Young people we know who have been suicidal are not, as popular belief would have it, suffering long standing depression. Rather they are mostly unrealistic, having expectations greater than life is likely to fulfil. They are kids who like to escape, through fantasy, through drugs and through alcohol. They live in their dreams with their wishes, expecting unconditional love and wanting someone to take care of them, to solve their problems for them over and over again. They say things like, “I felt lost” or “I wanted them to feel sorry” or “I thought it was easier” or “I felt that everyone hated me and wanted me to die”.
Their reasons include being upset by moving to a new neighbourhood, their parent’s divorce, a parent’s death or a parent’s alcoholism. They are upset by being rich,poor, middle class, fat, skinny, crippled, too short or too tall.
They have grown up in a culture which suggests that life can be lived without pain. There are pills for physical suffering and pills for mental suffering as well. Learning how to cope with life’s bumps and bruises is one of the skills that young people need for their own independence, but many teens are busily avoiding the whole process, betting on utopia.
There is a time in all of our lives when we recognise that we’re alone – individuals in the world. We might describe ourselves as feeling abandoned, rejected, lost or lonely. We may feel scared, angry or hurt. We know we are vulnerable and we hate it. We know we have to live our own lives and it scares us, but most of us go out and do it. We seek attachments – like work or religion or family or friends – to fill our inner void.
Adolescence is a time of emptiness, for clearing out the trappings of childhood in preparation for adulthood, for an evolving self that is developing skills and experiencing life. That feeling of emptiness is appropriate for young people in their adolescent years, appropriate for who they are at that time in their life.
But in today’s world teenagers and adults are encouraged and urged to “know themselves”, to focus on feelings and inadequacies, and to satisfy one’s inner needs. The old benchmarks of maturity, based on external criteria like graduation, marriage and career attainments have given way to internal, less tangible criteria: desires and expectations, the realisation of one’s self.
As enslaved by conformity to the fantasies of developing and exploring an inner self as we were previously enslaved by conformity to external cultural demands, we pursue a new self that is without structure and forever adolescent.
Adolescents don’t have a lot of self outside of their “child self” and what little they have often doesn’t seem very real to them. Who they are emerges as they try on different roles, an outer directed process that helps them fill out who they are. A total focus on inner searching, as suggested by today’s culture, leaves people constantly feeling unreal. Our current cultural obsession with feelings has magnified the natural turmoil of adolescence. For many young folks the process of separating from parents means alienating parents, defining one’s own space means intruding on others with a blasting stereo or excluding others with stereo headphones, feeling good means getting high, and suicide means a solution to one’s problems.
“I thought the end of the world had come when we broke up. I thought I couldn’t face living without him. I felt so lost I just wanted to die so I went into the bathroom and cut my wrist and watched the blood run down the sink. I really thought, “He’ll be sorry. They’ll all be sorry.” When they rescued me I was mad. I didn’t want to see anyone. My mother’s face really broke me up. I didn’t want to see her. I wanted to stay mad. After a while on the psychiatric unit, I decided a lot of those other kids were stupid and I thought, “So was I.” I gave up and I’m glad I didn’t die now. I can remember planning my own funeral. How beautiful I’d look and everyone would be there. They would say such terrific things, but I can’t exactly remember what they were saying, but it was trash like, “She was so good” – and how they cried! It just made me cry to think about it. The whole school was there.”
Ironically, some troubled young folk get in touch with life when they give up drugs, only to turn to suicide as another escape route from the reality they now must face.
“It’s funny, but while I was doing drugs i didn’t care about anyone. My parents didn’t even exist, except for being all over me. Even my grandma’s crying seemed funny to me. I didn’t care. But when I stopped doing dope and I began to feel, I saw how much I hurt everyone. I felt awful. I felt I was the most evil person in the whole world and I made everyone I loved suffer. So you know what I did? I was so selfish I took a whole handful of downers. When I woke up my parents were in the room, I screamed at them and made them leave. I couldn’t stand to see how sorry they looked. When they left, I kept holding my head and pulling my hair, but someone stopped me. I don’t know what was really going on then. I just think I felt sorry for myself. I felt like I was this great awful creature and everyone hated me.
When I got out I stayed for a while at this other family’s house. That helped a lot. And at first I would only see my dad. Later my therapist, my mother, some
TOUGHLOVE® parents and I had a meeting and I told her how much I really cared and I didn’t even fall apart, but we cried.”
One never thinks of suicide as humorous, but even the dark side of life can be funny. Consider the absurdity of suicide in this young woman’s tale.
“I was fat and ugly. My whole family was fat and I hated them, no-one liked me or wanted me, so I decided to hang myself. I took the fire rope outside my window and tied it on the chandelier in the dining room. I moved the table and got onto the chair. I kicked the chair and (don’t you dare laugh) the light fixture, the ceiling and me came tumbling down. Well that proved it. I was too fat to even kill myself.
Right there I went on a diet. But try explaining the chandelier and ceiling to your family. They guessed and were hysterical. I kept saying, “Look, I’m alive, I’m OK. ”But they made me go to a psychologist. It wasn’t so bad. He got me into a group with other fat kids and now I’m a little thinner and go out with this guy who’s not too skinny either.”
One TOUGHLOVE® group published the following suicide fact sheet for general distribution.
WARNING SIGNS OF SUICIDE
- SUICIDE THREATS: Any expression of suicidal thought should be taken seriously. Those who threaten are those who act.
- STATEMENTS REVEALING A DESIRE TO DIE: Comments like, “I just want it all to end” or “It would be better for everyone if I was gone” are ominous signs.
- PREVIOUS SUICIDE ATTEMPTS: Four of five persons who commit suicide have made one or more previous attempts. If someone you know has a history, be especially attentive.
- CHANGES IN BEHAVIOUR: Withdrawal, apathy, moodiness, changes in sleep patterns, changes in eating habits, anxiety and gloominess – any of these can be symptoms of developing depression.Lack of concentration and curtailing of social interactions are also warning signs of inner turmoil.
- FINAL ARRANGEMENTS: Giving away personal possessions, putting one’s things in order and other signs of expected departure may indicate a suicide plan.
WHAT TO DO
- REACH OUT: Let them know you are concerned and want to help
- DISCUSS IT OPENLY AND FRANKLY: Talking about suicide will not encourage a person to try it – quite the contrary, honest, accepting discussion shows that are willing to understand.
- DON’T AVOID THE ISSUE: It may be uncomfortable for you both, but if you show unwillingness to discuss the issue, this may only frustrate the attempt at communication and reinforce the idea that others find the idea and therefore the person repugnant and unacceptable.
- GET PROFESSIONAL HELP: Students often feel that professional help is unavailable to them.
Get in touch with suicide prevention and crisis assistance centres.
Unfortunately getting help is not always as simple as calling a hot line. It is important to find a psychiatrist who will deal with the parents as responsible adults and the child as a potential suicide victim. So often they talk to the children who manage to convince them that they are not suicidal or a danger to themselves and then send them home again to the dismay and despair of the parents.
As parents we don’t usually think about our children and suicide. We don’t want to think about it and we’re sure it won’t happen. Unfortunately some kids do kill themselves, others attempt to and still others threaten to try to. Any of these circumstances terrifies parents. Parental anxiety and concern mushroom, but can find no outlet and the professional community has not been very successful with potential suicides. Psychiatrists are not a guarantee against suicide. They may ironically be too attuned to suicide to help a suicidal patient. Some psychiatrists are so aware of the high risk of certain patients that they choose not to get involved and so avoid the guilt or responsibility that comes with a suicidal patient.
A suicide prevention specialist visited a TOUGHLOVE® meeting and discussed the limited amount of insight and control one really has with another human being and shared how helpless and dumb he feels when he fails to dissuade someone from self destruction. He explained that there is not much one can do for someone who is determined to take his or her own life.
Dealing with death is difficult for people, but dealing with suicide is especially tough because it carries all other kinds of emotional implications; guilt, blame, anger and resentment. Young people need help in sorting out their feelings. They need to distinguish between those feelings that are appropriate to act on and those that are not. How many of us can remember back to those years, coming out of childhood into the heightened awareness of adolescence? It was a struggle just to figure out who we were, what we valued and how we felt about what was happening to us. Things like getting asked out, feeling ugly, having pimples and saying the right thing in the right place were major life issues and still are. Our sexual feelings were new, uncontrolled and urgent. Our egos were very vulnerable.
Some kids try to eliminate the pain of a breakup or hurt by taking tranquilisers, pain killers or drugs. They don’t necessarily want to kill themselves, but they want the pain to go away. These kids need to be held accountable and supported through these times and helped to understand that there are other alternatives to dealing with pain.
It was very difficult for us and it’s difficult now, but in a different way. In the intervening years our culture has changed, authority has been challenged, traditions have been uprooted and an existential mode has taken its place. Our pursuit of individualism, freedom and personal pleasure, the popularity of illegal drugs, the advent of the sexual revolution and readily available pornography, the breakdown of age barriers – all contribute to the difficulty of growing up in today’s world.
The growing suicide rate among young people is an ominous reflection of that difficulty and is a trend we must confront. TOUGHLOVE® confronts it by saying, “You do not have the choice of killing yourself and we will stop you as best we can.”
Taken from TOUGHLOVE® SOLUTIONS by Phyllis York, David York and Ted Wachtel