‘When our household stirred on the morning of May 8th, 2002, we had no idea that the worst nightmare a parent could have was about to become a reality for our family. Our oldest daughter, Marissa, a beautiful, intelligent and talented girl chose to take her life just a month short of her 17th birthday.
She was never the shy, retiring type. She was into everything. From the time she was three years old she could not pass a piano or keyboard without playing something. She was a gifted musician, sang beautifully, and was always involved in school choirs and orchestras. She wrote poetry and composed music for some of her own lyrics. She just loved Latin dancing.
Marissa did very well at school. Her reports always read ‘a pleasure to teach. We knew she was intelligent, because she never seemed to need to work hard to get good grades, but she really surprised us by achieving Dux of her primary school.
She seemed to be a happy girl with a circle of girlfriends. She loved a good debate, especially if she won! She was a Lions Youth of the Year entrant for her school early in 2002. She was studying drama for her Grade Seven Trinity of London exams. She was, perhaps, more talented an actress than we gave credit for.
Wednesday morning May 8th, 2002, suddenly the statistics had a face and a name and the reality was that no-one around us really knew what could have been done to avert this tragedy.’
My interview with Sande was both tearful and inspirational as I heard the courageous details of a mother’s loss. Our time together not only sent chills down my spine, but filled my head with questions as to the depth of this problem in our young people and how we can offer meaningful solutions.
Suicide is always a subject difficult to talk about, maybe because there are no easy answers or A – Z guide to prevention. It has long baffled parents and youth workers and as Sande so realistically puts it, “If she had a cold we could treat it, but could we know what was going on inside her head?”
If statistics are correct, 700 young people attempt suicide each week and 7 succeed. Recent studies from the A.B.S. show that only half of the young people suffering with serious depression are ever identified. Today Tonight recently featured a story claiming that one in ten of our young people, many from secure families, regularly self harm.
A tidal wave of self destruction does seem to be sweeping the youth of our nation. The question WHY is constantly on the minds of parents, who like Sande, are bewildered by their teenager’s lack of enthusiasm for life. WHY the pull to depression? WHY the difficulty in asking for help? WHY the reluctance to be a participant in life?
Over my years in youth work I have discovered that young people are masters at masking their true feelings. The real thoughts, feelings and decisions of a young person are often hidden behind the cool exterior they prefer to present to the world. They may find themselves living one life at home and another around their peers, neither which accurately represent who they truly are.
Marissa, the popular over achiever, is a perfect example of this tragedy. Sande, her mother, recalls, “We saw the attractive young woman but the desperately unhappy one was hidden in the dark of night writing reams of black poetry we never knew about. It is only with hindsight we see the tiny signs of a young woman who, despite our encouragement to develop her talents, saw herself as unable to do things.”
I like to call every young person’s internal life their “inside story” because of its highly personal and private nature. Being aware of a teenager’s “inside story” is being aware of how they really think and feel about themselves and what they are deciding about themselves in the privacy of their own heart. To be able to ‘read’ a teenager intimately is a tall order for anyone, especially parents who may feel like their teenager’s internal life is off limits!
Although parents may never get the full colour, movie length version of their teenager’s “inside story,” they can learn to assess its general health by being aware of the warning signs that show it has lapsed into an unhealthy state. Signs of a depressive, negative “inside story” should cause parents the most concern as experts tell us that prolonged depression is the great cause of suicide.
The Beyond Blue website provides an online survey that may help parents identify the signs of a depressive “inside story” (featured below). Parents should be aware that teenagers may experience feelings of depression in varying degrees and amounts. Remember also that, as in Marissa’s case, signs often show themselves sparingly and may not truly reveal the magnitude of the problem.
One thing everyone should know about suicide is that it is not chosen. Suicide happens when pain exceeds resources for copying. We can ensure teenagers survive suicidal feelings by helping them (1) reduce pain (2) find a way to increase coping resources. Both are possible. I encourage all parents to regularly employ resources to assist their teenager’s ability to cope with the pressures of growing up, whether they are at risk of suicide or not.
This online survey is extracted from www.beyondblue.com.au
For more than TWO WEEKS have you…
Felt sad, down or miserable most of the time?
Lost interest or pleasure in most of your usual activities?
If you answer YES to either of these questions, complete the symptom checklist below.
Lost or gained a lot of weight? Had a decrease or increase in appetite?
Had sleep disturbance?
Felt slowed down, restless or excessively busy?
Felt tired and had no energy?
Felt excessively guilty?
Had poor concentration?
Had difficulties thinking?
Been very indecisive?
Had recurrent thoughts about death?
Sande’s story offers hope
Sande’s story doesn’t end at the loss of her daughter. In fact, this is the starting point of an incredible journey into the prevention of suicide in Australia’s young people. Sande’s tragedy has propelled her to become involved in Help When You Need It – a program involving a set of 15 CDs designed to assist young people with life issues such as ADAH, bullying, eating disorders, alcohol abuse and depression.
Sande says, “HWYNI program is for all those young people who fall through the cracks in the current system like Marissa did. Perhaps if she had been able to anonymously access a resource like HWYNI through the computers in her school, she may have been able to deal with some of those issues before they got so overwhelming.”
HWYNI has been written by well known Australian psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg and has been recommended to educators at the National Mind Matters conference in 2002 as a most valuable resource. The beauty of this program is that students are able to access the CDs at school. At the end of each topic there are help numbers which get them in touch with professionals in that particular area and websites for more information.
Sande’s story is an example of the difference we can all make when we channel our pain and passion towards others. Her courageous life not only gives us insights into the problem of youth suicide itself but also the solutions that could make all the difference in the lives of other young people.
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