Life or Death Decisions: Teenage Suicide

Friday, 01 April 2011 17:23

The Guardian

December 13, 2000


The death of two teenage girls in a gas-filled car is shocking. Why would two young women, their lives ahead of them, choose to die in a suicide pact?

Teenage suicide is not rare. After 1945 around the world the rate of teenage suicide began to rise significantly. Of more recent years the rate for young women has levelled out while that for young men has continued to rise, possibly because many young men, faced with a dearth of traditional jobs and roles for men, found that society had no place for them.

The legal tradition has been to see suicide as an act committed when the balance of the mind is disturbed, that is, as a permanent or temporary madness. This formulation does not explain why a person commits suicide. Suicidal thoughts are considered to be a symptom of depression, but, while all depressed people contemplate suicide as a way of escaping from their misery, not all depressed people even attempt suicide, and it is by no means certain that everyone who commits suicide is depressed. However, it is possible to explain suicide in terms of what it is to be a person.

Each of us is keenly aware of being a person, that which we each call I, myself. This sense of being a person is made up of a structure of all our ideas, attitudes, opinions, memories and feelings. Within this structure are some central ideas about who we are and what our moral stance must be. Our sense of being a person is what we hold most dear, and our every decision and action is aimed in part at preserving our being a person.

But we also strive to survive as a physical body. For most of our lives surviving a person and as a body go along together. However, a situation can arise where surviving as a person and surviving as a body are incompatible. We have to sacrifice one or the other.

Suppose as a loving parent you find yourself and your child in some dangerous situation where only one of you can survive. Do you sacrifice yourself or your child? Your choice is simple. You die in order that your child will live. You sacrifice your body in order to continue being what you value most, a loving parent. You know that if you chose otherwise and lived while your child died you would have failed yourself. Many of the people who fall into the tortures of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder after a disaster believe that the only way they could have continued to be the person they valued was to have died in the disaster.

Some people abandon their bodies when they realise that the world no longer offers them the supports they know are essential to the maintenance of themselves as a person. Some of them simply lose the will to live. Others contract a survivable illness and yet die. Research shows that a significant number of widowers (curiously, not widows) die within a year of their wife's death.

However, the will to live can be very strong, and so some people who feel that their situation will not allow them to be themselves choose to kill their body in order to be the person they know themselves to be. If they cannot live as themselves they will die as themselves. In killing themselves they leave a message to the world at large and to some, if not all, of their nearest and dearest. Their written message might be, 'You will be better off without me,' but the sub-text is, 'You have failed to be what I wanted you to be.' Many of the parents of teenage suicides know that this is the message and they torture themselves with guilt.

As a parent it is very easy to torture yourself with guilt because none of us parents is perfect. Teenagers, suicidal or not, make life difficult for parents because the teenagers are reluctant to accept that they had less than perfect parents. Part of the process of growing up is coming to accept the fallibility of our parents and the impossibility of the world ever being what we want it to be. When we are teenagers everything matters enormously. To get older and wiser we need to understand that it is the nature of life never to turn out to be the way we expect. We need to learn to define compromise as wisdom, not as a betrayal of ideals. We need to understand that there are always alternatives because, while we can rarely change completely the circumstances of our lives, we are always free to change how we interpret those circumstances. If we feel boxed in it is our interpretation of our circumstances which has created our prison.

Adults can help teenagers arrive at such wisdom by listening and discussing, and refraining from criticism and instruction. One common feature of teenage suicide is that the young person felt that there was no one who would listen and accept. The Samaritans offer a special service to teenagers who find they have no one they can talk to. Listening to your children is not easy because you will hear a great deal which you wish you had not heard, chiefly accounts of your short-comings, but in doing this we give our children the greatest gift, the gift of being listened to and accepted.

Dorothy Rowe

Dorothy Rowe Breaking the Bonds: Understanding Depression and Finding Freedom HarperCollins