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Suicide and the teenage brain

Our community is reeling over the recent suicide death committed by a 16yr old boy at a local High School.  He cited as the reason:  too much pressure from (some of) the teachers at his high school and unfair treatment by some teachers.  He couldn't face his upcoming finals.

In notes he left behind, he thanked his parents for their loving, supportive behaviors, wrote cute notes to his siblings,  and thanked his coaches for their guidance and encouragement.  He left his notes to be found, sent one to the administration of his high school and then took his own life.

To say the community is dumbfounded is the understatement of a lifetime.  Everyone who knew his family and the boy himself report them to be the ideal family with more than enough love and support to go around.

How could this happen?  What did those close to him "miss"? How could worrying about grades on semester finals matter at a level to have a kid completely give up on life and think this permanent solution to a temporary problem is the way to go?

We will keep asking the questions. 
And we will never find the answers. 

For the answer lies within the brain of a teenager - that "unfinished brain" as scientists like to call it.  The human brain does not complete its circuitry until the mid 20's, around 25 or 26 yrs of age.  So how on earth (or in the heavens) did Mother Nature come up with this idea as a good plan?

Lets go back a few hundred thousand years. 

The reptilian brain, which became our brain stem, is the first to develop in utero. This part of the brain contains the primitive instincts behind basic survival behaviors.

The next part of the brain, sitting on top of the brain stem is the mammalian brain, commonly called the limbic system.  It is in charge of emotions. Our emotions are instantaneous reactions to events happening around us that either threaten us or bring us joy. 

The last part of the brain, the most recently evolved, is the neo-cortex. This is where the conscious "I" lives. The factor that mainly distinguishes homo sapiens from other primates is the outsized frontal lobes on this neo-cortex. These lobes are the last to be completely myelinated - this myelin sheath is the final coat of paint, the insulation that the brain needs in order to function.  And it seems to take forever to get done.

And what do these big frontal lobes do?  What are they "in charge" of? 
Here's the list:  language, reason, judgement, delayed gratification and foresight.  Attributes underdeveloped in teenagers.  From about age 14 until 26, teenagers are walking time bombs working against their own safety and survival.  How many times do you hear parents (teachers, coaches) say:  "what were you thinking?" 

Well, they weren't.  Not at the level we adults want them to. 

Besides the fact the brain isn't "done" yet, the teen brain is also afloat, swimming in, drowning in hormones.  The brand new experiences going on inside the male body when testosterone hits, as if exploding out of a comet, and the estrogen/progesterone/testosterone fruit salad teenage girls are sitting in, combine that with a brain that isn't too good at judgement and foresight....  well, you can see the problem.

As my favorite author, explaining evolution says:  Teenage boys think with their penis, teenage girls think with their heart, ain't nobody thinking with their head. (Leonard Shlain)

What did Mother Nature have in mind, if not the virtual extinction of this oh-too-smart-by-far animal? It seems that the risk-taking behavior of boys afloat in testosterone without the fully developed powers of reason, could be talked into risking their lives to track and kill a mammoth, a beast more than ten thousand times their size and weight  (led by a couple of actual men who had the foresight and experience to make a plan of capture)  The tribe could live because of some unreasonably risk-taking willing teenagers. The joy of the kill made them want to do it again and again, not to mention the "feedback" from the women/girls who could now live through another winter. (This is called the meat-for-sex theory of evolution.)  Seems a fair exchange.

As a matter of fact, why do 18 and 19 yr old boys sign up to go to war?  How many 26 yr old men do we see enlisting in the marines?

The most-oft repeated phrase uttered by men who managed to get to age 26 is:  "When I think back, I don't know how I made it out of my teenage years alive."  Girls are often straddled with a teenage pregnancy due to this same lack of foresight and reason... thinking with hearts instead of heads.

With this knowledge, what can we do to help teens weather these truly frightening years?

We can make sure they have someone to talk to, other than their parents, whom they often try to keep in the dark about their activities.  A trusted aunt or uncle, a neighbor, a mentor.  When I was the director of the mentor program at NHHS, the most frequent comment I heard from these 16 and 17 year olds was:  "this is the first adult not in charge of me that I've ever talked to."  That's astounding.  We need that tribal campfire.

Be prepared to not be their friend at times.  They will love us and hate us, in equal measure, during those years.  Be brave and know everything will turn around somewhere in their mid 20's.  :-)  Suddenly mom and dad seem to know a lot more than they used to. 

Speak up if there is any adult, teacher, coach, anyone whom you think is treating kids, yours or others, unfairly or unkindly. But don't do it alone, if possible. Enlist the help of other adults facing the same predicament.  There is strength in numbers. As an adult, we ourselves, have to have extremely good judgment to pull this one off. 

And the too-much-pressure-to-get-an-A   bit?  How do we handle that one?  Do we remove all pressure when we ourselves can see our kid isn't living up to his/her potential? Not trying hard enough? Trying to get out of work that needs to be done? Again, the adult(s) in charge have to use good judgment to figure out where the reality is.  While being adorable and wonderful, teens can also be manipulative and self-serving.  (just like adults)

After that? 
Keep assuring them that they're not finished yet and that things will get better.

Good luck and God guide our efforts.

Mary Anne Robinson, MS Bio-Nutrition