Teenagers in crisis


A PEEP into the bedroom of an average Irish teenager would be enough to convince you that today's adolescents have everything. Invariably the room is full of hardware - stereo equipment, computers and the like - and cuddly toy software. Wardrobes and drawers are crammed with designer clothes, and posters of favourite football teams or rock stars line the walls.

Nowadays many teenagers lead hectic social lives and can afford to do the sorts of things that would have been unheard of during their parents' adolescence - eating out regularly with their friends and attending expensive rock concerts, for example.

But while it all sounds wonderful, is life really all that great for adolescents today?

The sad fact is that over the last 20 years or so, increasing numbers of young people under the age of 25 years have resorted to taking their own lives.

Government figures show that back in 1974, 17 young people aged between 15 and 24 years committed suicide, but in 1994 (the last year for which figures are available), suicides among young people under 25 years of age rose to 83.

According to Dr Michael Kelleher, who is the Southern Health Board's clinical director in psychiatry and founder of the Suicide Research Foundation, Cork, these figures are highly reliable and the increase is a genuine one.

Although the figures show that young men are far more likely to take their own lives than young women, Dr Jim O'Donoghue, who is director of the Dublin Counselling and Therapy Centre, points out that there are more parasuicides (suicide attempts) among teenage girls than among boys.

"The girls may try it more often, but the boys succeed more often," he says. O'Donoghue views the girls' attempted suicides as cries for help, while the boys are experiencing greater depths of despair, he says.

Research undertaken by the Suicide Research Foundation shows that the vast majority of young people who commit suicide have suffered psychological illness - both recognised and unrecognised, says Kelleher, whose book Suicide and the Irish will be published by Mercier Press at the end of this month.

Young women are much more likely to seek help for their problems than are young males, whose illnesses may therefore go undetected, he says. The fact that our culture still demands that young men appear strong and that a cry for help is regarded as weakness, deters young males from seeking assistance, psychologists say.

O'Donoghue believes that recent societal developments contribute to the despair felt by some young people. "You have to have a project to give life meaning and hope," he says. "In the past, life for young people was much more structured - they had apprenticeships and work or the expectation of work when they completed their education. For many young people these certainties no longer exist - they no longer have that hope."

Similarly, our consumer driven society, with its heavy emphasis on economic status, causes many youngsters to feel isolated and inadequate. And our education system, which develops children intellectually but has become a rat race in recent years, now pays even less attention to young people's inner development, than it did in the past, he says.

Meanwhile, many male adolescents and young adults believe that they will be unable to maintain on going relationships with young women. "This is very diminishing feeling for them." Exactly why some young men are doubtful of their abilities to maintain close relationships is only partly researched, O'Donoghue says.

However, some experts cite an inability on the part of some males to relate to young women, who outperform them in school and who have become increasingly more independent in recent years, as a major factor.

A recent article in the Guardian newspaper refers to a 14 year old English public schoolboy whose father checks his home work every evening and makes him re do it if it fails to reach certain standards. If the child's efforts do not meet with the father's approval by bedtime, he is not allowed a good night kiss from his mother. In the article, Hugh Jenkins, director of the Institute for Family Therapy, warns that this type of intense pressure makes children unhappy, may lead to depression and is also one of the major causes of suicide.

"None of us wish our children to be unduly stressed," says Michael Kelleher. "Some element of stress is beneficial and children must be allowed to stretch themselves. However, it is important that children are not over stretched and that there is no mismatch between what they are capable of and what is expected of them." Parents also need to be aware of their children's abilities and expectations of themselves, which are sometimes beyond their current capabilities, he says.

Threats of suicide should never be treated trivially, Kelleher advises. "Parents should never over react but they should elicit all the relevant information and discover how the child is feeling and how long she or he has felt like that." If parents believe there is any real threat or danger, they should seek professional help, he says.