While We Watch in Baffled Horror, They Kill Themselves
Children as young as twelve were doing it. Girls as well as boys were involved. They joined together in suicide pacts, they copied the actions of friends who had killed themselves and they deliberately overdosed on drugs before doing themselves in. More often than not, they hanged themselves, making a statement in the extreme manner of their deaths that they considered themselves to be fundamentally worthless and to merit suffering as they left this world. In the farewell messages, many said they had no other way to escape pain and almost all of them said life was not worth living.
-James Bartleman, As Long as the Rivers Flow, (Alfred A. Knoff Canada, 2011), diplomat, author, 27th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Canada, member of Chippewas of Mnjikaning (Rama) First Nation (b. 1937)
Isn’t that ridiculous? Teenagers who can’t figure out what to do with their lives so they choose to end it all. They have no trouble getting interested in sending each other hundreds of text messages a day, playing online games with each other till all hours of the morning and watching music videos on their cell phones, but they can’t find time to decide what to do with their lives. Is that lazy or just twisted?
Our usual habit, when we can’t figure out an explanation for the behaviour of other people, is to blame them for something, as if they are the cause of their own feeling of worthlessness.
In the case of this quote, the teens (many just had their thirteenth birthday) under consideration were First Nations (a.k.a. Indians) and Inuit (formerly called Eskimos) in isolated communities in Canada’s north.
But the situation is similar in many pockets in any large city in North America, no matter what the culture of the parents might be. Teens are ending their lives in shocking numbers. We don’t hear much about their deaths because the media prefer to avoid reporting them if possible.
Why would a young person consider himself or herself worthless? Why would they do themselves harm–such as by cutting themselves repeatedly–because they feel they deserve to suffer? What pain could they be suffering if their lives are supported with food, clothing and shelter by their parents (or sometimes by the state)? Why is life not worth living for them?
It’s safe to say that if we can’t come up with answers, we will have trouble sympathizing–or worse, empathizing–with them. How can we stop them from committing suicide if we don’t understand why it seems so attractive to them?
Let’s pose a question for ourselves at this point. If you knew that someone you know was seriously considering ending their own life, you would likely try to do something to stop them. Why? Would it be because you would feel guilty about having done nothing to prevent it after it happened?
How would you know, until the last possible few days or hours, that someone was actually planning to end their life? It’s hard.
Suicide ends the pain for one person, but heaps it on others. It took many years of my asking my own father how his father–the grandfather I never knew–died (when my father was five years old) before he told me that his father had asphyxiated himself by sitting in his running car inside his locked garage.
Why would he not tell me earlier? Surely he didn’t feel guilty because he let his father die when he was five years old. No. My father knew about depression, though he tried to hide it from everyone. He knew that a depressed person will often think about suicide. He knew that when his father had ended his life in a bout of depression, the risk of his following the same path increased greatly.
My father didn’t want his own son to feel that “suicide is in the family” when I found myself in the depths of depression. He was afraid for me, for my life. More than three generations after my grandfather ended his life, the risk that one of his descendents might follow the same path is still with us. Mine is just one family. There are thousands of others, some of them not far from where you live.
To learn more about why people end their lives we need to learn more about how they begin. Some species spread their seeds wider by giving birth to many young, such as a spider that might lay 300 eggs in a single egg sac. Some give birth to young that are immediately ready to take their place in the world among adults and predators. Humans give birth to relatively few young who are the most helpless and incompetent offspring of any animal species we know.
How have we survived and thrived as a species under such strange circumstances? Especially when we make such a tasty meal for predators and have precious few natural defenses. We survived by teaching our young everything they needed to know to be successful adults. It took twenty years for each child, but our ancestors did it.
Do we do that today? No. That’s a generalization, but a reasonable one. It requires little explanation or support for anyone who has thought about it.
Think about this: how often did one of your parents or someone responsible for your care as you were growing up tell you something that you knew immediately by what they said was a lesson you would need to know when you were an adult?
We don’t teach life lessons the way people did in the past. Kids who grew up on farms used to learn how to be farmers. They knew farm life because they lived it. Kids of auto mechanics learned about fixing cars and trucks because it would happen around their house as they grew up. In Christian countries kids went to church on Sundays and were taught how they should behave–what they should do and what they should not do–as adults.
Today’s parents have little opportunity to teach their children how to do the jobs they do at work. There wouldn’t be any point anyway. Many people might identify themselves with one religion on a census form, but they don’t practice that religion by going to its place of worship and taking their children along to learn the life lessons taught there.
In fact, most adults have the impression that kids learn life lessons just by growing up. Maybe in school, maybe in the playgrounds, maybe in the shopping malls, but somewhere. Schools are not designed to teach such lessons and often curriculum restricts teaching them. Kids don’t learn those lessons on the street, in many cases.
They do learn other things on the street. One is that their parents are not teaching them what they need to know as adults. Another, which they learn in school, is that schools are not teaching them skills and knowledge they can use as adults. Educators call much of what they teach mind stretching, but kids just see it as busy work.
So they rebel. They may become “discipline problems” in school, or they drop out. They may leave home to become punkers, or skinheads, or to join some kind of gang made up of others with the same life deficits and a willingness to share their pain. They may become alcoholics or drug addicts, prostitutes or pimps, junkies or resellers of stolen property.
Many kids feel more “at home” with a group of others of their peers who feel left out of life than they do with their own families. They know intuitively that their parents should be teaching them life lessons and their school should be teaching them life skills they need, but they don’t know what those lessons are so they can’t express their need for them to the people who should be teaching those lessons.
Something needs to change. But what? And how? It must begin with the education system. Schools teach children, but eventually those children become adults and parents of their own children. Then, as adults, they can teach their own kids.
Schools need to focus more attention than they do on social skills. Look at the divorce rates, the incidents of domestic disputes, public riots and even road rage to see how much trouble so many people are having with their fellow humans. Even the police don’t negotiate with troublesome people as much now if they can use a taser instead.
Schools also need to teach emotional skills. That includes not just what to do to avoid hurting someone’s feelings and how to stop bullying, but also coping skills. Every life has downturns and we each need to know what to do, who to turn to, what we can count on when times get really tough.
Because when times get to be their worst and people don’t know what to do to help themselves or where to turn for help, they believe that life is no longer worthwhile. They believe that they are worthless.
We have already established what many young people will do when they reach that stage.
It’s real. Kids are killing themselves and sometimes taking many others with them when they go. We don’t need to act as if we have no idea what to do about it.
You read this article. You know. You need to talk with teachers and elected people who have responsibility for setting school curriculum and persuade them to drop some of what is unnecessary and add what is.
Lives depend on it. Please talk about this.
Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for teachers and parents to show what kids need to know and when they need to know it.
Learn more about the book and get related information at our web site at http://billallin.com