Understanding Adolescent Suicide: A Psychosocial Interpretation of Developmental and Contextual Factors

Article excerpt

Suicide is a complex problem with ideology or beliefs as a common element that interacts idiosyncratically with any number of emergent identities pressing on the individual. One factor underlying suicide concerns the failure to construct a healthy identity. Much of the research on this issue focuses on adolescence, the period of time when individuals are most engaged in developing a healthy identity (Erikson, 1968; Coleman & Remafedi, 1989; Bar-Joseph & Tzuriel, 1990; Newton, 1995). Erikson (1968) noted that in extreme instances of delayed and prolonged adolescence, complaints of "I give up" and "I quit" are more than signs of mild depression--they are expressions of despair. Erikson acknowledged that suicide itself is an identity choice for some adolescents. Furthermore, suicide is increasingly occurring among people who are not adolescents, which may have to do with the inability to master Erikson's stages of development throughout the lifespan, beginning early in life.

Accomplishing developmental tasks in a given cultural context requires a sense of connectedness. As the institution of the family, which is the primary engine for healthy socialization, has weakened in modern society, individuals' risk for disturbances in identity formation mounts. For suicidal individuals, the family and society may have failed to provide the necessary conditions for sound development.

New trends in suicide are emerging for practically all ages and walks of life. Children, adolescents, and young adults appear to share in this "mis-solution," yet for quite different reasons. The purpose of this paper is to examine, within an Eriksonian framework, the different motives for and contexts of suicide among these three groups, to identify specific school-age populations that are vulnerable to suicide, and to discuss implications for school counselors and others. In so doing we will also look at how firearms and gender differences relate to suicide in the United States.

SUICIDE WITHIN AN ERIKSONIAN FRAMEWORK

The reasons for suicide vary, but seem to cluster around disruption of specific developmental tasks, vulnerability of the individual, and risk conditions in the immediate situation of the individual, such as lack of emotional support. From a sociocultural perspective, new norms may emerge (e.g., legalization of assisted suicide). Both the characteristics of the individual and the culture appear to interact in suicide ideation and attempts. This interaction becomes particularly life threatening when identity formation is obstructed in ways that the individual considers impossible to resolve.

Individuals who take their own lives vary in age. What prompts a 16-year-old to commit suicide as opposed to a 60-year-old? We need to recognize the different motives and life situations among children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly. According to Erikson (1963, 1968), there are eight stages in the lifespan, each of which poses conflicts or crises that need to be resolved positively and in a prosocial manner. Failure to do so may impact a person's personality development in a negative and cumulative way. Such failure may be understood as an important risk factor in the etiology of suicide and violent behavior.

Erikson was among the first theorists to indicate the importance of social context in understanding individual development. He witnessed the violence that took place during much of the twentieth century, and conflict resolution figured prominently in his work as he sought to establish a nexus between the individual and society. Some extensions of his work and other cultural-context models are presented here, with a focus on suicide. It is hoped that this will provide a means for understanding the socioemotional disturbances influencing life-threatening behavior.

Preadolescents

Research by Greene (1994) dispels many myths surrounding the suicide of children. …