We must give young people a reason to live


MIND MOVESHow can we break the contagion of suicide asks TONY BATES

SEVERAL COMMUNITIES across Ireland are trying to cope with the aftermath of not one, but a cluster of suicides within a short space of time locally. Mostly, but not always, these clusters involve young people from disadvantaged areas. This column is the first of two that will try to make sense of this behaviour and to suggest what we can do to break the contagion of suicide among vulnerable young people.

Looking at the lives of these young people it should come as no surprise that many would see suicide as the perfect way to cope with a life that feels too much of a burden. Before it comes to this, maybe we would do better to stop asking the question, “What is wrong with this young person?” and look more closely at what is wrong in their lives.

Because the truth is, there are so many young people who wake everyday to lives that “suck”. Many have dropped out of school, many are unemployed. Their lives may lack structure, purpose and support. Their home life may be chaotic and hanging around at home makes them feel worse. Many feel adrift and see nothing that makes them believe things can change. But what can push them over the edge can be an additional stress that makes little sense to others, like having no phone credit.

Time can be a killer when you have nothing to do. Thinking about life can drive you crazy. These young people would do anything to forget how empty their lives are. Alcohol and drugs offer an immediate escape. They take the edge off their pain, if only for a while.

But dependency on drugs brings with it the problem of how to pay for them. For many young people, the only means of making money is to become involved in selling drugs. This supports their personal habit until one day they can’t pay their suppliers, and their lives and the lives of their families are threatened in terrifying ways.

For some teenage girls, having a boyfriend becomes the addiction. Being in a relationship gives them a certain status among their peers. Physical intimacy also offers them tangible affection, even if at age 14 they’re not quite ready for all that is asked of them in return.

Mostly these relationships are fragile, and when they inevitably end in tears, these young girls may go to pieces. The intensity of their need, the rawness of their heartache and their lack of maturity to deal with it all leaves them in a pretty miserable state.

And just when they thought it couldn’t get any worse, one of their peers takes his or her life. Maybe somebody they had hardly noticed, someone who hung around the margins of the crowd. Suddenly, everyone is talking about the dead young person. Even people who didn’t know him or her cry when they speak of how they died. In the space of 24 hours, the dead young person has become a celebrity.

Exposure to suicide, especially when it happens more than once, can wear away the natural “taboo” of the act, make the idea seem acceptable, even attractive.

Those with addiction problems may see a way to cancel their drugs debts and get dealers off their backs. Broken-hearted young people imagine the relief that death might bestow and see it as the perfect way to communicate to the world the hurt they feel. And the young person who feels empty and inadequate may see in suicide a way of moving magically from zero to hero.

In one community I visited recently, there have been six suicides in the past six months, mostly involving young men in their late teens and early 20s. On the previous weekend, there had been three serious failed attempts and the indications were that this behaviour would escalate.

The youth workers with whom I spoke had no difficulty making sense of why these deaths had happened. They were all too familiar with the cycle of despair that marked the lives of their young people. The challenge they faced was how to break the contagion of suicide and give their young people at risk a reason for living.

We will continue this theme in my next column.

Tony Bates is founding director of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health (headstrong.ie)