Suicide: why youth are so vulnerable

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death amongst young Americans aged 10-24 [https://www.businessinsider.com/suicide-in-teens-young-adults-school-anxiety-2019-9?r=US&IR=T].

In the UK, September is National Suicide Awareness month. This week, 8 – 14 September 2019, marked Suicide Prevention week in America. During this week, World Suicide Prevention Day also took place on 10 September. Looking forward to next month, the 10 October 2019 – World Mental Health Day – will focus on suicide prevention. Suicide is no longer a taboo subject because the only hope of saving lives is if we do talk about it.

It seems as if our children have become the canaries in the coal mine of a culture gone crazy. Child psychologist, Peter Gray, has weighed in on this subject by dismissing the prime suspect of technology and social media. He blames the upswing in youth suicide on the stress of constant scrutiny from parents and teachers and the pressure to excel at school and extra-curricular activities. Though this lends an interesting perspective on the problem, it does not mean that children must be left to their devices to learn about life the hard way. Parents and those in positions of influence, can no longer rely on their traditional values being caught as opposed to taught. The combination of their peer groups, pop culture and social media pose an avalanche of opposing values which may soon cancel out all the good parents are trying to achieve unless they seek to impart these noble values deliberately and strategically.

It is troubling when anyone commits suicide but even moreso the young who seem to have their whole lives ahead of them. The death of youth spells the death of promise and possibility. It seems cruelly ironic that whereas so many would like to have another chance to relive their lives, given the opportunity, there are those for whom life has barely begun who are willing to throw it all away for no apparent good reason.

From an early age, we need to develop in our children the backbone to cope with life’s vicissitudes, tragedies and heartaches, rather than try to shield them from them. Each human being, provided he or she lives long enough, will eventually witness and experience the emotional fluctuations of being human. They will learn that life can be wearisome, lonely and disappointing at times. Although we must teach them that these are ‘givens’, we must also recognise that they make up some threads but not the whole garment. Without this acceptance, there’s a danger that we fall prey to escapism, and end up retreating from reality instead of confronting it and dealing with it.

People escape through all manner of pre-occupations and activities such as entertainment, fiction novels, sports, relationships, legal and illegal drugs, or check out of life altogether. Many such pre-occupations are not bad in of themselves, but if indulged in to excess, can mean you are essentially escaping from yourself which means you are not really living. It is unrealistic to expect to be happy all the time. If we hold these false expectations, then we set ourselves up for constant disillusionment. The slightest failed expectation, for example, could tip us over the edge to a state of melancholy or a death wish.

When young people are told that ‘the sky is the limit’ or ‘they can be anything they want to be’, this sets them up for unrealistic expectations of life. We may think we are being positive or bolstering their confidence, but what they most need to hear to prepare them for life’s harsh realities are words such as:

  • life won’t always be easy but each time you overcome something, you become stronger and less fearful.
  • That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
  • People can do things to us on the outside but we get to decide who we will be on the inside.
  • the longer we live, we develop a better frame of reference with which to compare our experiences.
  • Winning at life is more important than winning an award or aceing a test.
  • Your identity is not determined by what you do or what others say of you but the fact that Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, was willing to leave the 99 secure sheep to go after the lost sheep who is lost and destitute. That alone makes you a worthwhile human being. (Luke 15:4-6)

The prophet Isaiah puts it into perspective, and his wisdom echoes down through the annals of history for all youth in every age:

“Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall,
But those who wait on the Lord hall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
(Isaiah 40:30-3, NKJV) In short, youth are not insulated from the wearisomeness of life brought on by all manner of experiences. But if they wait, as in exercise patience and refrain from acting hastily, they will recover their strength to continue the journey of life. The journey will be marked by seasons of stumbling and falling when all hope of recovery seems slim; walking where progress seems slow; running where strength and motivation are strong; and flying like the eagle when no obstacle seems too hard to overcome. All seasons are temporary and have a valid place in the life of a well-rounded and well-balanced person equipped to handle whatever life throws their way.

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