Youth Suicide

It's something we don't like to talk about - something that shocks and distresses us – something that breaks through our ordinary responses and the surface routine of our everyday lives. Our first instinct is to ask why – but in many cases there are no answers.

Someone with their life ahead of them – with everything to live for, a young person with so much potential, chooses, for reasons we don't - or can’t, understand, to end their life.

Every one of these deaths is a tragedy.

As part of my ongoing professional development, I recently completed ASIST training. On the first day, participants were asked to recall their experiences of suicide – how suicide had touched their lives – and in some cases transformed them. We heard stories of friends, acquaintances, and, because we were professionals in mental health, clients.

My own story came from my time as an academic in South Australia. One day as I was returning from lunch to my office, I found my way blocked by hazard tape, police and security guards. As I turned the corner, I saw a prone form covered by a blanket and an empty shoe tipped wretchedly on the curb. Students were wandering past on their way to classes or to lunch.

A young woman had committed suicide from one of the walkways above our heads, her body strewn between buildings in a crowded thoroughfare at lunchtime on one of the busiest days of the semester. It was a visceral reminder of the choices young people can make in the face of overwhelming pressures – or emotions. I was shaken and upset, looking for answers that just weren’t there – why had she done it – why did she choose such a public place at such a busy time? Was it a message for someone she knew would be nearby?

I was angry at the university for seeming to be more interested in suppressing and containing the responses to this young woman’s act, than acknowledging what she had done and how it might affect others. Later, a colleague told me that there was a history of students ending their lives by jumping from these walkways and that the university had tried to redesign the campus to prevent these deaths - unsuccessfully.  

The students who suicided, he related, were often internationals whose academic progress had faltered. The university, although offering counselling to those affected, also appeared to take great pains to keep the deaths unpublicised and underplay the numbers – perhaps from a fear that the fallout might jeopardise the recruitment of international students – given the increased reliance of universities on this lucrative resource.

Alone and isolated, ashamed of their results, and under great pressure to perform, these young people took what they believed was the only recourse available to them. The recent death of Indian national Deepak Singh, in Melbourne on a student visa, believed to be by his own hand, is a tragic reminder of these pressures.

For young men, not just students, the dangers are particularly high – According to ABS statistics collated by MINDframe, young males are less likely to seek help - and they are more likely to use lethal means to commit suicide. Peninsula mother, Kerri MacMillan, whose son Sam committed suicide just before his 21st birthday, believes that we might be able to prevent more young people from ending their lives by providing extra funding and support for young people suffering from depression. Sam’s brother, 22-year-old Jake McMillan, said it was an “unfamiliar concept for men his age to admit when they are struggling mentally.” "We pack our lunch in the morning, we go out, we do our thing, we play our sports, we build our walls we, destroy them and build them again," he said, "The stereotypical activity of young people is to be out there partying, to be enjoying your life to have this kind of Instagram, Facebook 'everything's beautiful and peachy, how many likes I can get?'

In my time working with young people at eheadspace, I was struck repeatedly by the realisation that there were so many young people whose lives were not picture perfect.

We are constantly bombarded with messages telling us that young people are narcissistic and shallow – obsessed with partying and looking good as reflected in “selfies” and celebrity culture – but these are harsh and rather banal characterisations of the struggle for self which many young people are facing everyday. "... the reality of that is it's just a mask covering up how we're really feeling." (Jake McMillan)

For many young people, the period of adolescence and young adulthood is not a time of celebration or victory, it's a time when emotional problems can make things seem blacker than they have ever been, when a lack of self can leave young people feeling empty - or destructive.

Suicide can be an act of anger, an act of revenge, an act of control and power when the person feels powerless, a way to end suffering that feels unbearable, or an act of momentary panic when there seems like no other way out.

In some cases it can be considered and well-planned, whilst at other times spontaneous or impetuous, an immeadiate response to untenable pressures. For young people without the life experience to fully comprehend the consequences, it can be viewed as a solution to problems, which feel, in the terror and despair of the moment, unresolvable and endless. It can seem like a way out of the pain that they live with every day. In ending their lives, young people can leave behind a collection of questions, guilt and anguish for those who loved them and those whose lives they touched.

We need to remember that: “people may take their own life after signalling their suicidal intentions to others, including loved ones and/or strangers, [but] in other cases, there may be no warning.” (Mindframe)

As Kerri Mcmillan points out "… some of his friends knew he was in trouble, [but] I don't think it ever occurred to them he was actually going to kill himself.”

If only these young people had sought help rather than making a spontaneous and irrevocable decision. We owe it to ourselves to make it easier for young people to look for help. If that means opening up the lines of communication – even though the subject is difficult - we owe it to ourselves and to them to be there and to ask the question – are you OK, do you need help and if we think they are at risk, are you thinking of ending your life?

Only by being frank and open and by challenging the idea that suicide is the answer to life’s problems, can we make a real difference in the lives of troubled young people.

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(Quotes are from Stephanie Corsetti’s article on The World Today, unless otherwise indicated)

AUDIO: Listen to Stephanie Corsetti's full story here (The World Today)