Education and Suicide
Mentor, public speaker and education specialist
Abstract: Whether we fail in school or life exams, suicide is not an answer. What is the meaning of education?How to heal the pain within us, which one day might result in divisions and conflicts at large?
Keywords: Education, suicide, youth, meaning of life, challenges.
My humble personal experience in counseling in many countries, my exposure to and dealing with some complex cases of suicidal attempts in individuals I’ve been working on, the requests for holding seminars for youth on meaning of life as well as studying some reports I’ve received on students’ suicides, all these have led me to ponder on the problem of education and its purposes.
Life brings different experiences, challenges and lessons.
Sometimes we find ourselves at the edge of darkness, uncertain and lost. And sometimes, some of us, take an irreversible step plunging into shadows.
Youth suicide has been a serious problem in many countries over the past four decades; with school counselors, school personnel, psychologists and social workers attempting to prevent, detect and secure assistance for the students.
Statistics show that every year circa 200 000 teenagers worldwide commit suicide while about 4 million adolescents attempts it. We have been noticing a rising suicidal trend since some years.
According to WHO statistics (2011) in some countries – such as Lithuania – figures are relatively high, with the example of Russia having the highest underage suicide rate in Europe.
In other countries, such as Australia, statistics show lower figures.
In USA, ranking among the highest in suicide rate worldwide, about 10% of adolescents attempts to suicide
An interesting fact is that about 56% of all female suicides worldwide takes place in China. The meaning of suicide in China differs from other cultures; namely it is perceived as a legitimate means of conveying a message.
Some surveys in South Korea show about 20% of middle and high school students feel tempted to suicide.
In India about 20 students kill themselves every day due to the stress related to exams, wanting to secure seats in prestigious schools, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. South India is considered the world’s suicide capital; especially Kerala, the first fully literate Indian state, has the highest number of suicides committed daily – about 32. According to the Bangalore psychologists from the Indian Southern Medical Centre, “(children)…are under pressure to deliver at school, (…) to appear for competitive examinations, no one gives them any advice about the meaning of life”.
It is widely disputed whether the statistics can be trusted and whether they reflect indeed the real situation due to the fact that suicidal behaviours are illegal in some countries; they are also opposed by the major religions and philosophies, thus there is to be expected a certain degree of under-reporting.
Suicide causes are to be attributed to several psychological, biological and environmental factors. Strong correlation between low educational achievement, examination and school performance stress and between suicide has been investigated and confirmed.
A survey done in UK on 6020 students (2002) has shown that 70% of self-harming teenagers with suicidal thoughts have admitted that the cause was their concerns about the school performance and exams.
There have been several reports in Hong Kong, China, Japan and other Asian countries related to the exam-induced psychological problems, suicidal feelings and fear of exams – according to publications by Suen & Yu (2006), Hesketh, Ding & Jenkins (2002), Zeng & Le Tendre (1998).
French sociologist, Durkheim, was one of the first to notice that there is a higher rate of suicide in case of the individuals who are socially not integrated and cannot count on social support (1897).
In order to address and tackle the problem different suicide prevention efforts have been implemented by different stakeholders: governments, academic institutions, NGOs; realizing the importance of the community support.
In the last 30 years several school based programmes have been conducted worldwide at schools for the purpose of the improvement of the mental and emotional health as well as the improvement of the knowledge on suicide; being part of a prevention and post-vention strategy.
Yet, the effectiveness of such programmes has been questioned and sparks a lot of controversy as apparently no drop in suicide rate has been noticed among the participants and even it has been stated that it might prompt in young people what it is supposed to prevent.
There have been even accusations saying that such programmes defeat their very purpose and “normalize suicidal behaviour” by stating the latter occurs as a result of examination and school stress and pressures.
News around the world reporting every day new cases of suicide are concerning and there is a noticeably rising tendency to point out the correlation between the academic stress and the suicidal ideation.
Let us ponder on a couple of questions.
What is the meaning of life? Sometimes, despite all the beauty and wonder in the world, our life seems so hopeless.
What is the meaning of education? Sometimes, despite we gain every day more knowledge and experience, we feel so helpless.
Why studies are important to us?
We study to obtain a good job, to enjoy more distinction and respect in the society, to become somebody important, to earn money and satisfy our needs and desires, to manage better in practical everyday situations, to find security.
Yet, there is much more to life than that. There are difficulties, obstacles and fears, there is sorrow and suffering, there is death. There is happiness and love, there is beauty and awareness.
What if school started giving us the skills necessary to cope with life challenges through which all of us are going?
Death happens. It is the nature of life and it is the most certain thing in our entire existence. It is, if we want, a graduation, a completion of the school of life.
Difficulties happen and we must go through them. They are tests at the school of life. Suicide is a sudden interruption of the learning process.
The books necessary to study and the skills required to go on, to confront ourselves with life exams are, de facto, not there.
Education systems worldwide have evolved throughout the centuries from dispensers of knowledge to facilitators of learning. The next paradigm shift should be about providing opportunities to seek wisdom and broader understanding.
Academic performance and pressures have been found to be strongly related to teenage suicide problem and are one of the main causes leading to it.
It is easy to blame schools and education systems. Yet, the true reason is the lack of skills to cope with life challenges.
If someone commits suicide in the name of his Country, it is not the Country which should be blamed.
I’ve been working with abandoned children and teenagers in Thailand, noting that their main problem is an overwhelming and persisting feeling of hopelessness, lack of meaning in life.
I’ve been working with orphaned and HIV-positive children and teenagers in South Africa, realizing their difficulties in coping with death and grief as well as their suicidal inclinations.
In my opinion, education shall be not only about gaining more knowledge and information, but rather about understanding better the meaning of life.
It shall produce not only excellent professionals and workers, but also individuals free of fears and hate, hence able to give and receive love.
What’s the use of education if it becomes a weapon to destroy others through armed conflicts, technology and desire to control and dominate; as well as a weapon to destroy ourselves – and I mean not just through suicidal attempts.
Education is the most powerful weapon which can change the world, as Nelson Mandela used to say. It shall serve humanity addressing its problems and concerns at each and every level of human life.
Personal and immediate society
On the level of a common man, education for life shall help us overcoming fears and misery, showing us how tremendously beautiful and worth living our life is, with all its lights and shadows.
During our lifetime we encounter victories and defeats, love and separation. Are we ready to face all these without becoming inhumane, cruel, fearful and apathetic? Neither school nor parents usually show us this, thus we are also unable to show it to our children.
Economics and working environment
Nowadays money is strongly affecting all aspects of our lives, our education, our wellbeing and our opportunities. The entire system characterized by the illusion of an unlimited growth and consumption is not sustainable in a finite world and the economic and social crises we are seeing in the last years are, undoubtedly, worrying signs of crumbling perspectives.
Life education on the level of business and economics shall help us being guided by more aware and higher pursuits than greed and selfishness; teaching us balance and principles of working for people and not just for money. It shall teach us becoming humble and overcoming our ego.
Society and Politics
On the level of Countries, Government and politics, such an education shall help understanding each other better, building dialogs and bridges, and gradually evolving towards the concept of unity in diversity, unity without borders, where differences in language, religion, culture, skin-tone or sex would not cast any shadow on our profound and wholly human identity.
Peace cannot be achieved through any ideology or treaty, it takes an aware mind and a united heart. The first thing to be overcome is separateness.
My humble proposal would be to call to life a special Task Force, comprised of individuals with different backgrounds and competencies, among them experts in education area, in charge of developing curricula and policies for fostering education for life programmes for children and adults, efficiently addressing our aspiration to become truly human beings, and to create a civilized civilization.
The teenager suicides are, according to me, like the tip of an iceberg, bearing the profound discontent and hopelessness a large portion of our society is living inside. Until we admit that, and we act upon it, our life will be nothing else than a continuos fight for something, fight with others and fight within ourselves.
Diekstra eds., Suicide Prevention: A Holistic Approach. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1998.
Durkheim, E. (1966) Suicide. Macmillan: New York.
Garfinkel, Barry D., Art Froese, and Jane Hood. Suicide Attempts in Children and Adolescents. American Journal of Psychiatry 139 (1982):1257–1261.
Hesketh, T., Ding, Q.J. & Jenkins, R. (2002). Suicide ideation in Chinese adolescents.
Mishara, Brian L. Childhood Conceptions of Death and Suicide: Empirical Investigations and Implications for Suicide Prevention. In Diego De Leo, Armi N. Schmidtke, and Rene F. W.
Patton, GC., Coffey, C., Sawyer, SM, et al. (2009). Global patterns of mortality in young people: a systematic analysis of population health data.
René F. W. Diekstra, C. W. M. Kienhorst, and E. J. de Wilde (1995). Suicide and Suicidal Behaviour among Adolescents. Psychosocial Disorders in Young People: Time Trends and Their Causes.
Shaffer, David, and Madeline Gould. Suicide Prevention in Schools. In Keith Hawton and Kees an Heeringen eds., The International Handbook of Suicide and Attempted Suicide. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2000.
World Health Organization (2012). Suicide Country Reports. Accessed December 2012 http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/country_rep orts/en/
Zeng, K. & G. Le Tendre (1998). Adolescent suicide and academic competition in East Asia.