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.
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