Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Teen Suicide - What's to Blame?

Johann Eyfells, portrait by Kristin Eyfells
Not long ago I was sitting at a table drinking coffee and talking with Johann Eyfells, the world-famous Icelandic sculptor. At some point, I used the word "luck."

He quickly seized on the word. "Luck. What is luck?" From a man who has been on the planet 20 years longer than I have and who has energetically read and thought and taught and created that entire time, I knew this was not a question that comes from ignorance. He wanted to engage me at a deep philosophical level. I think he wanted to test me.

"I think luck is just a word we use when something happens to us that isn't a consequence of our action or failure to act. If the result is beneficial, we say we've been lucky." As an example, I told him about my trip to our meeting. On the way, a speeding car passed me. The driver probably wasn't paying attention to what he was doing because he cut back into my lane too quickly, and he almost hit me. I told Johann that I considered myself lucky because he was driving carelessly and could have turned even sooner, causing an accident. "I was lucky that he didn't," I said.

"So luck is just a way of talking about events that affect us but are beyond our control." He seemed satisfied with that, and we continued talking. I love these challenging conversations.

But my mind took off in a different direction. I imagined a father sitting on a couch, starring at the opposite wall and seeing nothing. His daughter had committed suicide that morning, the authorities had just left the house, and he was sitting quietly, numb. After a while, he went to his daughter's room. The bed was unmade, and it seemed impossible to him that his daughter would never return to her room again. He was on the front end of grieving and was far, far from acceptance.

He, too, was thinking about luck. He thought, how unlucky can a man be? He hadn't seen this coming. It's the worst thing that can happen to a father. Bad luck of monumental proportions. Then he thought, Maybe it wasn't bad luck. Maybe I'm partially responsible....

My imagination goes wild sometimes. I was losing track of this precious opportunity to talk with Eyfells, so I put the image out of my mind.

But days later an article in the paper on teen suicide in Russia rekindled these thoughts. Apparently only two other countries (Belarus and Kazakhstan) have a higher teen suicide rate than Russia - three times higher than that of the U.S. According to the author, Will Englund, at a time when young people need to seek their own identity and work towards independence, suicide can be the result of parents demanding unquestioned obedience and social conformity. And in Russia there's a cultural stigma about seeking help outside the home. "Suicide is an attempt to seek relief from all that, by taking charge." Russian psychiatrist Anatoly Severny: "At home, you order, you enforce, you punish your kids instead of trying to understand them."

In the U.S., suicide is the third leading cause of death for teenagers. On average, about five teens commit suicide every day. More girls than boys attempt suicide, but more boys than girls complete the act successfully. This is a shocking and tragic statistic, but teen suicide is so common that it is rarely reported in the news media.

So, was the father in my imagination unlucky? Or was there something he could have done about it?

Teens aren't famous for using good judgment. They're famous for acting based on emotion and impulse. The part of their brain that handles comprehension, judgment and decision-making is "under construction," so they don't always think before they act. And it's hard for them to foresee consequences.

So imagine that this father's daughter wasn't popular at school. Maybe she suffered from low self-esteem, and her attempts to fit in hadn't been successful. Her moodiness and poor performance in class may have drawn criticism from her parents. She resented the restrictions her parents placed on her, and she felt they didn't understand what she was going through. She believed that neither her school-mates nor her own family members treated her right. She had been bullied at school. She couldn't imagine a time in the future when people would respect her and like her. She felt her life was miserable and intolerable and there was no one she could talk to about it. If she attempted suicide, it would get their attention. It would teach them a lesson.

Kids at that age can have a hard time relating cause and effect. They may have a poor understanding of what death is. To them, suicide may be an act of rebellion or a way to seek relief. They may not fully comprehend the finality of death.

So what could my imaginary father have done to prevent this worst-case scenario? The answer is simple...
  • Unconditional love
  • Reinforcing self-esteem
  • Strong communication skills
  • Support and guidance
The "big four," in my view. But doing these things well isn't so easy. Adolescence is a perilous time of life, and it takes work to help a child prepare for a happy, successful life as an adult.

It's what I write about.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2012. Building Personal Strength .

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