Record Teen Suicides and The Questions We’re Not Asking

Black and white image of teen girl holding head

According to research from the Centers for Disease Control, teenage suicides have doubled from 1994 to 2012.

Edward Shorter, Ph.D., writing in “How Everyone Became Depressed” reports:

Male rates are far higher than female, and suicides among male adolescents rose annually by 2.2 percent. But here is the shocker: suicides among female adolescents rose from  0.5 per 100,000 in 1994 to 1.7 in 2012, an annual change of 6.7 percent.

Hanging (“suffocation”) has soared among young women, and the CDC report noted a grim landmark: “Suffocation surpassed firearm as the most common mechanism of suicide among females in 2001.”

I don’t have a ready explanation for this dramatic increase in teen suicide. “Oppression of women” is unlikely to be the answer as there has never been a cohort of young women whose prospects have been more brilliant than the current one.

The very limitlessness of horizons for women today? Somehow demoralizing for those who don’t rise quite to the peak? Don’t know. Many factors enter in.

But I do know one thing. Whatever medications these young men and women receive are not working. A truly alarming increase in the consumption of psychopharmaceuticals has taken place at the same time as the increase in suicide. For example, the prescription of antipsychotic medications for patients under 20 rose from 300 per 100,000 population in 1993-95 to almost 1500 in 2002. (New York Times, “Beyond Ritalin,” June 6, 2006, 18)

Shorter, like most mental health professionals today, takes it for granted that depression is primarily a medical illness, for which we need the best medication and medical treatment possible.

But, as Shorter himself points out, the more advanced medications we develop, and the more we prescribe them, the more suicides we’re seeing with teenagers over the last twenty years.

Is this proof, by itself, that medication causes suicide? No. Something was making the young person depressed even before receiving the medication. However, as medical model for depression advocate Shorter himself acknowledges, it is proof that medication as we know it does not appear to be the answer.

What causes depression in teenagers, particularly the kind that would lead to suicide? Any mental health professional or psychotherapist will tell you that it’s notoriously difficult to connect with teens. Even non-depressed teens tend to mistrust adults. They usually see therapists as hired hacks for their parents. If their behavior is bothering their parents, and they won’t discuss their behavior or attitudes with their parents, then why would they open up to someone their parent hires and compels them to see? In almost every case, it’s magical thinking. Depressed teens have even more difficulty opening up, for obvious reasons.

In order to understand the mental and emotional state of teenagers who become depressed and suicidal, we have to look at the two areas of life most significant to them. One is their school or educational world; and the other is their family world. What kind of ideas are they getting in these worlds? What kind of implicit (or explicit) philosophical vision — ideas and attitudes about the mind, about existence, about their potentials — is being presented to them?

For example, do children walk away from school life with an uplifted sense that the mind is competent at discovering reality? Or do children walk away with something different?

Ditto for family life. Granted, many families are dysfunctional and some are even emotionally toxic. Children do not ask for this; it’s simply what they get when they’re born.

In such unhappy family contexts, the life of the mind — their educational world, and things related to it — becomes even more important. If a child or young adult endures a virtual torture chamber at home, you would hope that the school world would at least offer them something more inspirational, some sense that their minds and lives are fit for existence, whether that’s the message they obtain at home, or not.

I’m disappointed that psychology — a discipline of the humanities, not medical science — seems, as a field, unwilling or unable to examine the intellectual and mental environment of the young person. Instead, psychology focuses on finding the medical cure. Childhood is a time when children are first exposed to ideas which affect their mental states, and can influence — at least emotionally, subconsciously — the early and later course of their lives. Shouldn’t we be looking at the way children are taught to think in figuring out the way they feel?

In a best case scenario, a young person should come out of childhood — say, at age 18, more or less — with a firm conviction of having been loved, and with a firm conviction that his or her mind is fit for competent thought and action. If you asked me to choose which is more important, I would say the second: a strong sense of fitness for competent thought and action. Because it’s only with this quality of authentic self-respect that you can love yourself, your mind and life; without the capacity to love these things, you won’t be able to recognize or benefit from love by anybody else.

Self-esteem requires not just a respect for your own life, mind and body. It also implies a respect for the capacities of the human mind itself — for reason, for the practical and beneficial (including personal) results that come from the exercise of thought, and the uplifting, optimistic view of human nature young adults desperately need to feel good about themselves, and about life. Do most schools or families provide this for young people today? I have a sneaking suspicion that the answer is “no.”

Today’s schools and parents place a lot of emphasis on “self-esteem,” not as I just defined it, but as a gigantic series of metaphorical, unconditional hugs given to a child throughout life. Many of the kids who kill themselves undoubtedly came from such environments. Their schools taught them to think not as objective individuals, but as groups, as we hear about with so many public schools, in particular. Their families and parents taught them that they are special, to the point where they’re almost entitled to live happy, successful and productive lives — as if by birthright.

All of this leads to a sense of entitlement. “I should be happy. I deserve to be happy. But I do not know how to be happy.” Imagine what this does to the emotional state of a young person. It arouses a huge degree of anxiety. In some cases, the anxiety “crashes and burns” into a state of depression, and in the worst cases, results in the desperation and sense of futility that leads to suicide.

In other cases, this entitlement leads to smug or what we might call “bratty” behavior. But regardless of how it manifests, it’s not self-esteem. The root cause of all this is the mistaken thinking which leads to a generation of young people who feel entitled to achieve happiness and fulfillment (psychological and material), but are not given the tools with which to do it. I blame that on families and schools, not biochemistry. Increasing youth suicide is simply its most obvious and tragic manifestation.

If depression is primarily a medical and biochemical problem, then we need research which shows us what’s in the water, or in the genes, to cause so many more young people to become depressed and suicidal over the last twenty years. No such data is forthcoming, which points to the need to examine other factors.

It’s time to take a hard look at some inconvenient and painful truths about the way most adults school and raise their kids. I won’t blame parents and teachers directly for the suicide of young people, of course, not in the vast majority of cases. But the ideas and attitudes most of these young peole are receiving about life, their minds and their potentials must not be very good ones. Keep in mind that a lot of young people, although they would never kill themselves, do feel adrift and unsure about what to do in their lives, and how to do it.

We have to remember that suicide is a usually angry and always desperate attempt at escape. These young women and others hanging themselves are trying to escape life and their minds, perhaps because they have never been exposed to any optimistic or realistic idea of what they might accomplish with their minds, in their lives. Those of us in our 30s, 50s or 80s react with tremendous sadness upon hearing of the deliberate death of a 15 or 17-year-old. “They had their whole lives ahead of them,” we say. “How could they throw it all away?”

They obviously did not believe they were throwing anything away. That points you to the core of the problem.

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