Youth & Suicide

"Youth and Mental Health" was this year's theme for International Youth Day, held on August 12. Tragically, many youths struggling with mental health issues often turn to suicide; a trend Micronesian at-risk youth face. This article discusses the rise in suicide among Micronesian Youth.

Suicide is a sensitive subject in most Micronesian communities, so I apologize for bringing this troublesome topic to the fore. With that said, I believe it must be discussed so as to understand it and hopefully reduce the trend.

The suicide rates in Micronesia and other Pacific islands reach up to 30 per 100,000 individuals. That’s twice as much as the global average. Just to add more numbers for your consideration: 10 years ago there were 331,000 suicides a year in the Pacific, which accounts for 38 percent of the world total. Since the 70’s, Micronesia has had the highest suicide rates in the world.


1960-1987 MICRONESIA


So, the obvious question becomes, why and how did this happen?

Rev. Francis X. Hezel supplies us with an answer: "the nearly universal reason for suicide [is] trouble with one's family." This seems to be a sensible answer, since the root of most, if not all Micronesian cultures is the family or the clan. A failure to fulfill the hopes or expectations of the family can lead to this ultimate act. Alcohol abuse has also been closely related to suicide (a topic for another discussion).

According to Hezel, the act has always been around: "traditional folklore has its tales of sweethearts, promised by obdurate parents to others in marriage, leaping hand in hand from spectacular heights; of old men, broken in health and spirit, paddling away in canoes never to be seen again; of shamed young men jumping from coconut trees before the eyes of their families."

Although suicide has been present in the islands for a long time, there is no sufficient data that can indicate that the high rates of suicide have always been the norm.

So, is the high rate of suicide a recent phenomenon?

Many have indicated that a major reason for suicide today, especially among the youth is closely related to, “poor prospects of employment and fulfillment of aspirations generated by exposure to affluent global lifestyles through the digital and mass media” (IPS). The inability to achieve “success” in the western sense in a “developing” world is further hampered by the rate of population growth in the islands. With population going up and job creation going down, competition is intense given the limited opportunities. This has also contributed to the mass emigration we are seeing in the islands.

The rapid change from subsistence to cash economy has greatly altered most Micronesian societies. Where before, the societal core was clan and kin, the adoption of western ideals allowed for a smaller societal core: the nuclear family.

"A cash salary ... meant that an individual could act independently from the lineage group."

With a job or career, an individual could support one's immediate family. This weakened the need for strong kin/clan relationships, which was a vital cultural component in child-rearing. It also gave more responsibility to the men of the household, placing a heavier burden on the males of the society which could explain how most cases of suicide are men.

In summation, suicide in Micronesia, like everywhere else, has been present long before modern history. The reasons for suicide in the islands have been closely tied to family related issues. Modernity and globalization have redefined the idea of "success" and placed a heavier burden on today's youth to "modernize" and "succeed". This burden may have contributed to the high rates of suicide.

The entire reasons for these high rates may never be known to us. Discussing it is difficult, but it can serve as a preemptive action. Respectful and responsible conversations must take place to ensure a better future for the youth.