Teenage suicide has become increasingly common in recent decades. Suicide now ranks as the third leading cause of death among people aged between 15 and 24 (after accidents and homicides) and has been subject of much recent attention.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Japan has the highest suicide rate among industrialised countries with 2,000 youth suicides between the ages of 15 to 24 in 1999, and the numbers are increasing. Suicide is considered to be the single biggest health-care issue in Japan with suicide rates three times higher than America’s.
Due to the strong social stigma attached to suicide, it has not been possible to gather accurate statistics in Malaysia. However, it is increasingly common to read news reports of students taking their own lives after doing poorly in the public exams, when not satisfied with their results or after a dispute with the family.
Earlier this year, for example, a 17-year old girl hanged herself after failing to obtain a credit for her SPM Bahasa Melayu paper. Another incident involved a 17-year old boy who crashed his car after receiving unsatisfactory results in his SPM exam.
While available statistics may well underestimate the problem, these figures do underscore the urgent need to arrest this disturbing trend.
Statistics have shown that suicide rates, and the number of students with suicidal thoughts, are rising within many universities everywhere. Rather than pointing fingers at who is to blame, it may be more useful to think about why some young people, including those who apparently have everything to live for, are increasingly having these suicidal thoughts and worse yet, acting on them.
According to Gerard Louis, lecturer and counsellor of the Centre for Psychology at HELP Institute, a suicidal person will go through different phases before he attempts suicide: Suicide Ideation – Suicide Tendency – Actual Suicide Attempt. “If we are going to help young people journey through that difficult period of their middle years (teens), parents and teachers must have the awareness and understanding.
“It would be too simplistic to say that there is only one cause for suicide. It is usually a combination of a lot of things happening around the person,” he says, adding that the education system plays an important role in giving a balance to the pressures and demands of student life.
Suicide statistics reveal that in the United Kingdom, at least 16 children kill themselves each year because they are being bullied at school and feel that no one in authority is doing anything about it.
While the reasons why teens commit suicide vary widely, there are some common situations and circumstances that seem to lead to such extreme measures. These include major disappointments, rejection, or any form of loss such as breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend, failing a big exam or exam pressure, unemployment, death of a loved one (parent, relative, friend), media reports of a suicide of young person or famous personality, bullying, physical and sexual abuse, alcohol and drug misuse, worries about sexual orientation, witnessing family turmoil or family breakdown.
When Anna (not her real name) found out she did not score high marks in the preliminary test for her A-level exams, and her basketball team lost the school tournament in Singapore, she was extremely disappointed and fell into a depression.
“I had such high expectations of myself because I knew my parents and friends expected only the best from me,” she said, adding that competition in school was very intense.
“Once people see you as an excellent scholar, you are forced to maintain that level. Peer pressure becomes unbearable and suddenly you feel like everyone is against you.
“I was having a rough time not just in school but in my personal life as well. I had no one to talk to. My boyfriend was in the UK, I was not on talking terms with my aunt whom I lived with and I wasn’t very close to my parents,” she revealed, adding that she constantly fought with her parents because they did not want her on the basketball team and wanted her to concentrate solely on her studies.
“One night I chatted on MIRC (over the Internet) and told a random guy about my problems and my intention of jumping off my apartment building to end it all.
“He made fun of me and accused me of just wanting attention. This made me very angry and though another chat buddy empathised and listened to my worries and tried to console me, I still wanted to jump and prove a point, “ said Anna, who then proceeded to the 10th floor of her apartment and debated for the last time about her actions. Soon, a crowd had gathered and the police came. Anna’s parents rushed from Johor Baru, and in the crowd was her chat buddy, who together with her mom, tried once again to talk her out of it.
“Seeing my mom crying and begging for me not to jump made me realise that someone still cared and life was still worth living,” Anna said, adding that the almost three-hour ordeal was the catalyst for her new found closeness with her family.
Inability to cope
Richard Ng, executive administrator of The Befrienders Kuala Lumpur, says that young people have yet to develop a good coping mechanism.
“Many bright students fear they will never be able to attain psychological and material independence through work, and others are sacrificing their social growth – they study to the extent that other aspects of their development are neglected,” he extols.
“When their coping mechanism breaks down, they get overwhelmed by feelings like misery, hopelessness and despair that invariably causes them pain.
“Young people do not want to die per se, they want to get out of the pain. Given an alternative, they might not choose death,” he says, adding that it is when all hope is gone that some may feel death is the only solution.
Louis of HELP Institute believes that ours is a society that values instant gratification by constantly trying to appease our senses and a culture which increasingly equates material wealth with personal worth.
“Many young people are not trained to delay gratification and have not experienced the many difficulties that most adults have, thus lowering their threshold for pain.
“When there is a lower threshold for pain and the person goes through the inevitable difficulties of life (setbacks, disappoint-ments), he is not likely to be able to handle the situation,” he explains.
The common reasons for suicide listed above are actually not the “causes” of the suicide, but rather triggers for suicide in a person suffering from a mental illness or substance-related disorder.
In most cases, suicidal persons give clues and warnings regarding their suicide intentions. Thus, being aware of the more common signs of depression and suicidal behaviour can prevent the unnecessary loss of lives.
Sometimes the clues given are more obvious or verbalised through words such as “Life isn’t worth living”, “I have no future”, “Maybe things would be better if I weren’t around”, “Who do you think would come to my funeral”, “I’m thinking about killing myself”.
Similarly, watch out for specific actions including unusual apathy, lethargy, hopelessness, withdrawal, loss of appetite, self-injury and saying goodbye to loved ones.
According to Ng, suicidal behaviour in young people is similar to that in adults, but also different in important ways. While women tend to take drugs or cut their wrists, men tend to choose the more lethal methods of jumping from buildings and hanging.
“Young people who are depressed and suicidal often hide those feelings at home and at school; some may confide in their friends while others may not even know that what they are feeling is depression,” he says, adding that depressed teens may fall off dramatically in school performance and have difficulty in concentration.
Troubled teens may also become uncommunicative and avoid other people or daydream. Conversely, hyperactivity can frequently mask depression, as can extreme hostility, aggressiveness, risky behaviour and promiscuous sexual behaviour.
Listen without prejudice
Teenage suicide seems the most tragic – lives lost before they have even begun, but it does not have to happen. Creating awareness, understanding and knowing where to seek help are just a few things one should know.
One of the first steps in reaching out to those who need help is by dispelling myths and misconceptions about suicide (See charts)
|Signs that indicate suicide risk: |
Source: The Befrienders Kuala Lumpur
The Befrienders Kuala Lumpur is a non-profit organisation set up in 1970 to help those who are suicidal, depressed or in despair. They provide what every suicidal person needs, a listening ear. Ng says that the first step in helping a young suicidal person is to pay attention and take them seriously.
“They need a non-judgmental listening ear and enough time and space to unburden their feelings of pain and misery,” says Ng.
“The last thing they want is for someone to criticise them or their actions,” he says, adding that suicidal persons should learn not to keep things to themselves and that help is available if they reach out to a trusted person, be it family, friends or school counsellors.
Prospective helpers should be aware of how to support a suicidal young person by offering their time to talk about the situation. Helpers need to encourage young persons to talk about their thoughts and feelings, though they should avoid giving false assurances.
Shares Ng: “Young people are unable to see that their life can turn around, unable to recognise that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
If there is an immediate threat of suicide, it is imperative not to leave the person alone and not to argue. It is possible to talk a person down from crisis, or help him talk himself out of it and wait for the crisis to pass. Ask questions like, “Have you thought about how you’d do it?”, “Do you have the means?” and ”Have you decided when you’ll do it?”
If the person has a definite plan and suicide is imminent, take the individual to the nearest hospital emergency room or contact The Befrienders or other suicide help centres.
Volunteers of The Befrienders offer free counselling sessions and confidential befriending 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The centre averages 22,000 calls every year with people aged 30 and below making up 45% of the total callers.
Part of The Befrienders International, The Befrienders KL conducts programmes in schools and colleges on life coping skills for students together with special training for volunteers in their mission of creating awareness for both sides (suicidal persons as well as volunteers or helpers). There are three other centres – in Penang, Ipoh and Malacca,
Ng says that people prefer to call their hotline for anonymity, confidentiality and availability of the service. Others can opt to come for face-to-face sessions daily, provided they call for an appointment beforehand. The centre also receives many letters, e-mail and maintains a website to provide more information on the subject.
Says Ng: “You don’t need to be a professional to listen. Anyone can learn how to listen without being judgmental and show compassion for another human being.”