Young, Hopeless and Dead



On Christmas Day of 2010, a 14-year-old boy killed himself. “He wouldn’t stop crying. He seemed to be saying goodbye, he said he was finally going to sleep soundly,” his aunt said in a TV interview, describing how Popoy was behaving on the day he took his own life.

Popoy lived with his grandmother in a city in the Philippines while his mother and four siblings were in the province. His mother couldn’t afford to raise all of them so he was left in the care of his grandparents when he was little. He grew up in a temporary housing project awarded by the government in 1995. The environment is typical of an urban poor community: houses are made of scrap wood and iron sheets, streets are narrow and cramped, days are filled with the noise and chaos of an overcrowded neighborhood.

He should’ve been in high school at his age but Popoy had stopped going to school. He earned some money by selling scrap metal and plastic while his grandmother occasionally did laundry for other people in order to augment their income.

On his wake, his mother was distraught and in tears as she tried to make sense why her young son would commit suicide. “I had no idea that this would happen. He seemed happy here,” she said. She was asked if Popoy ever said something about killing himself. “He talked to his friends about it but it seemed like he was just kidding around,” she answered.

He may have felt that he was abandoned when he was left with his grandmother and he had no one to talk to about his feelings, his mother said. She may not be too far off the mark. Family problems are identified as a big factor that contributes to stress and depression among teens. As they enter a confusing phase in their lives where they’re trying to figure out so many things about themselves, a barrage of problems and a lack of social support would make them feel helpless and trapped.

In a country where one-third of the population is poor, poverty has also been blamed as a reason for suicide among young people. In November 2007, a 12-year-old girl hanged herself, leaving a diary that told of how she wasn’t able to go to school at times because they didn’t have money. She also left an unsent letter to a local TV program that features people who are in need and grants their wish. She asked for a new bag, a pair of shoes, and livelihood for her parents. Her father occasionally worked as a construction worker while her mother did laundry jobs. Her death shocked the country and led to protests against the government, finger-pointing and chest-beating among public officials and civil society, and renewed vigor in trying to do something about poverty.

It is rather simplistic however, to assume that kids end their lives because they are poor. Teen suicide cuts across social classes and occurs even in well-to-do families. In June last year, a 17-year-old student of a private university committed suicide after allegedly receiving threats from a fraternity.

It is difficult to point to a single reason for a young person’s decision to stop living. There are certainly risk factors including family problems, sexual and emotional abuse, homosexual issues, substance abuse and mental disorders. There is also a stigma among those who attempt to commit suicide. They are either branded as insane or just melodramatic and seeking attention. But as one counselor said, what do we have to lose by taking the time to listen and trying to understand their situation?

Suicide is a complex issue. It isn’t solved by taking a drug or a vaccine shot. With all the problems that plague the health system of a third world country, it’s no surprise that this is not high on the priority list. The Philippine health department reports, however, that about five people die of suicide everyday with the highest rate among ages 20-24. These deaths are preventable and things can be done to address the risk factors. When young people who are supposedly at the peak of their lives are instead choosing to die, isn’t it about time we do something?

© UNICEF/NYHQ2006-1433/Ninfa Bito On 26 August 2006 in the Philippines, several girls who have been abused participate in an interview for UN Radio, in Roxas City, capital of the central Capiz Province.

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