Young people in the danger zone

Last Updated 03 March 2010, 09:09 IST

Mary Jessica Nadar (16), Rupali Shinde (14), Reshma Dhotre (17), Neha Sawant (11), Rakhi Dinkar Pagare (20), Swati Balgude (16) and 32 other youngsters from different parts of India are now mere statistics.

In separate incidents across the country, but through the months of January and February, these youngsters hanged themselves unable to handle the stress in their lives. Left grappling with the tragic loss, their families are traumatised and numbed by the void their children have left behind.

Yet, such tragedy is not confined to these households alone. The general response to the deaths pegs the blame on academic pressure fuelled by parents and teachers.
However, psychologists, behavioural scientists and counsellors think otherwise. They feel parents and teachers should not be persecuted for this ‘suicide virus’.

Not just academic pressure
“Usually the blame during such times is directed towards the academic curriculum. This is wrong. These suicides are not pre-planned. They are —  what we term — impulsive suicides; a sort of rejoinder to parental censure. Often a harassed mother in anger blurts out, ‘You will all know my worth when I’m gone’. The suicidal act could be a response to that,” explains Dr Dilip Panniker, a practising psychologist and psychotherapist.
As a group facilitator, Dr Panniker has trained with the Indian Society for Applied Behavioural Science (ISABS) and has a deep understanding of group processes and dynamics.   

Dr Shubhangi Parkar says, “Children don’t have the adjustment power of adults. During difficult times, like board examinations, the pressure to perform is evident. When they grow up the pressure will be in terms of employment, adjustment with in-laws, raising their own children, and so on.”

Learning life skills
Dr Parkar believes the answer doesn’t lie in changing the academic syllabi but in encouraging the child to be tolerant, and teaching her learn to accept pressure and still enjoy life.

She goes on to narrate the case of a parent who would switch off the TV news as she felt that the continuous barrage of student suicides would have a negative impact on her daughter.

Although she admits the ill-effects of sensationalising such news by the electronic media, Dr Parkar says, “Cutting off children from such exposure is non-productive for they will get to hear about it from their friends. Our children need to be strengthened and not to be made highly sensitive.”

Why are teenagers ready to explode?
Sunita Raut, a Delhi-based behavioural scientist who divides her time between Delhi and Stockholm, says: “In India, the pressure starts building up from the age of three when children are sent to tuition classes! Besides, unknowingly, the stressed out parents in their attempt to provide the best for their children, pass on their own frustration to their kids. In fact, by the time a child is in the teens, unknowingly s/he has built her/his own pressure ...ready to explode at the smallest provocation.”

Raut adds, “The Indian youth also self-stresses on performance. By the age of 20 they want to own a Honda City car. They assume that only if they perform at academics will they be able to own such luxuries.”

Take the example of 11-year-old Neha Sawant, who was training to be a dancer and had participated in several reality shows. Neha was asked by her parents to take a break from dancing classes as her studies were getting affected. When her parents left for work, the child hanged herself from a curtain rod.

Neighbours of a 19-year-old girl in Mumbai, who had hanged herself from the ceiling fan in her bedroom, attribute the suicide to parental objection to her friends. The girl took her life a day before her mother’s 50th birthday. The grieving parents haven’t ventured out of their home ever since.

“At present, we are pressing panic buttons — panic reporting, counselling and so on — trying to find instant solutions. It is too premature to pinpoint any one reason as to why children are taking this recourse,” Dr Panikker says.

Listen to your youngster
Experts state that along with communication, parents and teachers need to listen to the child’s inner, unspoken fears, apprehensions, understand the turmoil. According to them this does not require 24x7 vigilance. Children in the throes of adolescence go through emotional changes and need to be reassured with parental love and attention. This can be managed even when both parents are working.

Girls under more pressure than boys

The girl child is likely to be more ill at ease and burdened with stress because of cultural expectations. Society expects the girl child to achieve a lot while bottling up her emotions. While it is accepted that boys express their resentment, girls are not meant to display feelings of annoyance or irritation. Besides girls hold themselves more responsible for family ties and societal assessments. So when they fail to achieve their goals, they sometimes take the extreme step, explains Dr Parkar. Changing lifestyles are also held responsible for the rising number of suicides.

No emotional cushion
Within the nuclear family structure, there is curtailed interaction between family members, leaving youngsters with fewer caring persons, such as aunts, uncles and cousins, to share the lives and thoughts with.

Today the urban youth has only their parents or friends to reach out to when they want to exchange confidences. So how should parents and teachers handle the situation? Advice from the professionals is simple: Teach the youngster how to handle pressure and to appreciate life because it is precious and beautiful. And always remember that there is no shame attached to seeking a counsellor’s advice. In fact this must be done promptly whenever there is doubt. Life is, after all, short. Not responding to such developments wisely will only have unfortunate consequences sometimes.

There is today a tragic emptiness in so many homes because the silent cry of despair remained unheard.

How to identify trouble

Look out for the following:
Difficulty in concentrating
Decline in quality of schoolwork
Complaints about physical ailments such as stomach aches, headaches, or tiredness
Giving away favourite possessions
Change in temperament or recent personality change
A disciplinary crisis
Writing, thinking, or talking about death or dying
Altered mental status (agitation, hearing voices, delusions, violence, and intoxication)
Changes in eating and sleeping habits
Withdrawal from friends and family and disinterest in normal or previously enjoyable activities
Drug and alcohol use
Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, boredom, and restlessness.

Danger signals
Peculiar thinking styles
Poor reality understanding
Difficulty at problem solving
Poor adaptation of the environment    

How can you help?
 Listen and allow the youngster to express his or her point of view. 
Discuss their feelings patiently
 Do not launch into lectures  
 Restore confidence in your youngster that you really care and want to help
Social adjustment is crucial in children to prevent suicide
 Enhance environmental support, especially at home and school 

(Published 03 March 2010, 08:51 IST)

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