Masha says, ‘We can still be friends’. Masha sends hundreds of smiley faces on social networking site VKontakte. Masha doesn’t go out. Masha goes out, but not with Vasya. Vasya removes Masha from his ‘friends’ and lies on the sofa for two days with his arms folded on his chest. He doesn’t eat, doesn’t drink, just stares at the ceiling.
‘Mum, life’s so evil and unfair! Our teacher just tells you when you’ve got a good mark, and it’s the bad ones that go on your report card. And Vitka only wants to know us when we’ve got money to buy crisps.’
These days, when a child starts behaving or talking like this, parents in Bryansk sit up and take notice. Because ten local youngsters, seven girls and three boys, recently committed suicide one after another.
A suicide ‘epidemic’
The Bryansk region lies along Russia’s western edge, bordering on Belarus and Ukraine. Last October it hit the headlines when news broke of its underage suicide rate – ten cases in the first ten months of 2012, the last five of them in a single month. Of the ten, six children and young people hanged themselves, including one girl aged eight and a ten year old who killed herself after her teachers visited her alone at home about a possible theft of money at school. Two others jumped from high windows, one slashed her wrist and one took an overdose of prescription drugs.
A sudden outbreak of youth suicides in Bryansk, one of Russia's poorest regions, has sent shock waves through the local community. Photo: (cc) Flickr/Ghotep
The news became a focus of official and public debate both locally and nationally. It was the one topic of discussion at parents’ evenings, school staff meetings, group counselling sessions. Hotlines were set up, priests visited schools. Parents started thinking about their own children and family life. In Moscow, the Russian Investigative Committee announced plans to propose measures to respond to growing underage suicide rates throughout Russia.
'Ten children and young people committed suicide in the first ten months of 2012, the last five in a single month. Of the ten, six hanged themselves, including one girl aged eight and one aged ten. Two others jumped from high windows, one slashed her wrist and one took an overdose of prescription drugs'
Meanwhile young people themselves had their own views on this rash of suicides among their schoolmates.
My sons and their friends, talking about it at our home after school, were sceptical: ‘All the teachers and parents can think about nothing else – it’s like they’re convinced that we’re all about to top ourselves!’
‘It’s no joking matter’, their grandmother interrupted, frowning. ‘Children are hanging themselves, taking overdoses, jumping out of windows, and you find it a laugh! People are worried about you young people.’
I asked the boys why kids were killing themselves, and they answered perfectly seriously, almost in unison, ‘there wasn’t enough positive stuff in their lives …’
A generation in depression
Russia occupies sixth place in the world, and first in Europe, for underage suicides. A 2011 UNICEF report expressed concern over the growing number of Russian teenagers taking their own lives - three times the world average, according to official figures. The UNICEF report indeed suggests that the real figure is even higher, and that many cases, especially in rural areas, are put down to ‘accidents’, although it is known that underage suicides are more common there than in urban centres. The statistics also exclude unsuccessful suicide attempts, which Pavel Astakhov, the government-appointed children's rights ombudsman, puts at three to four times higher. Psychological studies of teenagers indeed imply that passing suicidal tendencies’, affect about a third of all Russian teenagers.
'I asked the boys why kids were killing themselves, and they answered perfectly seriously, almost in unison, ‘there wasn’t enough positive stuff in their lives …’
Even against this backdrop, ten suicides in Bryansk within ten months is an unusually high figure. Children from supposedly happy families are jumping off roofs and slashing their wrists over bad marks in school exams, friendship problems, accusations of theft, loss of virginity. Psychologists talk about possible individual reasons: the need to get one’s own way at any price; having to take adult decisions at too young an age; confusion between the real and the virtual. Orthodox priests talk about young people forgetting the Ten Commandments and about a lack of love.
Some people point to specific local conditions. The Bryansk region is one of the poorest in Russia, and is in the lowest place for government subsidy per head of population, so living standards are low and young people’s prospects limited. Another commonly cited factor is that in the last few years the region has seen a mass ‘rationalisation’ of its primary and secondary education system. Small village schools with fewer than 100 pupils, and so a higher cost per pupil, have shut down, and their pupils bussed to larger schools in towns. At the same time there has been a steep reduction in the number of psychologists working in schools across Russia, leaving those who remain drastically overworked; according to Pavel Astakhov, across the country there is on average only one psychologist for every 950 pupils, and very few working in village schools. And teachers are only interested in working the minimum possible hours, getting good exam results and collecting money from families to finance repairs to school buildings.
Experts cite lack of parental involvement, a deteriorating school system, alcoholism and poverty among causes of Bryansk's high youth suicide rate. Photo: (cc) Flickr/anastasia.dd
Many people blame low morale among teenagers on lack of attention from their parents, on the ills of modern family life. If parents are out working long hours to make ends meet, when they get home they just want to put their feet up in front of the TV. The kids spend their time on the street, or also sitting in front of a computer or TV. This is what is called a nice quiet evening at home – and if a child develops problems it can be too late.
It is however recognised that the highest rate of suicide is, not surprisingly, among what in the UK are called ‘Neets’ – young people ‘not in education, employment, or training’, and that most of them happen in more obviously dysfunctional families, with factors such as poverty (more common in rural areas), low morale and heavy drinking added to the mix.
How can it be stopped?
It is clear that if we are to stop this increase in child and adolescent suicides, the problem need to be tackled from both sides, private and public. If parents pay more attention to their children, try to listen to their problems and have a dialogue with them, that may help. But the Investigative Committee report admitted that the situation also demanded more public attention, stating that a majority of the children who committed suicide 'required both the attention of a youth counsellor and psychiatric care, as well as intervention in their lives by juvenile crime prevention authorities and agencies countering crimes against underage children because their families were in a dire life situation or a socially dangerous situation', and that ‘specialists from the healthcare system and other services failed to correctly assess the morale of children who subsequently committed suicide.’
It has recently been announced that all Russian schools are to have a staff post for a psychologist whose role will be specifically to help prevent suicides among pupils. Meanwhile, on 22nd January a 15 year old boy in the Bryansk Region, from a low income family and already in trouble with the police for theft, hanged himself.