Sisterhood Blog

The Tragedy of 'Suicide Girls'

By Elana Sztokman

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I spent too much time the other day talking to my children about death and suicide. My oldest daughter went to the funeral of her former youth group counselor, an 18-year-old recent high school graduate who took her own life. A seemingly bubbly, optimistic and activist young woman who became clinically depressed over the past year, the girl left a strong impression on my daughter and her death left many in the youth movement grappling for answers.

Meanwhile, in a separate development, my youngest daughter had a bit of a meltdown about the fact that the mother of her classmate recently took her own life. Although it happened several weeks ago, the death bubbled up in her consciousness this afternoon as she became terrified by the thought that something like that may happen to her own mother. My efforts at reassurance were bittersweet and fleeting; although she is now happily playing, I have no idea when these horrific events will once again play havoc with her subconscious; I can only hope that I will be there for her again when they do.

This is really not how I imagined parenthood. I was wondering if perhaps there has been an increase in incidents of suicide, or if my social world has expanded because of children. Last week, The New York Times reported that Cornell University has indeed had an increase in suicide rates among students — 10 so far this academic year. Several of the comments were from students who had attempted suicide as well, reinforcing my ominous sense that this is really everywhere.

I’m particularly troubled about the issue of suicide among teenage girls. Although statistically men are four times as likely to take their own lives, women are actually twice as likely to attempt suicide. Women also suffer from depression twice as often as men. Clearly there is more to this issue, especially for women.

Some say that depression in anger turned inward. Research shows that troubled boys are more likely to act out while troubled girls are more likely to turn inward — with self-mutilation, eating disorders, and depression. Thus the girls’ warning signs are more likely to get ignored than the boys’ warning signs.

In addition, girls have extra risk factors. According to psychologists Stephen Hinshaw and Rachel Kranz in “The Triple Bind,” a wide range of issues — increasingly over-scheduled lives, the rise of the cyber-culture, and the continued media-fueled sexualization of young girls — is having a devastating impact on girls’ emotional well-being. Girls are now expected to excel at “girl skills,” achieve “boy goals,” and be models of female perfection 100% of the time — hence the “triple bind”. To wit, frighteningly: when I Googled “suicide girls adolescence”, I got to a pornography site specializing in self-generated porn from women and teenage girls. Yes, girls under pressure to sexualize themselves are officially the “suicide girls.” It is absolutely chilling.

Girls have an added risk factor of becoming victims of sexual assault. As the Oscar-nominated movie “Precious” so poignantly shows, girls who are victims of rape, or worse, of incest, can easily slide into severe depression, especially when the trauma remains untreated. It’s understandable: When our safest places become the most threatening places, our minds will quickly be filled with the thought that there is no safe place in the entire world.

So I spent my day today, talking to my children about these issues. I found myself delivering a completely unrehearsed speech about the importance of seeking help, of talking to someone about their feelings, and about distinguishing between normal sadness and scary depression. My daughter, offering a disturbing anti-interventionist liberal approach, suggested that perhaps if someone wants to die, that is their right and we should just let them be. I reminded her that suicide does untold damage to family and friends, and that we have to think about the people we love before we take drastic measures. Plus, I said, if someone feels that bad, they need help. I forgot to remind her that life is good and the world is a good place. Or maybe I’m having a hard time with that one myself.

I don’t know if I said the right things. The truth is: I hope that this is the kind of conversation that they put away in a drawer in the recesses of their minds, and never have to take out again. Still, I’m feeling so sad, for all those who are suffering in silence, especially teenage girls who so often hide their often-invisible emotional turbulence. And I really hope that the community pays attention and that schools, synagogues and communities find ways to support youth and keep our youth healthy and happy.


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