Teenage suicide - tackling the taboo

9th September 2005 at 01:00
It must be every parent's nightmare. There are so many obstacles in your children's paths. They can get hurt and they can hurt other people. They can fail at school or lose their way. They can get involved in drugs or take up with the wrong kind of friends. But what can be worse than knowing your child has lost all hope and taken his or her own life?

More than a year ago, I was made aware of the problem of teenage depression and suicide in the course of my career. I'm the author of many novels for teenagers. As a result, I visit 150 schools in the UK and abroad each year, talking about the process of writing. During the past 12 months alone, I came across three incidents of teenage suicide on my travels.

One set of official statistics I read admitted to 18 teenage suicides a year. But I had visited only 150 schools that year and I encountered three - one of them a teacher's son. What shocked me was that I felt such an affinity for the grieving mum. Like her, I had been a teacher (for 18 years). Like her, I had teenage kids and wanted the best for them. But LESS THAN her son - bright, engaging, outwardly balanced and successful - took his own life. It was devastating.

So I started my research. Half of young people in the West say they suffer from depression from time to time. Asked why, they mention many factors - the pace of modern life, the drive for academic success, the need to be socially accepted and sometimes the peer group pressure to take drugs or become involved in anti-social behaviour.

What makes things worse is the fact that depression and suicidal feelings remain a major taboo. Many youngsters, especially boys, feel the need to adopt a "stiff upper lip". In a 2001 Samaritans survey, 20 per cent of young people said they would laugh if a male friend said he was depressed.

Now consider this. Women and girls are three times more likely to attempt suicide but boys and men are six times more likely to succeed, because they use more violent methods.

The more I read and talked to people, the more I knew I had to write about a teenage suicide. This wouldn't be easy. There is a backlash against so-called "issue" books and the subject was harrowing. But I wasn't writing about an issue. I was writing about a person - one of those smiling faces I saw in the newspapers who gave up and took his or her own life, shattering a family forever.

I also knew what the approach was going to be. When I was young, I suffered three weeks of persistent bullying. That's right - a mere three weeks, but it was an experience that would creep regularly into my fiction and mark my outlook on the world for life.

I started meeting teenagers who would shelter in the school library during breaks to avoid relentless bullying. At least one bullying-related suicide occurs in the UK each month. At least one third of our children experience bullying at some time, in spite of official anti-bullying policies.

Then came the detail that helped all the research to coalesce into a realisable character - John Sorrel. Teenagers coming to terms with being gay are 10 times more likely to commit suicide than others their age. John isn't gay. He is, however, bookish and sensitive. Marking him out as gay becomes the bullies' tactic to destroy his fragile confidence.

Teenage depression and suicide is a taboo subject. It makes people uncomfortable. But, for the sake of our youngsters, it shouldn't be. The issues need to be addressed honestly. Vulnerable young people need to know that somebody cares. Sadly, I believe the figures cited for teenage suicide are on the conservative side. As I understand it, UK coroners record a verdict of suicide only if it is proved "beyond all reasonable doubt".

If my book can help make the mental health of our young people a legitimate subject for debate, it will have succeeded. My protagonist, John Sorrel, records his feelings in poetry: Glass breaks because it is fragile.

You don't blame the glass for breaking.

A heart breaks because it is fragile.

So why blame the heart for breaking?

Why blame me?

Hold On by Alan Gibbons is available from Orion Children's Books, priced Pounds 5.99

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