Teen suicides: Rising numbers should have us worried!

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New data from the US National Center for Health Statistics on teen suicides should put all parents on guard. It showed a substantial increase in suicide rates from 2007 to 2015. The rise was also higher among girls (50%) than boys (31%).
The news came close on the heels of my being informed that a South Asian boy ended his life last weekend, just a couple of weeks before he could begin med school.
As we discussed the tragedy at a social gathering, academic pressure was touted as the possible reason. It’s the cause of many student deaths in India and hence typical of the South Asian mindset. However, a lady who knew the family well assured us of his consistent above-average track record.
The moms present at the event were visibly upset and the discussion continued for a while. As the group continued to speculate on the reason, we were forced to acknowledge that the pressure of balancing peer and family expectations takes a huge toll on the mental health of our kids. This is compounded in immigrant families that are struggling to hold on to their native culture and values.
Let’s face it—we don’t make it easy for our kids to come to us with their social, emotional or academic problems. Often brushing it aside and telling them to man up.
Almost every South Asian child has also been read the riot act on the difference between “them” (meaning Caucasians) and “us”. However this demarcation exists only in our minds and not that of our children. Having a moral code is important but that doesn’t mean that ‘we’ are the authority on it. In fact, most South Asian parents’ views on the subject are skewed. They either hold on too tight or let go completely.
It is time to acknowledge that we might be the reason our children have a tougher time trying to establish a self-identity. They are Canadian in thought and lifestyle but we want them to be Indian, Pakistani or whatever other South Asian country we may have come from.
Many teens speak openly about their difficulties assimilating. While they are trying to blend in, parental restrictions on friends, clothing, food, etc. cause their differences to stick out and be ridiculed or shunned. If they are born or raised here, how can we expect them to be like we were growing up? It’s both a different time and place.
As a parent of a teen and 20-something trying to walk the tight rope between my Indian, Roman Catholic values and the freedoms of the new land, I understand the difficulties immigrant parents face. But we must realize that our parents too experienced the same tug of war we sometimes have with our kids. It was and probably still is more generational than cultural. Not everything can be blamed on the influences of a foreign land and culture.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, suicide accounts for 24% of all deaths among 15-24 year olds and 16% among 16-44 year olds. It is also the second leading cause of death of Canadians between the ages of 10 and 24.
An elementary school teacher told me that the problem is so acute that they have been advised to address any suspected situation with a direct question about whether a child is contemplating suicide. This is a big change from the early approach where the word “suicide” was not used for the fear of “putting ideas” into a student’s head.
While most of us are aware of the warning signs—depression, feeling of hopelessness, withdrawal from friends and family, substance abuse, etc.—the privacy lines our kids draw around them might make them difficult to recognize.
After all how do you know if your son or daughter who barricades themselves in their room all day is depressed and needs help or just exhibiting normal teen behaviour?
The answer is no different from what we have heard before. Keeping the lines of communication open! That often means listening and acknowledging their difficulties without judging or lecturing them.
I’d like also like to add an important point that many South Asian parents might not acknowledge. That it can happen to us! Neither we nor our kids are insulated from it.
We must also teach our kids to look out for one another. Not just their siblings or cousins but friends as well. Many tragic situations can be prevented if they speak up or share their concerns with parents and teachers.

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