Goolbai Gunasekara wonders why so many young people are taking their own lives

What suicidal tendrils wrap themselves inexorably around the minds of teenagers these days that cause them to take the extreme step of doing away with themselves? And why do they think there’s no other recourse to living and view death as an alternative? The height of desperation must be reached at some point.

So where do we look for signs that tell us a youngster is reaching that breaking point?

As a former teacher and principal, I cannot say I have any answers. I’ve always taught in private schools where children are probably better protected from bullying, teacher abuse and peer pressure. However, let me mention a few possible causes, which I glean from accounts of the sad suicides of children as young as 12.

One serious problem is that of bossy and overzealous prefects. I’ve always had reservations about the prefect system. I feel that children should not be given authority over other children except in minor matters like maintaining general silence or observing school rules.

The tragic suicide of a girl who hanged herself in the bathroom because her mobile had been checked by nosy prefects shocked us all. One wonders why prefects were given that sort of authority.

When I was at school (a long time ago!), our prefects minded their business – especially if we were seen by them outside school with (heaven help us!) a boy.

I remember one particularly mature prefect (when I was principal) coming to tell me that she had seen a student at a movie with her other friends and someone who must have been her boyfriend. She asked what she should do since she was not on school duty but knew it was a no-no romance.

She handled it well by telling the errant one that if she was seen again, she’d report her. But truth to tell, it was really not in her area of authority. In Sri Lanka however, school and home controls tend to overlap.

Then there’s the ongoing situation in a boys’ school where prefects hand out punishments that can be positively sadistic – one of them being kneeling in the sun for instance, and other unacceptable measures. And when this was queried by concerned parents, they were told it was ‘tradition.’

This is lunacy. Here is a suicide waiting to happen. How will a sensitive child take it?

And then there’s peer pressure. I’m told that in some schools, kids form themselves into groups depending on the size of their cars (and no, I am not talking about international schools!).

One such case that caused a child severe misery was when her father sold his Mercedes-Benz and bought a car worth Rs. 10 million, which was obviously smaller than the luxury vehicles and limousines costing 20-30 million rupees. The child was expelled forthwith from that deeply silly group – and she was devastated.

While this may not result in suicide, it certainly causes strong feelings of rejection.

A poor diet can cause depression and this is one of the least studied angles of suicide. At the tuck shop of the school where I was principal, I ensured it always had the ambul variety of bananas for sale. I explained to the older children that they provided energy and also produced serotonin, which would give them a feeling of general cheerfulness.

Of course, the bananas weren’t popular. Kids opted for the tastier ice creams, burgers, cakes etc. And I had banned sweetened fizzy drinks because of the excessive sugar they contain. While the effect of a poor diet is not the cause of suicide, it could be a contributory factor.

Then there’s the child who is a victim of social media. False news, untrue tales, fake photos and so on do the rounds, and there’s no way students can hit back – especially if they have been foolish enough to trust a friend with photographs that may be private. Activist Hans Billimoria has given many talks on the dangers of social media and parents would be well-advised to caution their offspring sternly about the deadly consequences of indiscretion.

Teenage romance is another reason for suicide. Sometimes, students seem unable to stand it and their lives end the minute a romance ends. Nobody has taught them coping skills and unsympathetic parents don’t help. Treating a normal attraction to the opposite sex as if it were a criminal offence can lead to extreme measures if youngsters know their parents are going to erupt angrily.

And then there is the saddest of all suicides among teenagers – the one for which neither caring parents nor loving friends can find a reason. Of course, there must have been signs but we’re not trained to spot them. The child may present a deceptive amiability to the world and still be in his or her own private hell.

Understanding, compassion and love – all three are  vital when dealing with that complex entity: a child.