Teen suicides: Key reasons are toxic positivity, inability to accept failure and rebuke
Preparing adolescents for adulthood, engaging them in alternative activities, and talking tactfully about death may go a long way in preventing teen suicides
Five teenagers – three girls and a boy studying in Class 12 and a girl in Class 11 – died by suicide over the last two weeks in Tamil Nadu. To the extent we know, the girls had not done badly in exams. The boy is reported to have left a note saying he found it hard to cope with mathematics and biology.
The teenagers were all from semi-urban, rural backgrounds – Cuddalore district, Ayyampatti near Sivakasi, Sivaganga, Kallakurichi, and Kilachery in Tiruvallur district. Two were staying in hostels attached to schools. The other three took their lives at home.
While not much is known about the boy yet, the four girls were from families aspiring to move up the social ladder – none from upper middle class or rich families. None of these took the unfortunate step after failing board exams.
According to National Crime Records Bureau data, up to the age of 18, girls die by suicide in greater number than boys. At 18 and above, the trend changes. So, this article is focussed more on girl students.
On the brink, and beyond
What we know till now about the Tamil Nadu girls who died in recent weeks throws up the question – what could have driven them to the edge?
The class 12 student who took her life in Cuddalore district reportedly left a suicide note. In the other three instances, the reasons are being speculated.
While complete clarity still eludes us, a few factors might help us get a drift of why girls, particularly from economically underprivileged sections of society, tend to take their lives.
The first could be the growing culture of positivity. Some educators think positivity has reached toxic levels among students.
An education consultant who works with schools across mainly semi-urban and rural areas in Tamil Nadu points out that ‘positive’ but hollow messages such as ‘you can do it’, ‘nothing is impossible’, and ‘you can do anything’, have reached students across social strata, thanks to the reach of social media networks. This has helped build aspirations without much awareness about what it would take to realise the dreams.
While it is important to encourage students to overcome adversities with grit and determination, somehow that process has morphed and led to dreaming without thinking of the means.
I met a girl who just cleared Class 10 from a family facing enormous economic stress. She had scored a whopping 97% in Class 10 and was talking rather confidently about becoming an IAS officer. Of course, nothing wrong with that aim but a short conversation revealed that the girl had absolutely no clue about why she wanted to become an IAS officer and what it would take to achieve her objective.
As it happens, one of the Class 12 girls who took her life after leaving a suicide note cited her inability to fulfil aspirations to become an IAS officer, placed on her by her parents, as the reason for her drastic decision. That she concluded on her ‘inability’ to become an IAS officer even before completing Class 12 tells us something.
Need for visibility
The second reason that educators point out is the increasing need for visibility among teens. The wide use of smartphones necessitated during the two years of COVID lockdown has led to a steep increase in the desire to be visible on social media.
An educator cites the example of a conversation among two Class 6 students (in his class) about how many views they got for their videos on YouTube. Students tend to define themselves in terms of how they appear before others and the world.
Conversely, if one doesn’t get enough ‘visibility’ on social media (or in person), it simply destroys one’s self-worth.
An extension of this is the mindset that ‘I cannot be scolded for anything’. So, a mild rebuke from the parent becomes a good enough reason for one to look for a noose, as happened in the case of one of the girls who took her life.
What the numbers suggest
India is topping the world in teen suicides. Between 1995 and 2019, more than 1.7 lakh students took their lives. And within India, Tamil Nadu ranks third (with 914 deaths in 2019), after Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, in the number of student suicides. The state accounted for nearly 10% of the little over 10,000 student suicides in 2019.
But what explains more girls choosing to exit the scene prematurely than boys?
It is possible that boys from low-income families, unlike girls, get exposed to life outside their homes at a much younger age, which also helps them experience ground reality much earlier than girls. They assist their fathers at work, learn some skills, and look for odd jobs to make some pocket money. The girls from certain sections of society, in contrast, don’t venture out much, focus more on academics, and develop romantic notions of the future that lies ahead of them.
A girl’s WhatsApp status says ‘Dad’s Little Princess’. There seems no equivalent of this among boys.
The girl faces a reality check when she sees that she may be a princess to her dad but the world is unlikely to treat her as one.
What can institutions, parents, and teachers do to avert suicides?
Of course, becoming more alert and sensitive to the emotions of teenagers, particularly girls, could be the first step. However, this comes with the risk of overdoing it. When a girl posted a WhatsApp message saying she felt like killing herself, the alarmed school authorities and parents rushed to get in touch with her. When questioned, the amused girl wondered why her innocuous message was causing such flutter.
Three suggestions seem worth considering.
First, noted author Paul Tough, in his book How Children Succeed, talks about how we usually talk about ‘success’ even among children mainly in terms of ‘intelligence’ as indicated by academic performance. He argues that the qualities that matter most have more to do with character: perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control. Schools, teachers and parents can help children develop these qualities consistently over the long term, in the process of preparing them for adulthood.
Secondly, students can be encouraged to engage in activities – either academic or non-academic – without being subjected to the binary evaluation of ‘success’ or ‘failure’. Why not simply encourage the intensity of engagement in any activity – without the burden of having to pronounce a judgment? While slogans like ‘praise the effort; not the child’ sound progressive, they too suffer from an in-built flaw – a child may expect to be praised for efforts all the time.
A third option, to be tactfully handled, is to talk about death with children in a non-emotional, matter-of-fact manner. This may deter teens who might consider suicide as retaliation for some words or acts of their parents or teachers. Perhaps it didn’t sink in the teens who made the decision that death is a one-way street and there would be certainly no coming back. Some appreciation that death marks the absolute end might help in not considering it as an option to punish someone for perceived insults.
(Suicides can be prevented. For help please call Suicide Prevention Helplines: Neha Suicide Prevention Centre – 044-24640050; Aasara helpline for suicide prevention, emotional support & trauma help — +91-9820466726; Kiran, Mental health rehabilitation — 1800-599-0019, Disha 0471- 2552056, Maithri 0484 2540530, TN health helpline 104 and Sneha’s suicide prevention helpline 044-24640050.)
(The author consults in the education domain. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)