Despair, suicide and the BBC

It’s a Monday.  I am getting ready for the day.  The BBC News is on in the background.  The headline story is about the sad reality of youth suicide in the UK (this trend is visible in many developed nations).  The BBC is reporting that a London couple were visited by the police and advised that their 17 year old son had just taken his own life. The devastated father describes literally falling backwards into a wall as his brain is assaulted and numbed by this horrific reality.  I am certain that I have not got anywhere near feeling the horror that this man felt at that moment.  Sad.  Deeply, deeply, deeply sad.

Cue the experts as the BBC piece now moves to the talking heads of professional expertise.  An explanatory narrative slowly unfolds as two experts take turns prognosticating on the causes of this suicide, and the worrying trend among similar youth from otherwise “normal” middle-class homes.  The rather shallow conclusion begins to take a form, and becomes evident. The explanation offered went something like this.  London is a big and thriving city. Sometimes young people in such a city cannot find their place and feel that everyone else has got a good life, but them…things are expensive….good jobs are difficult to find.   The conclusion reached was that the environment of the big city presents youth with many challenges which sometimes makes them decide that life is not worth living.

I must confess that I lost interest at about this point, while pondering this very unsatisfying and incomplete explanation sadly being peddled by professionals.  I did not hear the conclusion, but we have all heard variants on this explanation.  I can guess that they went on to say we need to be listening for trouble with our children.  Then we need to get them help and be aware of the stresses they face.  As a bald statement, this is not untrue nor unwise.  But, you see, the experts have done a very poor job of understanding a human life and the sources of deep despair. The elephant in the room that was never raised was not the “city as culprit”, but what it was about this child’s place in his “own city” – that is, the “city” of his family and daily life.  Clearly anecdotal and concrete evidence exists that the fundamentum – the thing, if you will, at the very “bottom” of how a person feels –  is how she or he thinks they relate and fit and are supported by the ones who should love them the most.  You see, most healthy adults grew up knowing that sometimes they don’t get the job, the car, the girl, the house, etc.  In a world where there is a safe and comfortable resting place with imperfect yet largely unconditional love, almost all people (except those with perhaps true mental illness) quickly bounce back with resilience.  Or at worst have a few bad days or weeks.  That is a far cry from actually terminating your own existence in this world.  It is not a move of degree along some spectrum for such a person with a healthy sense of being loved and supported.  No, rather it is literally a different category of reaction.  One founded, I sense, on a profound lack of hope that someone loves you and will always be there for you.

All children and youth need a place in their lives of complete and unconditional love and commitment.  Fundamentally, that is the role of a parent and in a lesser way, siblings and extended family.  No matter what the outside world has done to you this week…layoff…your boyfriend has stopped loving you….etc…you have a safe and loving place to go to obtain strength and hope to move on.  This is indeed a truism.  And yet, then, why do these professional miss such common sense?

Let me offer an alternative narrative that better fits the facts, as well as some more specificity as to what might be going on in modern, developed countries.  Firstly, economic challenges do not seem to be the key factor in the vast majority of such suicides.  The problem I am describing here today is largely evident in middle and upper-middle class youth.  As such, it eliminates in this analysis, a need to explain everything.  Rather, I am focussed on the question as posed – why do youth from contexts with plenty of money to eat and live and enjoy daily luxuries unheard of last century still commit suicide in such instances?  I will proffer my theory which naturally flows from the observations made prior.  I believe this issue flows directly from a general reduction in the objective quality of family life in our times.  “Objective”, in that some distinct facts have changed in recent decades.  I will also claim that family life today seems “unfair” and so informs a general sense of protest and anger at the state of Western civilization (which should not be blamed on Western, liberal politics and economics, but on a broken family).

Why do I dare claim this?  What has changed today for the typical 14-18 year old (when I compare to my childhood) is very evident.  Firstly, dual income families mean that the typical child comes home after school to a lonely house or groups together with friends who kill time until Mom and Dad come home and ask them if they have done their homework, etc.  You cannot and must not underestimate how this makes a child fee in their innermost being.  I have occasion to recall my largely ideal childhood.  Home at 3pm or so after school and Mom was always there.  Cookies. Milk.  “How was your day?” et cetera.  I felt like at the end of every mediocre school day there was a place of safety, comfort and rest where my marks or social status (or lack therefore) was nullified for some sacred time in which I was one loved who alway had a safe place to go.  This was the ultimate “safe place”.  By the way, you do not weaken the argument by pointing out that not every child had that.  Some came home to an alcoholic Mom, for example.  These exceptions are distractions that don’t logically weaken the general argument that, everything else being roughly equal, children in the past had, on average, a sense that they were a priority of utmost importance to a greater degree that the data may make the children of today conclude.  If you are sent to daycare at age 1-2 then Mom and Dad are absent until 5-6pm each day, you receive a very different message in your insides about how loved and important you are.  Please do not point out odd exceptions and special cases, we are dealing with averages across millions of families.  To be rather cute, one way to say this is that if the quality of support and care was a 6.5  our of 10 in the sixties, I am arguing it is now a 4 or something material lower.  Not that the sixties were perfect, and so those of you who think the argument is weak in this pint should stop barking up the wrong tree.

My Mom achieved most of this by simply being present and loving, not perfect.  The message to me was that I was a priority to her (and my Dad, by proxy) as they worked together to provide a home…that most important of safe places.  I can vividly recall one day when my Mom was not there due to some errand. I had the key.  I walked in.  The house was colder. I felt unnerved as perhaps an 10 or 11 year old on my own.  So is it only about having a parent at home after school. Absolutely not!  This example is one slice of my reality.  It, and the fact my mother did not work outside the home, spoke to me more clearly than words.  What is said was, “You and your brother and sister are a priority for us as your parents”.  It’s a feeling that is deeply hard-wired into your soul that is either there – or not – and for too many children and youths, this feeling …this “centering”…is now broken or absent. Daycare cannot replace this need in the young child’s heart.  In some ways I suspect, daycare is more part of the problem than part of the solution. That is a matter for another day.

Now, to a bold prescription.  I will go so far as to say that we have coarsened life for our children in recent decades.  If you are a Mother choosing to work outside the home during those crucial young years, you indeed feel guilt.  And you are torn between what you see as a need to work to pay the mortgage, and your motherly heart which naturally wants to be present for your children.  I say to you that there is not easy way out. In the prior decades you were not put in this position.  But are you going to allow two wrongs to continue and put your children in a sub-optimal state?

How dare I connect suicide to parenting? I have and I did.  Suicide is the indicator, but below the surface a greater despair seems apparent to professionals who work with children – and virtually all the cases do not end in such extreme action as suicide. Notwithstanding the in extremis cases where mental health is a real problem, it may be more the norm that despair is brewed by the culture in which parents convince themselves that it is better to both work to provide, that to have one parent stay present during those critical and formational years.

The BBC story I began by describing would not dare pose such a question. Consistent with modern narratives, it is easier to blame the cold “big city” and economic capitalism, rather than point towards the empty home where Mothers once used to invest their lives.