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.