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Teenage suicide: Understand them; reach out to them

Last updated on: September 10, 2012 08:00 IST

Sadia Raval

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. Psychologist Sadia Raval of writes about what drives young women and men to take the drastic step and how you and I can prevent it.

My earliest recollection of a young person's suicide is that of my classmate. We were in the same class and division in the tenth grade. She was a star of the class then. People loved her, I did too. She created jingles, participated in dances, rendered dialogues from famous movies and was a typical popular girl.

After school we studied in the same college. We weren't that close but I saw her occasionally. She seemed to have gotten much quieter and also as I remember it, more 'girlish'...and then one morning, just before class, someone came in who knew both of us and told me "You know? She committed suicide".

I remember it hitting me hard. What is the world could make a popular girl like that, who seemed to have everything going for her, kill herself?

This was 1996, I think. Since then somewhere subconsciously I have looked for an answer which I have gotten in parts through my education and moreover through my own therapy work with adolescents and their parents.

Suicide in the youth today is related to several factors, the adolescent age itself being a big one. Let's momentarily try and be of this age -- say 16 or 17. The following is what you would normally go through: You're at an age now where you are naturally not contented to be only someone's son or daughter, you are you! But what does that mean?

Well you need to find out. How? Maybe push limits a bit, see how far you can go, stray a bit away from family, figure out what others (read friends) your age are doing, try to do similar stuff. Well makes sense but what happens? Your parents and the all-wise adult world doesn't like it at all.

Your hairstyle sucks, your attitude does too, your needs are insatiable, you demand too much money, you don't care about family... the complaints are endless.

You are at an age where you are neither adult enough to be left alone nor child enough to be pardoned for mistakes. Your every experiment is judged and criticised.

Your hormones are jumping and pumping but there are clear limits and rules and if you fall in love (an obvious combination of sexual maturity and having all those growing girls and boys around in your college and classes or even school), well God help you!! You shouldn't be falling in love. It's not the right time for "these things"! You need to focus on studies right now!

Studies means going to college from 7 to 11, attending classes from 12.30 to 7.30, reaching home by 8.30 and when you sit watching TV for more than a couple of hours, being told that you need to study!

After all you have only been attending college and classes so far, when are you going to really study?! Every failure in education, a small wrong move like not being able to get the best college and you have a team of adults telling you how you will land up being a loser and how while others prosper you will suffer.

You feel strong enough to roam about on your own, you know all the roads but you have to ask for pocket money and permission to spend time at a friend's!! And worse still be denied both while all you can do is helplessly sulk in your room.

I know this is hard hitting for parents reading this. But this is what 'normal' growing up in our urban Indian society at present looks like. The above is a synopsis of frustrations from teenagers that I have heard over the years. This is not to say that parents' are the culprits.

Teenage suicide: Understand them; reach out to them

Parents want good things for their children. They want them to survive in this tough world and do well. Everything is well-intentioned. But well-intentioned doesn't mean it is not terribly stressful. If we understand this, can we really wonder why so many young people appear frustrated? Need a psychologist like me to hear them out?

This is still the 'regular' story. Add to this a couple of stressors. Maybe multiple failures, not being good looking, difficulty in making friends, discord amongst parents, excessively critical parents, financial difficulties, low self-esteem (which in any case it is difficult to keep high with all the blame and criticism) and you have someone who feels too overwhelmed to handle everything and contemplates suicide as a way out.

The Adolescent Mask

In their attempt to cope with all this internal and external conflict, most adolescents erect defenses. This is something I like to call "the Adolescent mask". Let me give a few examples.

In a typical scenario at my counselling center, we would have parents calling up inquiring about counselling, and usually mentioning some behaviour of their growing child that appears detrimental to him or to the family. Some of the common types of complaints are:

The 'Non-Compliant' Type

The story usually goes like this. Over the last six months he/she stopped studying, ignores personal hygie#8800 watches TV excessively and plays computer games all the time; doesn't care what his/her parents think; is going to ruin his/her future at this rate; refuses to attend college/classes/school. Lies excessively and so on.

The Violent-Angry Type

This person is very violent at home and outside. He/she threatens to throw things out of the house, breaks things of utility, may physically beat or harm the siblings, mother or weaker family members. Is extremely volatile and gets triggered very easily.

Family members are usually very scared of him/her and have given up trying to correct. In some cases this person may show remorse later. In some cases this person may be very gentle and soft with outsiders while being harsh with family.

All the above are examples of defenses that the overwhelmed adolescents use to cope with the unbearable burden of expectations. Not that these reactions are healthy or adaptive but in the face of their internal stress it's a way out.

Being non-compliant or angry and shutting themselves off from parents at least ensures that they no longer need to listen to their parents or try to explain their situation which they themselves cannot understand and neither know how to articulate.

They have decided they are not going to be understood and they have also decided they need not understand their parents or the rest of the world either. Getting angry and violent is a way of venting out the frustration and also has a secondary benefit of scaring people off so they don't bother one much.

The above are merely some common examples. Each adolescent finds his/her own unique defences to cope with these burdens. When even the defences fail and can no longer protect this person from feeling overburdened, the person feels helpless and hopeless and gets suicidal.

Of course there are youngsters who cope more adaptively. This is especially true if they have had healthier experiences that helped them to learn to cope better earlier on in life, healthier family environments, stable friendships and better achievement progress.

The reason why I talk of the adolescent mask is for the support system of these adolescents -- the parents and the family -- to understand that it is a mask, a defence and to attempt to see through that defence to the real person, who is hurt and vulnerable and in need of love and support.

Although these noncompliant, aggressive teenagers appear like they do not care at all, the truth is they do care and are struggling to not get overwhelmed. Understanding this, reaching out to them and helping them to unburden can go a long way in helping them have healthier and happier growing up experiences instead of losing their youth to despair and suicide.