One step from suicide

Not just sympathetic voices at the end of a phone, the Samaritans will visit schools to give early advice to teenagers. Carolyn O'Grady reports Suicide. It's not an easy subject for teachers to discuss with young people, and yet it is a subject which may be on their minds a lot more than we think. A recent survey by the Samaritans of 8,000 13-17 year olds in north London makes alarming reading. More than 42 per cent said they had felt that there was no point in living. Over 11 per cent said they had attempted to end their life.

These findings underscore what has been known for some time: the number of suicides in the 15-24 age group is rising. In the past 10 years it has increased by 37 per cent for both sexes and by 71 per cent for young men.

Young women attempt suicide far more often than young men: about 1 in 100 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 overdose every year. But young men are much more likely to succeed in killing themselves, probably because the methods they use, such as hanging, car exhaust poisoning and shooting, are more often irrevocable.

Why the number of suicides, real and attempted, is on the increase in this age group is hard to judge. But most are agreed that talking about feelings is important. Over 18 per cent of questionnaire respondents felt they had no one to talk to if a major difficulty occurs.

The thought of discussing suicide may scare many teachers and parents, but it is the Samaritans' job. Apart from answering telephones, many branches give talks to schools, usually as part of personal and social education, to inform youngsters about their role.

Accompanying Sara Waters of the Samaritans North London Youth Project on one of the many talks she gives (she prefers to call them "discussions"), it was hard to believe that any of the group of 30 or so savvy, lively 14 and 15 year olds at Aylward Comprehensive School in Enfield might ever have thought of suicide.

Fairly unabashed at the talk of death, suicide, abuse and emotional neglect, they already knew by and large what the Samaritans do. It was interesting, however, that some of the first questions they asked about them concerned itemised phone bills, which might alert parents.

Sara explored issues fast and repeatedly challenged assumptions. Take confidentiality: "Say someone rang us and said they were murdering Aylward kids. Should we give them confidentiality?" The class was flummoxed. The fact is that when the Samaritans say "confidential", they mean it.

Many of the pupils were confident that what they really want is advice, but again they found themselves challenged. "Who thinks I, Sara, know what's best for you?" Listening and empathising is what people in trouble often need as much as anything, she suggested.

"But if I ring you and I talk and I then put down the phone, I still have the problem," protested a pupil. "True, but you know when you have a problem it goes round and round in your head. By talking to someone you can break the cycle, explore the options and see things in perspective." Not everyone appeared convinced.

To give the pupils an insight into what might be meant by good listening, Sara asked them to get into pairs. First, pupil A talked while pupil B feigned indifference, and then pupil B talked while pupil A listened attentively. The difference in how each situation made the pupil feel was acknowledged.

The class then discussed some of the reasons young people have given for attempting suicide. "She's found someone else"; "Our dog has been killed"; "I've forged my dad's signature". They may seem trivial to others, but be incredibly important, even the last straw, to those experiencing them. Too often young people dismiss their own problems as trivial, or fear that others will discount them. This is a point clearly made in the Samaritans' video, Always There. It explains the Samaritans' role and illustrates the kind of situation which can drive young people to despair, including bullying at school, abuse at home and drugs.

It also corrects a few misconceptions. The Samaritans is not a religious organisation. It does not trace calls and pass on information. The people who work for them are not all middle-aged, middle class and white, and they do not only work on telephones. You can visit Samaritan centres and talk to volunteers face to face.

Always There, Pounds 15; information pack free; resource pack for teachers Pounds 5. From the Samaritans, 10 The Grove, Slough SL1 1QP. Branches vary considerably in their capacity to provide talks, but for information contact your local branch or the above address.

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