No Goodbyes (Part One)

(Part One)

Such are the ripples of lifelong hurt, it is unwise to start a conversation about suicide with people you don’t know very well. Nevertheless, the subject is bursting to be talked about.

Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s science adviser, has pointed out that youth suicide is more complex than ‘a mental health issue.’ True. As emergency mental health workers will tell you, many of the youth suicide attempts that drain emergency services involve relationship conflicts mixed with drugs, alcohol, teenage drama and the belief that emergency mental health services are drop-in centres. Which is frustrating to say the least since successful youth suicide causes deep, wide ranging distress.

Gluckman’s report points to stressed, impaired or underdeveloped self-control, in which mental health, emotional development, brain development, alcohol, sociological, economic and other factors interact to put some young people at greater risk of suicide.

Family discord, adolescent exposure to family violence, lack of resilience, impulsive behaviour, drug and alcohol misuse and low self-esteem, all play a part. As it happens this list also characterises many of the troublesome and troubled adolescents who end up in foster care and ultimately prison.

So how do you prevent youth suicide? Apparently instil in children from an early age resilience to stress and self control skills to counter impulsive behaviour. Unfortunately not all children are capable of developing these useful personal attributes. Some will be genetically programmed to go through life in a state of emotional fragility. Others will have been doomed from the womb by irresponsible parents.

That more than half of youth suicides involve alcohol or illicit drug exposure is no surprise, or that there is “an elevated risk” of suicide in children of heavy drinkers. What is a surprise about his findings, at least to me, is that children who enter puberty at an early age are at far greater risk of behavioural, psychological, and emotional disorder, more likely to indulge in alcohol and drug abuse, and more often demonstrate impulsive behaviours than children who do not enter puberty early.

Apparently, early puberty boys show greater impairment in the quality of their relationships and attempt suicide 5 times more often than boys of average maturation development.

Girls who have early onset of puberty have been shown to have greater risks of alcohol and drug usage, eating disorders, mood disorders, are more likely to have been victims of violence and show a 50% increase in the rate of attempted suicide over girls of average maturation.

This seems barely credible but it makes sense when you consider the difficulties faced by children whose sexual development is so out of sync with the development of their brains. Yet another complication to this complex subject comes from an entirely different field of study.

Colin Campbell’s ‘The China Study,’ which focussed on comparative diets, found that  rural Chinese women on averaged experienced their first period at 17 years, whereas the USA average was 11 years. The correlation was the extremely high consumption of fat in the diet of American children compared to the low consumption of fat for Chinese children. However, there are probably other variables and Campbell’s study was published in 2006 and given the huge changes in China this gap is probably closing.

Still, if this connection were proved to be significant for youth suicide figures it would certainly belong in the realm of public health but possibly with a major shift of emphasis.

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Chris Horan

Chris is a former social worker, probation officer and Family Court counsellor, living in Hawea in the South Island.