On Adolescent Suicide

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Adolescent suicide is a tragic event. It can have a devastating and life long impact on others: parents, siblings, teachers, relatives, counselors, friends.

Five Woodstock, Ontario  teens have taken their own lives since January this year. A very high number for a small community.

If this were a cluster of deaths from respiratory causes we would surely investigate with a team comprised of a respirologist, an epidemiologist, and the public health officer.

Thus our first step here should logically be an investigation by an epidemiologist, a  psychiatrist, and the public health department. Let us first see if these deaths are a result of undetected, untreated mental illness, if the teens know one another in real life or through social media, if they are all browsing the same toxic websites, or if each has been the target of bullying or something worse, or a combination of these. Let us try to understand before rushing into awareness programs, school assemblies, more crisis lines.

There are several good reasons to not rush to “talking about it” as the answer. These are teenagers, not adults. We know from anti-smoking programs, when we gathered our high school students into the auditorium to talk to them about the horrors of smoking and showed them videos of cancer-ridden lungs and COPD sufferers gasping for breath, the number of teens taking illicit puffs at the local smoking pit increased. Increased. Not decreased, increased.

We are also living with the paradox of contemporary times when kids are inundated with suicide awareness programs, when every school counselor and nurse asks every troubled kid the question, when each community has an advertised crisis line, when the question “do you ever think of harming yourself?” is asked on countless questionnaires and surveys, when our teens are communicating with each other around the clock, when information on any and every subject is as available as the nearest smartphone, and when we are in the midst of public discourse about assisted suicide. It is in these times, not in the 50’s, 60’s, or 70’s ( when the word suicide would only be said in the same whisper as syphilis), that clusters of teens are committing suicide.

Or so it seems.

But what I am trying to say is that we should investigate these phenomena before we rush to “solutions”, especially with teenagers. They are not adults. They often do things just because they have recently learned those things are possible to do. They are often more intrigued when adults bend over backwards to warn them of danger.

The adolescent brain has lost some of the intuitive avoidance and fear of the child’s brain. It is developing some reasoning and analytic processes to replace these. But it does not have the breadth and depth of experience of the adult brain, nor the ability to consider the distant future and the effect on others. The adolescent brain tends to live entirely within its present context.

“Would you swim with sharks?” When a child is asked this question he or she will answer with an emphatic NO. An adult will also offer a very quick negative, though with some adults and a few adolescents the questioner may need to add that ‘sharks’ is meant in a literal sense. But the teenager. Ah, the teenager. He or she asked that same question will ponder it. You can see and sometimes hear the analytic reasoning kicking in: “Well, humans are not the sharks’ natural prey, so….and though I am not a good swimmer….and depending on…”

So far, with teens, my own informal survey has resulted in answers of “yes or maybe or I’d consider it” 100 percent of the time.

I am not saying we should downplay suicide and it’s tragic consequences. I am saying that we should treat an increase, a cluster of suicides like any other serious outbreak of illness. We should study it without pre-judging. And when teens are involved we should take into account their contrary minds.

The Woodstock cluster may be a problem of inadequate resources; there may be a contagion factor at work;  there may be a local stigma about seeking help; there may be some cyber bullying occurring; the means to kill oneself may be too readily available; there may be untreated mental illness involved; they may all have been fans of the same toxic Web site; they may know one another, or not; they may be using or misusing the same drugs; they may be all attending the same counselor; or this cluster might be simply a statistical anomaly…

We should help family and friends cope with these tragedies, but we should investigate before we plan a preventive intervention.


9 thoughts on “On Adolescent Suicide

  1. Sober thoughts, good advice for the Ministry of Health and Long term care, I did not read anything about an investigation, I did read though that 25 counselors had been deployed immediately, it seems to be much like locking the stable door after the horse had bolted.


  2. This article sets out the issues well. It seems that that there are too many individuals given jobs in a knee jerk fashion (qualified or not) for the job at hand. Some young people may have real suicidal thoughts and clearly any young person who loses their life to suicide is a tragedy, but for politicians and other powerful groups to respond over dramatically with partial knowledge might encourage horrible mistakes and more tragedy . Grief councilors that swarm into places after disasters are of questionable use according to some. I tend to agree. Group hysteria may be an issue here . The “Carry on keep calm” slogan of the second world war was not a bad idea. The heat in the kitchen may be very distracting . Cooler minds need to prevail.


  3. Goethe’s novel ” The sorrows of Young Werther” comes to mind too, there was a rush of youth suicide after its publication !


  4. I absolutely agree. It appears to me more often than not that common sense has gone out the picture completely in the face of many life altering events. Why not do the logical investigations first before rushing to find a catch all solution.


  5. A “preventative intervention”. Why that would be a change. In the current mental health system most responses are reactive. It seems far more attractive to send in a batch of “mental health workers” than to actually take the time to figure out what is going on. It appears like an addiction.

    The use of crisis teams seems to be way more attractive than actually using resources that are already in place such epidemiologists, psychiatrists, or the public health department which are there for the purpose of investigating why things occur.

    And then when people actually take the time to figure out what is going on and want to make things better as has happened so many times in the past with the plethora of government mental health policies, the most recent being the 2010 Recommendations of the All Party Select Committee on Mental Health and Addictions, these worthwhile, meaningful efforts get ignored!

    This sad reality leaves a cynical, alienated public fed up with paying taxes on services, which are seldom evaluated, and a mental health system that seems impotent in its ability to function effectively.


  6. It is important that we remind governments of the great mistake it made when it ignored the logical, knowledgeable, compassionate solutions by the 2010 “All-party Select Committee on Mental ‘Health”(sic) and Addictions.

    When families of mentally ill loved ones first read this report they rejoiced at the hoped-for improvements to a system that for decades had ignored serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and related neurological diseases. This 2010 Select Committee was the first truth-telling document about the decades-long
    limits and mistakes of the current system.

    Our hopes were quickly dashed when we realized the government had no intention of implementing this report. (The NDP tried to save the wisdom in this Report from the provincial trash bins behind Queen’s Park.They too were ignored.)

    Let’s revive this excellent/fair-minded Report from the garbage bins and examine it again. If you really listened to families these recommendations would have meant a different world for our loved ones.

    Bring it back, please


  7. We are ignorant about the biological root cause of all serious mental illness. It is time to delve seriously into the scientific research findings that point to infectious microbes that create these chronic brain diseases. Let’s use our open, independent minds to understand that social studies can be a “rat’s nest of confounded variables” as Steven Pinker says.

    We have followed never-proved social explanations for decades with no success in understanding or even a speck of evidence or hope that we can use sociology as the basis to successfully find cures or any real amelioration for human brain diseases. (Even the knowledge of the root cause for Mad Cow Disease has not dissuaded us from holding long time irrational beliefs in social studies. Some professionals still accept uneducated mother-blaming assumptions.)

    It is a political policy mistake that scientific brain research is not funded enough to free us from our wrong-headed system.. Our current system clings blindly to myths and misunderstanding. They could be called insensitive or uncaring by ignoring scientific brain research where a cure for all SMI is just waiting to be discovered.

    How come?


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