WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: The young and the dead

I haven't really checked the figures since the last time the very same question figured into my consciousness. Yes, there was a growing concern then about kids taking the gun to themselves, slashing their wrists, overdosing, taking a dive, or hanging themselves. That was a couple of years ago when a rash of suicide pacts over the Internet was a phenomenon. Since then, youth suicide has been reported with alarming frequency over the quadmedia. Enough anyway to lend to 19-year-old Ferdie this perception that it is more prevalent than it has a right to be.

You see, the reports do not come rare and few between. In the first place, incidents like this get reported because its peculiarity lends a sensational value to the report. However, to Ferdie, seeing youth suicide being reported leads him to think that the phenomenon could actually be underreported, as is often the case about disturbing social deviance. Ferdie and his classmates wanted to know if this was a scourge blighting their generation.

How to proceed?

I wanted so much to ask as to who among them ever entertained thoughts of the ultimate escape, but we all know the answer to that one. Suicide ideation is more prevalent for females. Males are more likely to act on it though. For now, I see no point bringing it to the level of conscious articulation lest 1) it gave my students ideas that they would take outside my classroom, and 2) we wouldn't have time left to deal with the day's topic following where that line of inquiry would lead us.

Let's understand suicide instead.

In the Filipino culture, it is viewed as an act of desperation. It is not seen as an honorable act or an altruistic ritual, the way the odd culture or two understand it. It's also very rare among the youth. Generally, suicide occurs among 18- to 60-year-olds.

As far as I can recall, the only personal knowledge I have was an accident involving a nine-year-old who thought it was a cool game to reenact a lynching scene he saw in a cowboy movie. Unfortunately, the chair he was standing on fell over. Strictly speaking, that qualifies only as the accidental death of one who probably did not know any better.

In the last few years, there have been publicized reports of adolescent thrill-seekers who attempt to experience that heady sensation that comes with oxygen deprivation. They flirt with hanging themselves to cut off oxygen to the brain and bring about the rush of emergency hormones. What gets media mileage are those instances when they do it alone and they end up dead. I haven't heard it happening hereabouts

What brings kids to the edge of despair? Suicide is not something one just decides to do. More often than not, it's a premeditated decision that is reached after lengthy consideration and countless mental rehearsals through morbid fantasies or increasingly damaging self-mutilation. (For that matter, flirting with oxygen deprivation also indicates despair, or at least the need to experience a state opposite it. We can argue about intent, but all told the act does have the same potentially fatal consequence as suicide ideation.) There are signs that one is at risk. Unfortunately, the signs are often missed.

Kids these days experience a higher level of stress. One controversial study established that the level of stress teenagers experience today would have been enough to put people in a mental institution fifty years ago. That stress could over time lead to depression and despair when one experiences a deep sense of hopelessness and disconnection from the rest of the world.

The stress comes from overstimulation from information bombardment, an endless array of choices that demand decision for which their young minds are not able to cope, lack of guidance and control over one's life, and alienation from family and social support with whom one could bounce it off. The last factor is the most crucial, especially in this time when one out of four kids has a parent working away from the home on a more or less permanent basis.

More and more, kids are forced in situations where adult decisions have to be made and they have to do it on their own. More and more they face a harsh, cruel world where only the limits of age bar them from instant gratification despite the array of choices seemingly open to everyone else. At a time in their lives when they need to get a handle on self-regulation and self-inhibition, they seldom have the firm and consistent adult support of a parent who is always there for them.

When kids can't cope, they cry out for help. Unfortunately, most of us miss the signs. We rarely suspect self-mutilation even when the evidence is right in front of our eyes. We pay attention when a kid acts up, but it's the kind of attention meant to cause humiliation and further wound the psyche, arousing aggressive impulses some more. We don't reach out to the withdrawn, except to wish he'd snap out of it so he won't dampen our mood by his sullen presence. Declarations of intent to kill one's self or words to that effect are met with impatience or derision, never to be taken seriously.

Be on the lookout then for the withdrawn, the alienated, and the mutilated. Turned in on themselves and their psychic anguish, their worlds collapse into a dark hole and they fail to see the opportunities and the beauty in everyday. The quarrelsome is actually a more hopeful proposition because it means that there is still the attempt to connect with another person, to negotiate terms of engagement for some kind of continuing relationship, no matter how turbulent and dysfunctional.

People anchor us and tie us down to our present. We have to live when we live for others. But for some, forming rewarding, affirming, empowering relationships is so hard to do. Some could only relate to others by pushing them away. Suicide becomes an option when we have no one to render meaning to our lives. When we are nothing to nobody we could be gone today and it wouldn't matter to anyone.

Rendered adrift from ties to authority and peer connections, the young turn to vicarious models for alternatives to deal with hostility, anger, pain, fear, rejection and frustration. We implicate the availability of media models that propose and glorify suicide as a way out. Yes, that includes news reports in the papers, network news coverage of jumpers, acid rock lyrics, TV and movie scripts that portray suicide, and even celebrity write-ups that romanticize the failed attempts of the likes of the beautiful Angelina Jolie.

Factor in also the proliferation of lethal substances and dangerous toys. It's scary to think just how easy it is to acquire the stuff one needs to exercise unequivocal control over one's life.

Ironic as it may seem, that is what suicide is. It is the ultimate decision, and for one who has his life progressively going out of his control, there is a kind of peace of mind that results from making the decision to end it.   For once, one is in complete control, and that could be the ultimate seduction.

(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan's column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to gail@mindanews.com. "Send at the risk of a reply," she says).