Social scientists believe that behind the growing trend of youth suicide is a loss of hope and purpose in their livesThere are perhaps as many causes for suicide as there are suicide attempts. This paper will focus on just two important causes - that of family breakdown and the general loss of purpose and meaning in contempory society. These are not the only causes, but they certainly are vital parts of the equation.
- Loss or absence of a parent can lead to adolescents using drugs, getting pregnant, or committing suicide.
- Suicide rates tend to be higher amongst those from broken homes
- Relationship breakdowns cause suicide rates to soar
- Western consumerism has produced a generation who feel disaffected and alienated from their own selves
- The loss of moral and religious values are key factors
A number of studies conducted by social scientists have noted that family breakdown in general, and the absence of marriage in particular, tends to heavily influence suicide rates.
A brief sampling of the evidence is here presented. Dr Armand Nicholi, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, reports: "the absence of a parent through death, divorce, or a time-demanding job contributes to the many forms of emotional disorder, especially the anger, rebelliousness, low self-esteem, depression, and antisocial that characterises those adolescents who take drugs, become pregnant out of wedlock, or commit suicide." (Nicholi, 1991)
He goes on to point out that "other studies have found that children of divorce make up an estimated 60 per cent of child patients in clinical treatment and 80 to 100 per cent of adolescents in in-patient mental hospital settings."
He concludes: "Research indicates clearly that a broken home with the resultant loss or absence of a parent predisposes a child to a variety of emotional disorders that manifest themselves immediately or later in the child's life."
Suicide rates also tend to be higher amongst those from broken homes. Studies by Goldney 1982, Deykin 1986, Trovato 1986, and Adams, Bouchoms and Steiner 1982, for example, show a statistically significant incidence of separation and divorce in the families of adolescents who attempt suicide as compared with control groups.
A 1987 study by Wodarski and Harris linked the increase in suicides in America to the proliferation of single-parent households. And a 1988 study of 752 families found that youths who attempted suicide differed little in terms of age, income, race and religion, but were "more likely to live in non-intact family settings."
Recently a Flinders University professor of social sciences reported that research shows a very close link between suicidal behaviour and parent-child relationships (Hughes).
Psychologists from the University of Leiden conducted a study of nearly 14,000 Dutch adolescents between the ages of 12 to 19. They found that slightly more than 10 per cent of the adolescents living in non-intact families reported having attempted suicide, compared to 5.3 per cent of peers living in intact families (Garnefski and Diekstra).
Loss of Purpose and Meaning
It is perhaps ironic that while affluent Western culture has made it possible for our children - indeed, all of us - to live longer, healthier and more prosperous lives than at any other time, it has also produced a generation of young people who feel disaffected and alienated from society, from purpose, from their own selves. With our material abundance has come a stagnation of soul and spirit. The many benefits of our materialistic culture are being offset by the many negative consequences of Western consumerism.
Such talk of course may not go down well with politicians looking for tangible answers to the problems of youth suicide. Yet we cannot overlook such concerns. John Smith, who has spent most of his adult life working with street kids, puts it this way: "Most sociologists in our society today are radically secular, so therefore anything that even begins to speak of the spiritual nature of the human being is ipso facto non-existent.
"Therefore one must find a cause which is social, socio-economic, political, structural and all the rest. On the issue of youth suicide, for example, the politicians say that if the Government doesn't fix up unemployment we are going to see much more suicide.
"If you don't accept that suicide is a mark of a loss of any sense and meaning of purpose and soul, which is all a bit ephemeral for academics that have to be able to show figures for causal relationships, then you have to invent something and you target unemployment, and if that doesn't work you target something else, and if that doesn't work you keep playing the game."
Smith, who is currently completing his PhD in social sciences, has found from his long-term work with youth offenders that broken families and the loss of moral/religious values are the key factors in the lives of those he works with.
Social scientist Richard Eckersley has studied the attitudes of children and teenagers for over a decade. He believes that behind the growing trends of youth homelessness, youth suicide, drug abuse and other problems lies a "failure to provide a sense of meaning, belonging and purpose in our lives, and a framework of values."
Eckersley notes that many young people "have lost a strong belief in anything that transcends the material world and that might sustain them in the face of its dangers and disappointments." Economic rationalism, material abundance, and rugged individualism, in other words, are not enough to sustain and protect our hurried and harassed young people.
Sydney psychiatrist Dr. Jean Lennane has noted that a decline in formal religious observance, "and the support and comfort it previously offered," is a key factor in the rise in youth suicide rates. This decline, along with a decline in ideals of public service and helping others, as well as a flowering of the "greed is good" mentality have all made an impact. Dr Lennane also notes that family breakdown and the push for legal euthanasia are important contributing factors.
Although hard to quantify and analyse, this loss of hope and purpose is certainly a key factor in the problem of youth suicide. If young people are constantly bombarded with the idea that life has no meaning or purpose, that human beings simply evolved out of some primordial ooze, and are drifting into a meaningless future, then the question that needs to be asked is, why not suicide? It seems like a good option if life really is so purposeless and bleak.
Obviously the question of spiritual and moral meaning falls beyond the role of government legislation. But perhaps governments can help by acknowledging the role religion plays in the life of society, and allow us as much freedom as is possible, both in the public sphere, and in the private.
In terms of the problem of family breakdown, governments can play a much more supportive role. By making divorce more difficult (perhaps by reintroducing fault), by providing more resources into marriage education and counselling, by not undermining marriage (by granting non-marrieds extra privileges, as in IVF access, etc), and by encouraging family-friendly economic policies (e.g. tax initiatives), governments can help to support struggling families.
Governments may find by doing so, that they are making a positive contribution to the problem of youth suicide.
(Written by Bill Muehlenberg, the National Secretary of the Australian family Association and previously published in Cutting Edge No.50, Dec 2000/Jan2001 by the Maxim Institute. Reproduced with permission.)
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