Teen Suicide

Posted on Jul 8 2010 at 05:23:08 PM in Health

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 More than 4000 teenagers committed suicide last year. Thousands more tried to kill themselves but were unsuccessful. Only in the cruel calculus of suicide is the persistence of life considered a failure. For every suicide that goes according to plan, twenty-five do not. And, unless the suicide attempt was a dramatic plea for help or pity (the data of suicide are so often ambiguous) this additional failure does nothing to dampen the feelings of hopelessness that prompted the attempt. Indeed, many successful suicides punctuate a trajectory of suicidal behavior that goes uncorrected over a course of years.


 Since the early nineteen-nineties, adolescent suicide rates have declined modestly across America. The demographics of suicide, however, have not changed much. Males take their lives at five times the rate of females, while teenage women are three times as likely as men to attempt suicide. This discrepancy owes to the preference among males to use handguns; most women choose to ingest poison or hang themselves. Whites account for 84 percent of all adolescent suicides. African-American and Asian teenagers are about half as likely as whites to commit suicide, though the suicide rate for African-Americans has doubled in the last twenty-five years. Suicide in the Hispanic community is also on the rise, particularly among women. Among Native Americans, the suicide rate remains extremely high, more than double any other ethnic group. Suicide remains the third-leading cause of death for all teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19, and the sixth-leading cause of death for those between the ages of 10 and 14. More teenagers die from suicide than from AIDS, cancer, birth defects, influenza and stroke combined.

 Adolescents who are physically or mentally handicapped and those with mental disorders such as schizophrenia, social anxiety, eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, and bi-polar disorder are particularly disposed to suicide. Teenagers with bi-polar disease and a family history of suicide are several times more likely to take their lives. Sufferers of clinical depression are likewise susceptible to suicidal behavior. The majority of teenagers who commit suicide suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder that is highly treatable.

Further high-risk groups include children of broken homes, children performing poorly at school, and victims of schoolyard bullying. Youth who use illicit drugs and alcohol are also more likely to commit suicide, though the causal relation between the two is unclear. This is also true of prescription anti-depressants, though recent studies suggest that the availability of such drugs, such as Prozac and Zoloft, may correlate with a decline in teenage suicides. These drugs have been suspected of increasing the risk of suicide with a small minority of users, though untreated depression undoubtedly claims more lives.


Many teenagers also suffer from loneliness and emotional emptiness. Adolescent caste systems assign approval on the flimsy basis of beauty or athletic ability. Loneliness as a precursor to depression is typically undesired. The sufferer may feel that she is unacceptable to any social group and will eventually forfeit all attempts to integrate herself into a network. Teenagers who are unable to conform to the prevailing social norms or codes of coolness find themselves excluded. Gays and lesbians are thus at greater risk, particularly in communities less than welcoming to such lifestyles. Many lonely teenagers seek refuge in cyberspace. But the Internet, despite its capacity for connecting millions of people, can be powerless to conquer the loneliness experienced by teenagers. The emotional void of cyberspace is no replacement for human interaction.

Time spent broadening one’s online social network often comes at the expense of human intimacy. A fortress of solitude is no defense against despair. Moreover, the Internet has become has become a larger, more frightening forum of cliques, exclusion, and bullying. Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl from Missouri, hanged herself after a fictitious individual named Josh Evans—created by the mother of a girl with whom Megan was on unfriendly terms—sent her cruel Myspace messages. Sometimes hell is other people and there is a lot more of them on the Internet.

 In the US, a confluence of these factors presents a special risk to the adolescent community. Feelings of belonging are rare in the vortex of alienation engendered by diverse communities. Persistent poverty and language barriers can further alienate Fresno Youth. In 2006, seven teenagers took their lives. The cultural dissonance experienced by immigrants and the stigma attached to mental illness in some cultures prevent many teenagers from receiving the care they require.


 Most teens exhibit at least some of the characteristic symptoms of depression. Few navigate the turbid insecurity of high school without causing some parental distress. Adolescence is a volatile progression of adjustment and maturation and parents are inclined to attribute these druthers of youth to the process of growing up. It is normal for teens to experience occasional bouts of depression—it is a condition of being human. It is important, however, to distinguish behavior indicative of suicidal ideation. Suicide is usually a calculated decision preceded by warning signs. Teenagers who unexpectedly give away possessions, drastically alter their appearance, or radically change their eating and sleeping habits may be thinking about or planning to commit suicide. An obsession with death and dying can also predict suicidal behavior. Sometimes, however, teenagers exhibit no visible symptoms of pain except an affectation of insouciance that belies their profound unhappiness. It is possible that a teenager may take her life without warning.

 The alienation of youth in many cases coincides with a sense of disconnection with family. The transition from childhood to adulthood is never easy and the task can be made harder when support structures dissolve. Some parents often try to give their children autonomy and a sense of space and instead aggravate a sense of instability and dislocation. Children who kill themselves, in turn, seem savagely indifferent to the pain they cause their friends and families. This empathy trough can condemn parents and children to mutual ignorance of the other’s pain.

 It is important never to make the suicidal feel guilty about the sadness they feel. Accusations of selfishness usually serve to further alienate the child. And it is difficult to ascribe selfishness to an individual who is forfeiting everything he has, and for whom all meaning is translated by a nihilism that insists that the world would be better off without him. Should we, like Schopenhauer, believe that “there is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person”? A presumption of personal liberty is an American value, but this view is countervailed by the need to abide the mercurial and sometimes irrational teenage mind and our obligation to prevent harm to those we love. Not preventing suicide violates our duties to others. Valor truly is discretion and the better part can save a life.

 Most teenagers who commit suicide don’t want to die; they just don’t know how else to put an end to the pain. The pain overwhelms the ability to cope. But alleviation of pain is transformation of pain. Magnification of pain. This pain is the wretched inheritance entrusted—in the wrong direction—to the family members forced to make arrangements for funerals they didn’t want to be alive to attend.


Escaping the ephemeral social problems of high school by committing suicide has the logical symmetry of taking care of a hangnail by amputating an arm. Puerile frivolities can be all-consuming: a broken heart, a failed grade, financial problems. When parents are absent or don’t listen and there are no friends, the existential vacuum of teenage despair doesn’t admit the possibility that one will ever feel happy again. How do you explain to a teenager that the same relentless arrow of time that rends hearts also heals them and that the cruel irreversibility of time is ultimately redemptive?

 The perversity of despair is that anyone desperate enough to take her life is probably desperate enough to do whatever it takes to heal—even if this means moving to another country and starting a new life. Death can be postponed, after all, and almost anything is better than dying. But the strictures of adolescence can confine the suicidal to their bedrooms and convince the teenage mind that there is no other way out. It is this kind of myopia which transforms the invincibility of youth into a tragic vulnerability to suicide.


But if emotional hypochondria is a pathology of adolescence, the apathy of our community toward its most vulnerable members is a pathology of American society. “In a dark time the eye begins to see,” wrote Roethke. Sometimes, though, teenagers need to know where to look. There is no pain that cannot be forgotten and no despair that cannot be overcome.

  Article Information
Created: Jul 8 2010 at 05:23:08 PM
Updated: Jul 8 2010 at 05:23:08 PM
Category: Health
Language: English