Nurturing Resilience

Raising children to be competent and caring.

Teen Suicide Isn’t Just an Individual Problem

Teen suicide can be prevented by families, schools, and communities

At this time of year, as our children deal with their first tests at school and all the optimism they held over the summer fades, there can be a crushing feeling of defeat. For far too many young people, suicidal thoughts and gestures are a shadowy presence that hovers over them daily. While we tend to think of suicide as a sign of mental illness, in fact there is a surprising amount of research that shows that young people suicide because of social factors that their parents, teachers, neighbors, and government leaders control. Suicide is fundamentally about shame, and our need to escape the very embodied pain we feel when we feel disconnected and inadequate.

Oddly, that internal discomfort is not something that relies on internal processes alone, though there are rare instances when psychosis plays a role. More typically, young people suicide for reasons that are entirely preventable. They are escaping the damning judgements of others, or seeking respite from the pain of feeling lonely and disengaged. They feel hopeless about the future. All of these internal feelings depend on external relationships. If we stop and think about it, a young person's suicide reflects a community's failure to make them feel included or provide them hope for a better tomorrow.

An analysis of suicide notes over a 100 year period by Patrice Corriveau at the University of Ottawa revealed a remarkable connection between the way youth were treated by their communities and their suicides. In the late 1800s, girls often committed suicide because they became pregnant and were ashamed to admit it. In the 1930s young men who had immigrated from Europe and couldn't find work killed themselves because of an overwhelming sense of failure. What's telling about both examples is that it is social conditions that predict suicide rates, not instances of individual mental illness.

This same point is made by James Gilligan, a psychiatrist, who argues in Why Some Politicians are more Dangerous than Others that under Republican Presidencies in the United States, economic conditions always worsen and that suicides and homicides always increase during these times. There will be many who will challenge Gilligan's methods and use of statistics, but his point is still valid. Suicide and homicide increase during times of economic crisis and people internalize their failure to cope as an individual problem rather than attributing blame to factors beyond their control. For young people, the rate of suicide also increases when communities are weighed down by a heavy pessimism about their future.

There is a chilling study that was done by Marc Chandler and Chris Lalonde in British Columbia, Canada, in which they showed that the staggeringly high levels of teen suicide among Aboriginal peoples were not evenly distributed across every community. In fact, of the almost 200 Bands they surveyed over 14 years, half had never experienced a single suicide. The differences between the Bands that had suicides and those that didn't were remarkably easy to see. Communities that involved more women in politics, who controlled their own schools, who had designated cultural spaces, who had a volunteer fire department, and were actively involved in settling land claims, tended to be those with no youth suicides. In other words, being young and Aboriginal is not in itself a risk factor for self-harm. But living in a community that lacks social cohesion and a sense of optimism for the future, as shown through its organization and institutions, does predict higher rates of suicide among youth.

It's a good lesson to learn. While we are often told to watch our children for signs of suicide, we are less likely to turn the gaze around and look at ourselves, our homes, our schools, and our communities. A child who is changing their sleeping patterns, suddenly cheerful for no reason when they've been gloomy for weeks, abusing drugs or alcohol, or becomes withdrawn, may be a child contemplating suicide. But before we see this as an individual problem, we need to ask ourselves:

  • Have I given my child a sense of belonging in their family, school, and community?
  • Does our community make its children feel optimistic about the future?
  • Do we as a community provide our children with the tools they need to be successful in life? A good education? Safe streets? Job readiness skills? Secure attachments?
  • Do we as a community make negative judgments on our children because they are different?
  • Do we offer our children a way to contribute to their communities in a meaningful way?

Find answer to these questions and much of the problem of teen suicide will be addressed without us needing to send all but the most troubled of our children to professional counselors. The solution to teen suicide is in the hands of our children's caregivers, not children themselves.

Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a family therapist, a researcher at Dalhousie University, and the author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.

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