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.