Thursday, January 10, 2013

Teenage Suicide

Almost exactly two months ago, I was walking into a hotel room in Chicago when I received a phone call from Detroit informing me that one of my former students had just taken his own life. I didn't sleep that night, staring for hours at the ceiling and wondering, "Could something have been done?" For many days following, I felt great sadness at the thought of how much pain this young man must have endured that led him to think that ending his life was the only way to relieve his agony.

Yesterday's New York Times carried a story entitled "Study Questions Effectiveness of Therapy for Suicidal Teenagers." I'm fascinated by the reported statistic that "55 percent of suicidal teenagers had received some therapy before they thought about suicide, planned it or tried to kill themselves...". The story goes on to point out something many of us intuit: teenage suicide is not necessarily a one-off occurrence with a simple origin but, rather, part of a complex interplay between various forces. Indeed, the study links suicidal behavior to mood, attention deficit, and eating disorders, and substance abuse.

The article resonates with my recent reading of Kenneth Gergen's Relational Being: Beyond Self and Community. Part of his project is to reflect upon what it means to be a human in a way different from the way we normally do. That is, generally we think of ourselves as individual units, free-floating "I's" when, according to Gergen, "I" am the result of the relationships who have called and formed me into the person I am and who I continue to become:
In all that we say and do, we manifest conditions of relationship. In whatever we think, remember, create, and feel—in all that is meaningful to us—we participate in relationship. The word “I” does not index an origin of action, but a relational achievement.
For Gergen, there's no self-contained "I" in the world: who "I" am has come to be over the course of many years and has to take into account not only social relationships but also environmental factors. I'm not a little monad floating through space - I am who others have helped me to become. I contributed to the life and being of my former student and I, just as all others who knew him, will live the rest of our lives with a ragged hole left where he once stood.

Gergen's research helps us to look at something we often look past: the importance of relationships not only in sustaining us but, and more essentially, as making us who we are. Likewise must we focus on how complicated the issue of teenage suicide is, the various factors that feed into it, and come to a greater awareness that this is an issue far more complex than we might otherwise consider. We must resist categorizing suicide as simply a selfish and violent act and begin to realize that the act of taking one's life comes at the end of a very long and very complex process of events.

The lives of those who loved Morgan will be forever a little bit poorer because of his loss. They say that parents should never outlive their children; I'd add that teachers should not outlive their students. These last few months have I grown much more sensitive to the intricacies and issues of teenage suicide and I can say only that I hope we, as a society, continue to train a watchful eye on this issue and do all that we can to help to make the choice to take one's own life totally unthinkable.


Robin said...

Dear Ryan,

I have considered emailing you privately, but I can't find an email address on your blog, and this post has convinced me that I need to speak.

Some time ago you wrote about this young man's death and subsequently, if I have the timing right, you wrote a fairly humorous post about another young man, holed up in his room and staying up late at night, with his dragging around early in the mornings resulting in his parents asking you whether he might be depressed.

That's when I first considered writing, as I immediately saw a connection between the two posts. I am 99.999999% certain that your diagnosis of computer-in-bedroom was correct. However, the fact that the student's parents raised the matter of possible depression is a serious matter, and not one to be glossed over with humor -- especially not by a teacher, someone upon whom parents rely to perhaps see and understand things that they might be missing.

Few parents see the signs of serious depression in a young person, and those who do generally make a pit stop at denial. For parents to consult a teacher about the possibility of depression in their child takes tremendous courage.

Our son was not a teenage; he was 24 when he died of suicide. We did not see what has in retrospect become excruciatingly apparent -- a years-long and exceedingly, as you say, complex battle against depression by a brilliant and creative young man. The world's loss as well as ours.

Teachers and professors are in a unique position with respect to adolescents and young adults -- often witnesses to things of which parents are unaware, and sometimes able to convince parents to attend to matters they might otherwise ignore.

One of the many worst aspects of surviving a child's suicide is having to live with the endless questions for which there are no answers. If parents themselves raise the issue of depression, an opportunity may present itself to address a situation that might otherwise, even years down the road, gather momentum and turn into a catastrophe. Even an apparently obvious case of too-much-computer-too-little-sleep should not be dismissed without further investigation.

Thanks for reading and, again, I am sorry about your community's terrible loss.

Ryan G. Duns, SJ said...

Hi Robin,

Thank you for this. While I did write the post about the in-room computer with the intent of levity, it should be said that teenage depression is not a laughing matter. I'd bristle when students would say, "I"m so depressed" when all they meant was, "I'm having a lousy day." Perhaps it is a 6th sense, but I think I'm pretty good at detecting students who are having an off day and those whose days are simply off...the latter group, of course, I'd pursue.

A skill that is acquired only through experience is that of has to learn how to 'read' the situation and respond accordingly. Kids say many things: some they say to test you as a listener (shock and awe), some to test your trustworthiness, other things to demonstrate their vulnerability. I found that it took patience and time to know how to distinguish these and, when necessary, to challenge in a gentle yet firm matter and seek more help when needed.

naturgesetz said...

I'm surprised that the study you refer to does not include sexual orientation as one of the "forces" involved in teen suicide. From what I've read, gay teenagers commit suicide at significantly higher rates that straights. I suppose it has to do with the issue of relationships, i.e. loss of relationships when their orientation becomes known, and difficulty in establishing satisfactory relationships.

This is why the Church's call for acceptance of homosexual persons needs to be much more clearly and widely expressed, especially among teenagers.