood comes like a blow. Your parents, in fact most adults, whom you believed to be perfect, suddenly seem like the emperor with no clothes. Injustice is rampant; no one seems to notice or care.
No one seems to understand how intensely you feel everything; the wild changes in your body, those powerful yearnings that push you into new and scary territory.
Except perhaps your friends, or bands whose music you identify with, who make you feel you’re not entirely alone, not totally weird.
They get life, they get how messed up it is. They get the worry and chaos and pure joy of breaking out into the world.
In preparing this article, I asked young people on Headstrong’s youth advisory panel three questions: What pushes a young person “over the edge”? How does a young person feel inside when they are at that edge? What helps a person to choose to go on with their lives, even when they are in a very difficult place?
They see suicide as tragic, both for them and for their families. They see attempts at suicide and the completion of suicide not so much a desire to end their lives, but as a means and a method to end their pain.
What pushes a young person to that edge is “not just one event or issue but an accumulation”.
From feeling isolated, alone and unwanted to family and relationships breaking down, the suicide of a close friend or relative, exams, financial debts and childhood trauma.
“You may be coping with the tough times for quite some time but then something just changes. A word, a thought, a criticism gets too much to handle. The issue clouds your mind and that’s all you can see.”
On the edge
Stresses in young people’s social world, such as bullying,were also felt to be important: “Many people greatly underestimate the damage that is caused by even the smallest of things that can be considered bullying.”
What a young person feels at those edges in their lives are “overwhelming and uncontrollable feelings of hopelessness, a feeling of being trapped, of not being able to see any way out”. They don’t yet have enough life experience to see that this too will pass.
On that edge “the world is a distant place, we are so caught up within our own heads that nothing matters, and nothing can be thought of logically”.
“All the good things in life seem to fade away in the distance and the negatives that get us down dominate and control our thoughts. Everything is black and the future seems like a dream that can’t be achieved.”
This last comment echoes the research of Andrew MacLeod in the University of Edinburgh who compared two groups of young people, one who had attempted suicide and were deemed to be at high risk of repeating this behaviour, with another who had no history of depression or suicidal behaviour.
His expectation was that he would find the first group had fewer goals and aspirations than the second.
What he found was something much more poignant. Both groups were similar in terms of their hopes and dreams for the future.
The dreams of the “at risk” group were just as precious to them, but the difference was they didn’t believe they would ever happen.
When asked what helped young people to come back from the edge, there was a resounding consensus that it was the presence of someone who cared: “When at the edge the chains weigh us down, we need someone to see this, and help us to carry these chains and slowly break the links.
“Having that person with you, willing to walk through this with you, is a real indicator you are not alone, and helps more than 1,000 people saying you are not alone. Actions speak louder than words.”
Glimmer of hope
Hope was also felt to be critical: “Just one small glimmer of hope that can be found anywhere. It could be a parent, teacher, best friend, a song lyric, a stranger who might smile at you, literally anything.
“It gives a person the last will to fight, to take all that pain and anger and push it back at what’s got them down, to stand up and say that I am stronger than this, to realise that they are just as worthy to be alive as anyone else and that they don’t have to give up.”
The My World Survey (Headstrong and UCD, 2012) found that the most powerful predictor of resilience and positive mental health in a survey of more than 14,000 young people was the presence in a young person’s life of an adult who cared about them, someone who believed in them and who was available to them (see diagram).
That “One Good Adult” might be a parent but it could also be a teacher, a sports coach, a youth worker, an uncle, an aunt or a grandparent.
Someone who listens
Someone who simply in the way they looked at that young person, listened to them and took them seriously, instilled in them the feeling that they belonged, that their life mattered, that they could make it work.
We can all be that someone who cares, who checks in, who offers gifts of time and presence, but young people also need services and skilled helpers who are accessible to and trusted by them, when they are in crisis.
Some problems and issues can be hard to talk about to even the most loving parents.
It’s important that we can separate the idea of suicide from the act itself. Thinking about suicide at difficult moments of one’s life is normal and understandable.
To feel secure
The idea of suicide is often used to cope with unbearable hard stuff. To someone who feels overwhelmed with intense emotions, it can appear to be the only exit.
The opportunity to feel secure with someone who accepts how he or she is feeling eases the intensity of these emotions and allows a young person to think more clearly about what is happening.
To distinguish between what they can control and what is beyond their control.
In the presence of a skilled listener, it also becomes possible to connect with memories of difficulties they have already faced, with their hidden resilience.
In the heat of a crisis they can “push the pause button” on their impulses, remain close to someone with whom they feel safe, and gradually reconnect with those parts of themselves that want to live.
This isn’t an easy task. It requires an adult who is paying very close attention, who does not talk down to a young person, who can listen to their intuition, and not be afraid to ask hard questions.
Someone who appreciates that it may not be easy for them to find the words to say what has been until now unsayable.
They need adults in their lives to give them “handrails” to hold onto when the going gets tough: our faith in them even when they lose it in themselves; the practical coping skills we can pass on to them; some truths that have carried us through dark times in our lives.
To understand why some young lives are ending in tragedy, and much too soon, we need to listen to what they are trying to tell us. We have to allow them to help us craft the answers to the question we are all asking.
We need to provide accessible, youth-friendly support services that work for young people. So that when they do hit a wall, they and their families know exactly where to turn.
TONY BATESis founding director of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health ( headstrong.ie)