Tackilng thoughts of self-harm

Neerja Singh

It is staring us in the face today, this alarming new frontier that our kids seem to face. A quick search on the internet will throw up the disturbing new trend of self-harm and suicide among the young. According to the latest available data from the National Crime Records Bureau, a student commits suicide every hour in India. The world’s second most populous country of over 1 billion has one of the highest suicide rates among those aged 15 to 29.

The suicides begin in school; continue in college and into the late 20s. Academic stress, highly competitive admissions to prestigious institutions and the whimsical job market are all contributing factors. Add to this the fear of disappointing their ambitious parents and falling behind their peers. Ironically enough, even those students who eventually do pass the entrance exams feel even more pressure to excel at university, often taking their own lives when it all becomes too much.

What is going on here? Do we have an inkling of what it is like to be in the shoes our children wear today? For instance, do parents and teachers realize that suicidal thoughts are becoming increasingly ordinary and pedestrian among young people? Kids today talk with one another, rather freely, about their thoughts of hopelessness and suicidal ideation. At times there may be a vision of plans, they might even think of how people might react once they are gone?

What were we like in contrast? There was much less self-awareness, less insecurity, and fewer comparisons to others. Who cared at age eight or nine whether other kids were smarter, more athletic, better looking, and so on? There was protection from these painful comparisons and insecurities by way of distractions and buffers that cloaked us in a cottony cocoon.

Kids today are exposed to the stimuli that fuel these comparisons every single day. It is right there, in their pocket or close by, waiting to remind them of their “imperfections,” real or merely perceived. Imagine this diminishing of their minds, bodies and social capital entering the consciousness as a constant flux, the terrifying notion that they are not good enough, that they may be unloved or worse, unlovable.

Dr. Harish Shetty, a psychiatrist at Dr. L. H. Hiranandani Hospital believes that an inability to cope with small frustrations, failure and loss, often coupled with social alienation can prove critical for some students. Neerja Birla, the founder and chairperson of Mpower, a mental health organization, rightly points out that when it comes to mental health, Indian parents need to stop going into denial mode and issuing defensive statements like, “My child has no such problems!”

A survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies* reveals about four in ten students in India have experienced bouts of depression in the last few years. Schools and colleges are inept at dealing with nervous breakdowns among students. They do not yet foster a culture of understanding and trust, empathy and compassion.

As parents therefore, we can no longer avoid the discussion of suicide and suicidal ideation with our children. There is more than one set of grieving parents out there who were wholly blindsided, unaware that suicide was even a thought in their child’s mind. Most parents, quite understandably, will have fears that children will be suggestible, somehow, if we introduce the idea of suicide to them, that we might be planting the seed of an idea. Historically, there may have been a time when this was the case, and parents could protect children from that degree of hopelessness. Sadly, that time is quite long gone.

Knowing she has someone to talk with, someone who is open, non-judgmental and not too afraid, is precisely what the teen suffering suicidal thoughts most needs. A safety plan can be enormously comforting too. No suicidal person truly wants to die. Most have been known to describe a “suicidal fog” in which all feels lost and hopeless. Providing them an option, a “call me without reservation,” tends to allow for just enough hope to provide a beacon through the fog, one that can be truly lifesaving.

There is a new quasi-suicidal thinking afoot, the idea that “I am not going to do anything to hurt myself, but I don’t care if I wake up tomorrow, either.” We need to be alert, and ask “Does this have to do with the way you feel about yourself? The world? The future?” Consider too: Is your child quieter than she used to be? Is she spending more time alone? Is she down and sullen? Has her behaviour shifted dramatically? Does she suddenly seem buoyant and relieved after a period of depression? Any and all of these can be indications of suicide risk, with many more precipitants, of course. That “suicide fog” can sweep over a child in the wake of a bad test score, or fear of a disciplinary issue, or an aftermath of a sudden breakup. So, ask if she is okay and be receptive to the answer, especially if it is a no.

The bottom line is this: we are losing far too many young people to suicide – bright, talented, beautiful young people who cannot see past the moment. We can no longer keep this issue under wraps, vaguely cloaked in shame. The world our children are growing up in is a far harsher place than the one we came of age in. The right thing to do therefore is to balance the harsh messages our children receiveconstantly with gentleness. They need to know, now more than ever, that they have a soft, available place to fall.

What will be your course of action therefore if your tween does happen to be suicidal? Should your child express that she is overtly suicidal in the moment that you ask, the immediate plan would be to call a suicide prevention helpline or get to one such centre should there be trouble connecting. This will ensure her safety right away and there will be professionals for guidance through the next steps. If your child expresses some degree of suicidal ideation, but she does not have a plan and clearly is no immediate threat to herself, the thing to do would be to seek a psychologist or licensed clinical social worker, with specific experience working with young people who have experienced this despair.

It is a mighty parent that has the presence of mind to use all of the tools at her disposal to help her child regain a sense of safety and well-being. Whatever it takes!

*The findings of the 2016 Lokniti-CSDS Youth Survey indicate that around four out of 10 youngsters who are currently studying felt regular or occasional depression/tension during last couple of years. Loneliness may be one reason as in the survey 30% also confirmed feeling lonely at times.
https://www.lokniti.org/media/upload_files/KeyfindingsfromtheYouthStudy.pdf

The author is a former teacher/journalist, published author, and a public speaker with a background and training in media, having worked in advertising, public relations, documentary film making, and feature journalism. She can be reached at [email protected].

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