The number of eases of suicide continues to increase every year. One can hardly imagine that those who have so much to live with have so little to live for. Yet, the number of Americans who are taking their own lives continues to increase every year.
Not surprisingly, the number of teenage suicides has increased as well. In the last decade the number of incidents of teenage suicide has increased one hundred per cent.(1) Here are the grim statistics of teenage suicide:
The suicide rate among fifteen-to-twenty-four years-olds has risen by almost 300 percent in just twenty years. An average of thirteen teenagers kill themselves every day.
Suicide is the third leading killer of teens (following accidents and homicides). As if these statistics aren't gruesome enough, some experts argue that suicide may, in fact, be the number one killer.
The basis for this argument? Suicides often go into the record books as accidental deaths. For example: A person killed in a head-on collision, while driving at night on the wrong side of an expressway with no headlights, would probably be pronounced an accident victim - unless there was positive proof of suicide, such as a suicide note.
Though about five thousand teenagers kill themselves each year, the number who attempt to kill themselves is as much as one hundred times as high, or about five hundred thousand teens.(2)
None of these statistics means quite so much to an individual as does a personal telephone call relating that one of his friends has committed suicide. I shall not soon forget my alarm upon hearing that my cousin had murdered his estranged wife and then committed suicide. Just a few weeks ago, I was informed that one of the young men who was baptized in a recent meeting which I conducted had taken his life. The brethren in one northern Ohio city related the suicide death of the brother of one of the members. The mortician who handled this suicide related that this was the eighth case in one month of death through suicide by a teenager.
Surely these statistics are alarming. However, they certainly are useless unless they cause us to ask what is causing these increases in suicide and what can be done to prevent others. I speak as no authority, for I have not given myself to a thorough study of this subject. However, I would like to make some suggestions as to causes and preventions.
Causes of Suicide
1. Hopelessness. Almost every document written regarding suicide relates the hopelessness of situations as a leading cause of suicides. "It's not so much that the person wants to die; he just doesn't see any alternative," wrote Reina Gross.(3) Psychiatrists agree that a leading cause of suicide in the young is hopelessness about the future.(4)
Generally this hopelessness is not concerned with life after death; it is pertaining to life on earth. A wife feels trapped in an unhappy marriage; she sees no way out except through death. A teenaged girl becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Rather than face the problem, she commits suicide.
2. Problems in the home. Though these categories are not mutually exclusive, they need to be enumerated separately. "Insecurity in family life is given as one likely cause (of suicide, mw). `Divorce is breaking up families at a great rate,' says Paula Cantor, an associate professor at Boston University, `and for an adolescent it's more damaging to lose a parent through divorce than through death.' "(5)
The increase in divorce affects suicides of both teenagers and adults. Our lack of concern for the solidarity of the family unit causes instability in children as one of its byproducts. Sometimes, this results in teenage suicide. More and more, we can see the wisdom of God in revealing the family structure as one of the stabilizing forces of life.
Added to the problem of divorce as an enemy of the home which contributes to suicide must be the neglect of children. Janet Chase-Marshall wrote,
"There has been a definite weakening of family standards and parental authority," says Dr. Joseph Teicher, director of child adolescent psychiatry at the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center. "There are more and more divorces. And more children are physically and emotionally abandoned at an early age by parents who are so troubled themselves they cannot give that vital life fluid we call nurturance."
Related to the breakdown of family ties is the emphasis on "doing your own thing."
"We have become very egocentric and competitive - even with our own children," points out Cleveland phsychiatrist Dr. Victor Victoroff. "Our old traditional resources - family, church, schools, government - are seen cynically as untruthful and untrustworthy. So, in a world where mom and dad are both working, and grandparents are off living the `good life' in some retirement city, who is there to help a troubled teenager?"(6)
The assessment that the problem is the home failing to meet the emotional needs of the teenaged suicide is not some isolated comment of some narrow-minded preacher. ". . . Morris Paulson, the clinical psychologist who conducted the U.C.L.A. study, found a common denominator among these disturbed youngsters: `Every one of them had a home that wasn't providing the understanding and caring that the child needed.' "(7)
I am sure that other breakdowns in the home could be enumerated as causes of suicide. However, these should be sufficient to make us aware of the instability of the home as a contributing cause of many suicides, both of the young and old.
3. Financial problems. There has always been an increase in the number of suicides which increase is coincident with the financially troubled times in our economy. When a man gets himself in hopeless financial conditions, he sometimes uses suicide as his way out. In some cultures, suicide is more honorable than bankruptcy.
Materialism and Teenager Suicide
Our emphasis on the accumulation of things in many respects affects our children. However, when our emphasis on things becomes so engrossing that it is a contributing cause in children taking their own lives, it is time for something radical to be done to correct it. Let us consider how materialism and attitudes toward children run together:
With increasing frequency - and plaintiveness - we hear how children endanger the "life-style" of those who must care for them. This protectiveness toward something so seemingly ephemeral as a "life-style" may at first glance seem bizarre - or narcissistic - yet when the term "life-style" is recognized as code, its significance begins to make sense. What the expression refers to is in fact something closer to the bone: standard of living. Lifestyles almost invariably cost money, and the more "imaginative" the life-style, the more "daring," the more it is likely to cost . . . .
Thus, underlying the degeneration of our romance with childhood is the pervasive idea - half grounded and half hallucinatory - that children can no longer be afforded . . . .
But the dread of children isn't limited to the rich man's view of the poor. Even those with rather large sums of discretionary income wonder in all seriousness if they can afford to have children . . .In this sense, parents who say that their children are draining the life out of them are really saying something much less mystical: It is their ability to buy things for themselves that is being drained by the child. And since the accouterments of the single or childless life are the most ephemeral and the most discretional, they must be glamorized and injected with importance. Once you have been removed from the possibility of wasting your money on a lot of self-enhancing junk, you can feel isolated and irrelevant: the familiar voices are no longer speaking to you. Your diminished ability to participate in the market-place is felt unconsciously as life itself passing you by. Those who do not spend and live well are irrelevant, and if the children are responsible, then, in fact, they have ruined your life.(8)
I have witnessed this kind of over-emphasis on the accumulation of things. Couples who are afraid that they will not have as much money to spend on themselves voluntarily decide not to have children; others deprive themselves of the joy of additional children for the same reasons. Frankly, I am not convinced that a new car, stereo, house, curtains, etc. will give one much joy in his old age; certainly the joy which these things can give cannot compare to a hug around the neck from a youngster who calls you "Grandpa."
This inordinate emphasis on the accumulation of things relates to suicide when children are made to feel guilty because their parents do not have as much money to spend on themselves as do those who have no children. When children are constantly reminded of how much trouble they are, how much they hamper the ability of their parents to go to places of entertainment, and how much they cost, they soon begin to feel as wanted and loved as a deflated spare tire.
What Can Be Done About Suicides?
In recent years, we have witnessed the proliferation of suicide-prevention centers all over this country. These centers operate phones manned by counselors twenty-four hours a day. The counselors (usually volunteers) try to talk the potential suicide victim out of committing suicide. They can send medical help to the person who has already taken an overdose of pills, cut his wrist or shot himself. But, how effective have these things been? According to what reports I have read, they have not been very effective in reducing the number of suicides and attempted suicides. Typical of such reports is the following:
In the United States, a network of suicide-prevention centers based on that approach grew up, with the public expectation that they would reduce the incidence of suicide. Those centers have had no demonstrable effect on the suicide rate in their communities.(9)
Hence, some other solutions are going to have to be found to suicide prevention other than the erection and maintenance of suicide-prevention centers. In my next article, I will suggest some ideas relative to suicide prevention.
1. Scott Spencer, "Childhood's End," Harpers Magazine (May, 1979), p. 17.
2. Carol Greenberg Felsenthal, "Teen Suicide: What To Do When A Friend Is In Trouble," Seventeen (April, 1979), p. 184.
3. Reina Gross as quoted in "Teen-Age Suicide," Newsweek (August 28, 1978), p. 76.
4. Spencer, op. cit., p. 18.
5. U.S. News and World Report (July 10, 1978), p. 49.
6. Janet Chase-Marshall, "Teenage Suicides," Good Housekeeping (May, 1979), p. 98.
7. "Children Who Want To Die," Time (September 25, 1978), p. 82.
8. Spencer, op. cit., pp. 18-19.
9. Herbert Hendin, Psychology Today (May, 1979), p. 115.
Truth Magazine XXIV: 8, pp. 131-133