Friday, November 2, 2012

Okay/Not okay? The fraught question of writing about suicide for a YA audience




This weekend I’m celebrating: after five and a half months of intense writing I finally finished my new book and get to evict the suicidal teenager who’s been living in my head! It’s been a gruelling ride, having to dive into the darkness with my character in order to help guide her back towards the light. 


The book, Dear Vincent, will be published in June 2013. It tells the story of a 17 year old artist who is obsessed by Vincent Van Gogh. When she discovers her older sister killed herself (rather than dying in a car accident as she’d been told) — and that her parents are implicated — it throws her own world into turmoil and she spirals out of control.

So why put myself through this? And why write about suicide for a YA audience when our suicide prevention experts would prefer that this topic was totally taboo? I’m sure to be taken to task by some; have read the guidelines carefully and understand the caution in their stance. But I have also been intimately involved with teenagers and the wonderful people who help curb their ‘at-risk’ behaviours for several years now, and the thing that always strikes me is how desperate kids are to talk about this kind of stuff in an open and honest way.

It worries me that, because the media are obliged to shut any debate down, the only stories that filter through to teens are about the kids who do kill themselves. They never get to hear the ‘near-miss’ stories; the stories of people who seriously contemplated suicide (perhaps even attempted it) but survived — and now are bloody glad they have! I believe we need to present stories that acknowledge all the hardships and the seductive nature of wanting to end the pain once and for all — just as we need to follow up this message with one that goes on to say how pushing through this, seeking help, fighting through the hard times and succeeding, is not only possible but far, far more common than most of us are willing to admit. 

I hate sensationalism as much as anyone (probably more than most in fact!) but talking to kids about the life and death decisions they make on a daily basis has to be healthier than blocking it out. Refusing to teach sex education hasn’t stopped kids doing it!

I’ve been in trainings about suicide where a group of professionals have been asked to raise their hand if they have ever, if even for a moment, contemplated suicide. Most of the people in the room put up their hands — and yet we still try to pretend that it’s an aberration of a very sick few. These professionals report how desperate the young people they work with are to have safe, open discussions on such issues — offering the chance to hear reasoned, professional points of view rather than the ignorant facebook, closed-door whisperings of their peers (which our current ‘no-go’ policy forces upon them). 

And if we didn’t make it such a taboo subject maybe more people would actually realise it’s not shameful to have these feelings — and that it’s okay to ask for help.

We also need to talk about the other elephant in the room relating to suicide: why young people kill themselves. What is going on at home, at school, within our society, that pushes kids over the edge? We must insist the triggers are dealt with at a political and social level — poverty, violence, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, substance abuse, poor mental health... hell, we all know the causes but we’re not insisting that they’re made a priority for funding and remediation. Kids are being damaged inter-generationally (another theme I’ve tackled in Dear Vincent). Right now our current government, rather than helping to scaffold kids and break the cycle, is removing the funding from the few stop-gap measures we used to have. This isn’t a NZ-only problem either – all around the world, where neo-liberal policies have gutted social spending, the next generation are being robbed of healthy lives. 

I just can’t stress enough how desperate most kids are to have these kinds of conversations. They don’t often get the opportunity and yet our thirst for knowledge and understanding is hard-wired into us — it’s how we learn to survive in the world. We can feed this, nourish our kids, if we address the learning in appropriate ways. They need to know they’re cared about by someone, that there are opportunities and choices if they learn how to negotiate the world safely and to discover the thing they’re best at and love to do. 

This isn’t rocket science, it’s good old common sense. Teenagers hate to be treated like little kids. You can do a teenager no bigger favour than treating them as if they’re capable of having an adult conversation — just give them the opportunity and watch them rise to meet the challenge. 

I’m hoping by opening the door on the topic in Dear Vincent it might just allow in a little light — and that this light may be enough to save some lives.

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