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When kids end their own lives

why we are killing them with a flawed narrative

An essay on suicide prevention popped up on my Facebook feed. The author was spurred to write it due to the loss of her friend. At 19, they shouldn’t have to feel such loss:

“In the last visible post, you wrote that it was “not that (our) love isn’t enough, but (you) — (you’re) not enough”. It breaks my heart to think that our society is one that fails to validate a person for inherently just being.

The last youth suicide I knew about, he was just an 11 year old. This is not an anomaly:

For the 10–19 age group, there were 27 suicides in 2015; an average of more than two teenage suicides a month. This was twice the number for this age group from the previous year, and one of the highest figures in recent years. This is despite a shrinking population of those aged 10–19, which has seen a decline of 7.1% since 2012. — Samaritans of Singapore

Each time a kid takes their life, I think about the loss of love and potential, of their stories we will be poorer without. Who could they have become? Who could they have loved? Who would have lost the opportunities to love them, to know them, to witness their journeys?

Having written about my own suicidal tendencies before, I thought of the countless times I have seriously contemplated it when I was that age. The world I knew was so small, but it felt like it was everything, there was no way out, death was such a promise compared to life. I couldn’t breathe, I didn’t want to live, I felt trapped in a life I didn’t ask for.

The self back then, wouldn’t and couldn’t have known how life would unfold. In an On Being podcast episode, the guest Jennifer Michael Hecht discussed the philosophical implications of suicide, quoting Camus:

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question.”

Co-incidentally, I came to a similar conclusion myself:

“Is life worth living solely because of life? The detached observer in me tells me I don’t have the whole picture yet. As long as I am still alive, I am ignorant of the whole picture, and I cannot let what I feel now rob me of the finality I will one day face, that at the very least, I owe it to myself and those who love me, to at least sit it out for myself to truly answer my own question.” — source

Hecht goes on to distill it further:

“That life is worth living, this absurd, strange thing should be witnessed, and it’s vital that you, essentially, have some respect for your future self, who’s going to know things you don’t know.”

But here is the fine print that is not really alluded by the podcast or myself — arespect for your future self requires a certain degree of respect and sense of self for your current self. It is like chicken and egg. Asking for respect for a future self from a suicidal person especially a child is virtually impossible, because they cannot see any light for the future. Kids do not possess the tools to see beyond their narrow worldview, to make sense and meaning of their suffering. They lack agency and hence feel powerless, dependent on their adults for empowerment to see possibilities. Hecht imply how important it is for kids to be able to reach out:

“…children don’t have to be able to see their way out of a difficulty, they just have to report it, because grown-ups are — they have almost different brains…if you can’t think of a way out of it, that doesn’t mean there’s not a way out of it. That’s something that studying the brains of younger people definitely made me think I need to pass on. I see my kid in despair, and it’s something that I can help fix, but they don’t see it at all.”

The capacity to reach out, to even know one has that option, is its own chicken and egg problem. The social stigma for mental illnesses and suicidal tendencies is so strong:

…we are so often told to be thankful for our privilege, taught by the public that expression of negative emotions is an indication of weakness or a lack of gratitude. We are convinced that our material possessions or tangible achievements are the only valuable assets and there is nothing more we could ask for — our understanding of value is warped thereon. — source

I wouldn’t have reached out as a suicidal child or teen. Any tiny expression of helplessness or any attempt to share my immense despair would be met with cold apathy. Why can your friend/neighbour/relative/sibling/anybody do this but you cannot? I am disappointed in you.On hindsight, perhaps it is not that the adults didn’t care, it was this pervasive notion that this is how we raise resilient, competitive children. We get them to try harder by making them feel guilt. There is this assumption that kids are just kids, that our emotions cannot be real, our youthful lightness will get us over any perceived hardship quickly.

But the sensitive ones are those who suffer, who feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. The ones who try so hard to be little adults too early too soon, hurt the most. It is precisely the sense of responsibility — that we must be more, we have to develop the capacity to give more in order to be of any value to this world, the society we belong in, the family we are born to. We must make them proud, and it is not enough to just be ourselves. We have to strive, to be stronger, to be resilient, because that is the narrative that has been drilled to us since day one — we are an economic miracle, we have to be exceptional in order to survive, to inherit this country’s great legacy. Our forefathers did not complain, our PM finished our national day rally after almost collapsing on stage, ours is a nation built on sweat and sacrifices.

The same narrative, inspiring to most, potentially crippling to some of us. When we fail at some stage in our lives, all we can see is the end to the trajectories we have planned in order to be a valuable contributor to society or even just to deliver filial piety — anything to avoid alienation, looks of judgment, disapproval and disappointment. Our sense of self worth is hinged upon how much we can contribute, measured in quantifiable metrics. What is your KPI?

I read her blog. She was writing what it meant to have her shaved, bald head in support of Hair for Hope. It is strange, a profound indicator of a shared humanity, how much sadness I had felt towards a stranger. I wish I had found her earlier. I wish I could tell her: hang on a bit, decide a bit later, give yourself some room to let life unfold. Some of us had felt similarly too, and had known nothing else but despair, but now we are slowly finding our way, embracing the concept of Kintsugi.

I wish I could tell her that it gets better, except I have no confidence to.

In the past year alone, I have had one acquaintance who attempted suicide, a few others contemplating it, several friends admitting to tendencies. In some of these cases I have no comfort for them, especially when we are looking at chronic conditions with lifelong medical expenses. Can I tell them it will get better, that somehow their bills will get magically paid and they can have the space to heal?

I am under no illusion that it did get better for me because I was incredibly lucky and I had favourable economic conditions.

I can only hope that I will keep on having the courage to keep on working towards a more connected society, one that will: come together to support our disadvantaged, learn to love her people no matter who they are, contain a diverse array of stories and possibilities, redefine the meaning of value, give our kids hope, let them have ideals, and room to grow into their beautiful selves.

Let us be a society that tells her people in no uncertain terms, the world will be less without them. That their being, their mere presence is enough.

Originally published on Medium.