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Stories gone awry: teen suicide

The Missoulian reports that Montana is the fourth worst state in terms of teenagers dying from accidents, murder or suicide. The only reasons given for this have to do with a bad economy. That let’s us off the hook, doesn’t it? After all, it’s not my fault or your fault that the economy isn’t better. We’re doing our part to get by.

It’s the fault of people in Helena or in Washington, or somewhere. And since we already had opinions about people in Helena and Washington, we don’t really need to do much, other than to add another reason to a long list of reasons that we’re disgusted with politicians.

So we turn to the next page: they’re hunting bison in Yellowstone.

It’s a sorry spectacle of a world.

In my years as a teacher and volunteer EMT, I’ve known several young people who killed themselves. All of them had problems with drugs and alcohol, but none of them were poor. And the drugs and alcohol weren’t the cause but merely one of the symptoms of a life story gone bad, gone self-destructive.

When we talk about teenagers being “at risk,” this is what we’re talking about. They’re at risk of not being able to create a life story that makes sense and gives them hope. The more mistakes they make--getting involved with drinking or skipping school or hanging out with unintelligent friends--the harder it seems to turn their lives into stories that turn out well.

Teenagers are at the age where, for the first time, they have to put together a life story that connects what they’ve experienced in the past with what they perceive in the present and what they anticipate for the future. They have to make decisions about occupations, about what to believe, about how to organize a meaningful life. They need to form what narrative psychologist Dan McAdams calls a “narrative identity.”

This isn’t easy in an age when fundamental disagreements about the most basic meanings of life are broadcast all around them. It’s hardly surprising that the kids most likely to get into trouble are those whose families are unstable and for whom adult friends are nonexistent and churches don’t exist. Teachers preoccupied with test scores are unlikely to be much help.

When they were younger, they got by with fantasies: becoming Spiderman or a pitcher for the Braves or a ballerina. They had figured out the basics of autobiography--making a narrative tale out of episodes--but didn’t yet need to incorporate the hard realities we learn while growing up--understandings about the limits of our talents, our failures to get things as simple as a pair of shoes or a smile from someone who matters to us. Most of us know how easy it is to dig ourselves into a pit--skipping this task we should have done, missing that obligation, indulging in this temptation or that. It’s not hard to reach a place where some things seem hopeless. Where none of our choices seem good.

According to the Center for Disease Control, suicide rates for teens have tripled over the past couple of decades and it is now the third leading cause of death for people aged 15-24. Teens who feel disconnected and isolated are at greatest risk.

What to do? Work on the narrative environment.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/15 at 12:39 AM






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