When a young person kills themselves, the question most adults, friends and family asks is the same question we ask when anyone kills themselves — Why? While teen suicide seems to make even less sense than adult suicide (because adults have at least led a longer, experience-filled life), it can make a lot of sense if you’re a teen. Life can be especially confusing and filled with emotions one may not have the most control over when you’re a teen. Leaving life may seem like a real way through the turmoil.
For those left behind, however, it’s a mind-boggling exercise in overwhelming questions and emotions. And if it happens on your little island that hasn’t suffered a teen suicide in over 60 years, and in the course of a year has 3 teen suicides, you can imagine the questioning and second-guessing everyone is doing.
The island? Nantucket, an isolated summer haven for Massachusetts residents that’s a 2-hour ferry ride from the mainland.
The Boston Globe has the story, Three Teen Suicides Shake Nantucket.
Island residents are searching for clues to answers, yet I suspect none will be forthcoming. Why? Because the question is unanswerable — there rarely is a single reason, or even a set of similar reasons, for a person to not only make the decision to take their own life, but to actually go through with it.
Could the island’s isolation be a factor in the increased rate of suicide? Perhaps, if we didn’t have this modern thing called the “Internet,” which allows anyone to socialize with anyone else in the world. Isolation is no longer as significant a factor as it may have once been with teens spending so much time IMing one another and on each other’s Myspace pages. If anything, one might expect the broad availability of social networking technologies to reduce teen suicide in isolated areas. That has not been the case on Nantucket. If isolation was a significant factor, we’d also expect the nearby island of Martha’s Vineyard to also be experiencing a similar increase in teen suicides; it has not.
The article points to other possibilities, which make more sense:
Even when suicides come in clusters, they “almost never occur because of one single issue,” said Alan Holmlund, who heads suicide prevention programs at the Department of Public Health. But he said seeing their peers commit suicide may encourage teenagers who have been considering it but might not have attempted it otherwise. Such copycat phenomena are more likely in tightknit communities such as Nantucket, where the high school has only 400 students.
As Nantucket residents struggle to understand what drove the teenagers to suicide, they are uncovering an undercurrent of social problems.
Nantucket’s 10,000 year-round residents have higher rates of alcohol and drug use, depression, and seasonal affective disorder than the statewide rates, said Peter Swenson, who heads the island’s mental health agency.
Bingo. It’s not isolation that leads to suicide, it’s the typical things multiplied because of the isolation and long winters — depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and the increased use of drugs and alcohol to try and cope with these depressive feelings.
And the suicide contagion effect is a real phenomenon. Media reports about suicide can lead to an increase in suicide in a community, especially amongst people younger than 25 (see, for example Romer et. al., 2006).
What’s the solution? Well, one might be more efforts to help teens self-identify depression or SAD, and more psychoeducational efforts to encourage teens to seek out treatment for such disorders (which are both readily treatable). Of course, with a paltry $75,000 earmarked by the state for suicide prevention in schools, resources for such efforts are very scarce.
So while we continue to expend money to build new schools, we skimp on ensuring the people inside those buildings are actually being given access to educational materials that could save their very lives.