As the pop song says, suicide is painless
As a helpline is launched to ease exam-result angst, Glenda Cooper examines the causes of teenage suicide
It was seen at the time as a typical, almost amusing, melodramatic teenage gesture, fulfilling stereotypical overreactions to "minor" problems such as first love, exam fear or bullying. But perhaps we take teenage angst too lightly. With the GCSEs and A-level results due out this month, the Samaritans, anticipating a "significant" seasonal increase in calls to their helpline this month, are this week launching a campaign to target youngsters who fail to make their grades.
A close look at the statistics reveals a troubling picture. According to the Samaritans, although the total number of suicides has dropped, from 4,935 in 1982 to 4,628 in 1992, this masks an increase among 15- to 24-year-olds and a dramatic rise in numbers for young men. For them, the numbers went up from 320 in 1982 to 500 10 years later. By comparison, 93 young women took their own lives in 1982. The figure peaked in 1989 at 120 and dropped to 91 by 1992. Figures are not available for attempted suicides, but, strangely, the Samaritans estimate that women in general are twice as likely as men to attempt suicide and young women nine times as likely.
While the Samaritans feel that increased pressure at school is significant, it is not the most frequently discussed problem in calls made by young people either to them or to Childline. The Samaritans cite those as: relationships; coping with loss (such as bereavement); and fear of the future. For Childline, the most frequent trauma was sexual abuse, followed by family relationships and physical abuse.
What can we discern from the shifting pattern of suicide among young people? One fashionable response is to lay the blame at Kurt Cobain's door. Since the leader of the pop group Nirvana killed himself on 8 April last year, the pages of the music press have been swamped with hysterical letters from young fans claiming Cobain as a role model. And the disappearance, seven months ago, of Richey James of the Manic Street Preachers was also interpreted by many young fans as a cue for suicide.
In reality, the most Cobain and James achieved was to make suicide slightly more socially acceptable (it was only decriminalised, remember, in 1961). The growth in teenagers - and teenage boys - killing themselves had begun long before that.
Two other obvious factors in teenage suicide may be drink and drugs. The relationship between alcohol and other drug misuse and suicide is well established: up to 15 per cent of alcoholics will die by suicide and drug addicts are 20 times more likely than the average to kill themselves.
A survey for the Schools Health Education Unit last month showed that more than 10 per cent of boys and 8 per cent of girls aged 15 to 16 drink more than the recommended adult limit a week, and more than two-thirds of the same age group said they knew someone who was taking drugs.
But this fails to tell the whole story - in particular the dramatic increase in young male suicide. For that we have to look to social change.
Some aspects of it are well documented. Unemployment among young men is high; the chances of a "job for life" are almost non-existent. While researchers are reluctant to make causal links betweenunemployment and suicide, evidence shows that the risk of death by suicide of an unemployed man is two to three times greater than that of the average male population. And generally, as a study by the think-tank Demos showed recently, 15- to 17-year-old boys suffer low self-esteem, are less ambitious, less willing to continue in education and more likely than girls to want to start a family.
If suicide among young men has been sharply increasing, the tailing off in rates for young women is correspondingly interesting. Two important gender differences may help explain it. First, there has been a rise in the proportion of women in paid employment. Second, since 1985, the birth rate among women under 20 has been increasing. The presence of a child is traditionally seen as a protection against suicidal tendencies, giving young women a sense of purpose and a role to fulfil, according to Richard Wilkinson at the Trafford Centre for Medical Research at the University of Sussex.
Teenage suicide has also been set in a wider context by a study published in May. Psycho-social Disorders in Young People: Time Trends and their Causes, by Michael Rutter and David Smith, addresses the whole problem of increasing teenage anxiety. Since 1945, Rutter and Smith found, there has been a sharp and previously unparalleled rise in psycho-social disorders among 12- to 26-year-olds in nearly all developed countries. These include crime, depression, eating disorders and abuse of drugs and alcohol, as well as suicidal behaviour.
In addition to social disadvantage, family break-up and so on, they pinpoint another factor at work: society's increasing protection of our children - the way that we have been lengthening adolescence. Children reach puberty earlier these days, and, with extended education, take longer to reach adulthood. In the intervening years, young people have become more dislocated from the rest of society, with their own distinct music, dress and culture. That greater autonomy coincides with greater financial dependence on their parents. While having sex earlier, they marry later, and are likely to cohabit and have more breakdowns in cohabiting love relationships. Increased education has also widened young people's horizons: raising their awareness of possibilities and their expectations for the future - which are difficult for most to fulfil.
This lengthy adolescence, Rutter and Smith believe, might mean the prolonging of an insecure status and uncertain personal identity. And it produces internal conflicts and clashes with parents or other authority figures. The Samaritans report that most suicidal young people ring them directly after a row.
In two-and-a-half years a study being conducted by Manchester University on 200 young people who took overdoses may give us clearer answers as to why young people take their lives. Meanwhile, the helplines and agony aunts will continue to mop up the effects of a society that has prolonged the agony of adolescence and created a crisis of young manhood.
Lines to die for
It's better to burn out than fade away - Neil Young,
Hey Hey, My My (1979)
Billy rapped all night about his suicide/How he'd kick it in the head when he was twenty-five - Mott the Hoople, All the Young Dudes (1972)
It's a rock 'n' roll suicide -
David Bowie, Rock 'n' Roll Suicide (1972)
One starry starry night, you took your life/As lovers often do - Don McLean, Vincent (1972)
Look on the bright side is suicide - Nirvana, Milk It (1993)
And if a double-decker bus crashes into us/To die by your side, what a heavenly way to die - The Smiths, There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (1986)
There is nothing more for me/Need the end to set me free - Metallica, Fade to Black (1986)
When you feel like letting go,/Hold on - REM, Everybody Hurts (1992)
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