"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Friday, November 16, 2012

Youth suicide calls for careful response

Graphic from teensuicideprevention.org
Amanda Todd’s suicide touched many in our community, and rightly so. If it’s true that the death of even one person represents a loss to all humanity, then the death of a young person such as Amanda amid such troubling circumstances might be seen as an even greater loss.

That being said, we must be careful in how we respond to this case. Yes, it should serve as a clarion call for greater awareness of the impact of cyber-bullying. On this point, and on the related issue of what can be done to stem the tide of cyber-bullying, everyone seems to agree.

At least as important, however, is the overall issue of youth suicide for whatever reason. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teens after motor-vehicle accidents, according to this online source. Furthermore, this page from the Canadian Children’s Rights Council’s website has some important information about how common the phenomenon is and what can be done about it.

Interestingly, another page from the same site contains the following declaration: “Curriculum or school-based programs which focus on increasing awareness, risk identification and community resources are not effective, and may, in fact, stimulate imitative suicidal behavior…”

This statement leads directly to an event of some interest that took place in Vancouver earlier this week, and that was the provincial government’s Erase Bullying conference—the reporting of which tended to focus on the fact that officials with the Ministry of Education had not invited Amanda Todd’s mother to attend “over fears her presence might upset some of the event’s young speakers.”

I think the ministry made a good decision. Not to diminish the sadness associated with Amanda’s death, I am worried that there has been altogether too much publicity surrounding her suicide. Talk-show hosts, politicians, community leaders and legions of social-science experts have all weighed in, as is their right. But it is also their responsibility to weigh their statements and actions carefully, with their primary concern being the effect of those statements and actions on young people. The “contagion” aspect of suicide is real and everyone in a leadership position must recognize this.

My thoughts regarding this are also guided by something the great American essayist Peggy Noonan once noted when discussing unmarried mothers: “That which we celebrate, we encourage.”

With this in mind, I think we need to be cautious about this Sunday’s memorial and birthday tribute for Amanda. Yes, her family and friends have every right to mourn her passing. Nevertheless, such an event has the potential to add fuel to a fire which, I fear, has already grown far too hot.


  1. Terry, thank you for your blog and the cautionary tone. I can only imagine how much you must have been hearing about this issue in Coquitlam. Our organization has been engaging in the issue but not focusing on the cyber-bullying angle. We are very interested in the role her friends played in encouraging the initial exposure as well as the early sexualisation which led Amanda to that environment in the first place. She was a 12 or 13 year-old in a video chat room with friends and total strangers ranging from her age up to 20 years-old (allegedly). They were apparently talking about sex and “great bodies”. For some reason our culture seems to only want to focus on the torture that occurred after this initial “fun and innocent” exchange.

    We also discuss this in our parents meetings to encourage them to understand and monitor the content, frequency and duration of their children’s social media activities. As important as the cyber-bullying part was, it happened after a tragic breakdown of the parental and societal systems that were meant to protect Amanda. I know this is a sensitive issue but we have generated some valuable dialogue through examining the root causes of her story. Most “sex educators” seem to be leery of the subject because they have been teaching that young people are ready for sexual expression at different ages and that anything consensual is OK. One prominent sex educator recently commented that “we need to help our young people see porn for what it is; entertainment.” Secular educators know that something is wrong but most can’t bring themselves to even look at the sexual nature of this tragedy. They don’t want to be seen as judgemental or limiting of any sexual expression.

    Maybe it’s time we reconsider this hesitation and actually commit to helping young people understand the power and purpose of their sexuality. As a result, they can learn how to develop good relationships and not give in to the pressure that can lead down a dangerous path.

  2. I agree with Mr. O’Neill about the risks of raising the temperature surrounding the Teen Suicide issue. More to the point however is he not doing exactly that by writing about it? Is he not one of the “Talk-show hosts, politicians, community leaders and legions of social-science experts”?

    I wonder what the alternative is. Would it be better to treat these situations as we did in days gone by. Simply allowing families to grieve privately does nothing to stop the spread of the root cause of teen suicide but it does prevent the media frenzy that has ensued over Amanda Todd’s. The popularity and friendship she so desperately sought in life, has somehow manifested itself in this cult-like hero worship. But then, by even writing this letter am I not also part of the problem?

    Thank you Mr. O’Neill.