Tony Bates: Milly Tuomey’s gift was to remind us how fragile we all are
‘All of us have to learn to use social media and deal with the pressure it causes, rather than deny it or diminish it’s value’
Milly Tuomey (11) from Templeogue, Dublin, who died by suicide on January 4th last year.
The tragedy of Milly Tuomey’s death by suicide, at the age of 11, disturbed all of us, especially anyone who cares for young people. Something about her gaze looking directly out at us and the fact she had lots of contact with professionals who recognised that she was in distress. Our thoughts also go out to anyone who might hear of her death whilst themselves feeling acutely vulnerable.
Suicide did not end Milly’s pain. It multiplied it and passed it on. To her parents, her siblings, friends, neighbours, teachers, grandparents, who have no buffer against the heart-breaking impact of her death.
Losing Milly is disquietening because it speaks to a vulnerability in every single one of us. We cannot run from the pain inside no matter how privileged, gifted or beautiful others may perceive us to be.
We often look at young people and wonder why and how they turn against themselves so violently, when they appear to have so much going for them. We are all short-sighted when it comes to their pain. It’s easy to miss. We misunderstand signs of distress as discipline issues, as them behaving badly. A lifetime of working as a psychologist has taught me how little any of us knows what someone else is feeling.
Working with young people since 2006 has shown me how the bulk of their pain is hidden and how little we grown-ups know about the particular texture of their experience.
There are huge life-changing advantages to social media. It’s here and there is no going back. But if I am vulnerable, alone in my room with a smart device, exposed to cruel comparisons with idealised bodies and life-styles, the sheer volume of information coming at me can be overwhelming.
Social media has complicated the journey of adolescence. It heightens self-consciousness, blurs boundaries between a teenager’s on-line and off-line life, and exposes them to harsh opinions about their appearance.
What young people experience in a given moment is their entire world. In this sense they are naturally mindful; whilst these days adults are often trying to bring themselves back into the present moment, young people are acutely and painfully conscious of it. Young people live in the present and it can be terrifying. They may be resilient, they may be loved, they may be connected, but sometimes the relentless drumbeat of incoming data is simply too much.
Young people struggle with what they feel but have no words to name. If they are in pain and mashed up in an on-line world which projects perfection, and if they have only a thin slice of life experience, things can go awry.
All of us have to learn to use social media and deal with the pressure it causes, rather than deny it or diminish it’s value. But right now we really need to help our young people to deal with it.
We need to meet them where they live in their everyday lives and teach them how to steady themselves in times of panic and surround them with ‘good adults’ they can access easily in times of difficulty. Prevention is what we do to nip problems in the bud, and that’s why supporting teachers and front-line youth workers is critically important.
Intervention is about providing the appropriate level of support to young people and their families when problems are identified.
Milly’s gift was to remind us how fragile we all are. None of us has it all together. Being human is hard. We cannot hide our fragility and neither should we have to. We all have mental health needs. We need to acknowledge this truth and put in place the supports we need to prepare for, and navigate dark times.