The impact of suicide on the family and other significant others in the life of someone who successfully ends his/her life can be devastating.
We keep hearing of adolescents who commit suicide or young adults who end their lives by themselves.
I have emphasized in previous parts of this series the need for us to resist the temptation of blaming someone who commits suicide for killing himself/herself. While appreciating the fact that a suicidal adolescent could be suffering from a mental illness, we need to critically explore the basis that a child might not be developed/matured enough to have the capacity to understand the concept of dying and the required judgment to be able to critically determine the consequences of his/her action. That is why a child below the age of 7 years old might not be criminally responsible for a murder.
It is generally reported that children might reach the age of four years old before grasping that death is irreversible. They might not appreciate the non-functionality of a dead person until much later. Hence, it might not be out of place for us to critically consider the possibility of a child not being cognitively developed enough to fully appraise the fatal act of suicide and its contingent outcomes on the significant others in the child’s life. From clinical case reports in Nigeria and beyond, children as young as 7 years of age have been shown to have attempted suicide. Some of these children have been found to have made such attempts more than once which shows that there appears to be some degree of intense motivation to die in the child.
Risk factors for suicide in adolescents
Some of the factors that might make a young person want to attempt suicide include:
Severe mental illness (Schizophrenia, depressive illness etc.)
Family discord or unstable families
Poor social skills
Chronic physical illness
Preventing adolescent suicide
I have come across young persons who give a history of haven attempted suicide while in school; which was never reported to the parents by the school authority! As the school has a duty to inform parents, so also the parents have a duty to disclose to the school if their children might require additional support.
Talking about suicide especially with a young person who admits to having suicidal thoughts would not make him or her commit suicide. It will only give a chance for reviewing alternative options outside suicide for resolving emotional conflicts.
It is not out of place to ask a young person who is expressing feelings of being rejected or being unwanted if he/she had ever thought of going away and never coming back, disappearing forever or going to bed and not waking up. The follow-up question to this should be to determine if the young person had ever tried to do something to make that happen. Specific enquiries should be made about the planning or execution of methods considered. The level of thinking and planning towards success, concealment of the act and making preparations for when he/she is gone would determine how strong the intent is.
Most adolescents who commit suicide actually give farewell cues which people around would not take serious simply because nobody is expecting it to happen.
Some of these cues could include:
- Becoming withdrawn and expressing feelings of being disconnected from everyone else
- Drawing or writing about death- these could include drawing weapons or harmful objects, drawing hangman’s noose, writing names of dead people, writing quotes of dead people.
- Reading about death and dying- Some adolescents who have access to the internet have been reported to have actually surfed the internet about methods for carrying out suicide.
- Farewells- Some adolescents begin to bid people farewell or give out their stuff
- Keeping weapons- some of them suddenly develop an interest in weapons and objects that could potentially lead to someone dying. They might even ask questions and seek clarifications about the lethality of these objects.
When you pick up any of these cues, you might need to seek the advice of a mental health professional ASAP.
The approach towards reducing adolescent suicide is multifaceted.
The family, educational institutions, health service providers and the government have their own roles to play. All persons who work with children need to be informed about these to be able to intervene when the need arises.
There is no harm in getting a mental health evaluation. It is better to be safe than sorry.
In situations where there are social factors like marital schisms or problems with coping in school or other conflicts with social interaction, the best interest of the child must be the key consideration when evaluating options for favourable outcomes. Protecting the child’s emotional stability should be our goal.