Last Tuesday (7), bodies of two teenagers were recovered in Kandy. It was reported that the youths had jumped together into the Polgolla Reservoir after suspectedly being denied their love affair.
Similarly, there have been many such reports of teen suicides in the past, resultant of forbidden love; in 2017, a 16-year-old boy took his life motivated by his family’s denial of a forbidden love affair between him and a peer as his parents did not agree with the union due to cultural differences between the couple.
Culturally, Sri Lanka is not open about topics such love, relationships, and sex. They are taboo topics that are rarely ever discussed and young people often get their first exposure to such topics through external means such as social media.
However, us as a culture not speaking about them does not mean the issues do not exist. Our ability to feel romantic love develops during adolescence. Teens all over the world notice passionate feelings of attraction. Even in cultures like ours where people are not allowed to act on or express these feelings at a young age, they still develop as it is a natural part of growing up.
The time these feelings first materialise is a crucial time in a young child’s life and they must be guided on how to manage these new feelings which often can be exciting or even confusing. This very lack of an open dialogue can lead to devastating consequences.
In our attempt to look at the mental health aspect of the more drastic actions such as taking one’s life, we asked counselling psychologist Nivendra Uduman whether reasons such as denied romance or rejection could play a role in driving a teenager/young person to take their life.
Nivendra shared that suicide is complex and is often a mixture of psychological, biological, social, and systemic factors that contribute to an increase of risk of one taking his/her own life. In the context of teenage suicide and romantic relationships, one aspect to consider is the potential disapproval from family members and the larger community, where an adolescent may not have adequate coping skills and problem-solving skills to deal with the situation.
He stated that developmentally, as certain important parts of the brain are not fully developed during adolescence, mainly the prefrontal cortex, rational thinking, decision-making processes, etc. may not be fully present. From a biological standpoint, because the emotional centre of the brain is quite rapidly developed, adolescents can feel emotions very intensely and not have a lot of access to the prefrontal cortex (the control centre of our brain) to solve problems. Individuals who experience suicidal thoughts often have cognitive constriction (tunnel vision) where one may not see anything beyond their current emotional state. He said that this is another factor that leads to feeling like problems are unsolvable. In such a situation, issues can seem very black and white.
Also speaking about the social and cultural aspects of it, particularly in a country such as ours, Uduman shared that the taboo and negative attitudes about young people dating may also contribute to emotional distress that can potentially put someone at risk of taking their life.
The weight of society and how much it affects the decision and emotional responses of young people is even more evident in teens who are vulnerable as they identify as different to what is socially accepted. While intense feelings of love and sexual attraction can cloud anyone’s judgment, when it is challenged by your support system, then your foundation and reality tends to get distorted, which in turn causes confusion, doubt, and fear and leads to taking drastic actions.
Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka Programme Officer and queer activist Sriyal Nilanka shed some light on the side of queer youth with regard to the aforementioned issue. He said that young persons who identify in the spectrum of LGBT often grow up being told that the way that they are feeling is not normal. Their attraction is different to that of their peers and when they do reach out to talk about their feelings, they are often shamed, especially in their teenage years when they are unsure of themselves. When one is an LGBT youth, there is an additional barrier. This would often mean that LGBT youth are dealing with these issues by themselves, which can lead to feelings of isolation, self-hate, and depression.
On the other end, Nilanka shared the effects of bullying, saying that cyberbullying is a graver menace in society right now and that this is particularly difficult when you are LGBT. Accordingly, there have been instances where if you approach even the cybercrimes unit without legal representation, they would turn you away if you come with incidents regarding LGBT and also would shy away from taking your complaint. There must be youth services available where they can freely express themselves without the watchful eye of an adult they may be afraid to open up to. Teenagers tend to bend the truth when their parents or known elders are around. Nilanka referred to foreign countries adopting methods such as “text crisis hotline” which allow discreet communication, creating a safe space for the youth to seek necessary help without the fear of being reprimanded or disciplined.
In conjunction with societal factors stemming from cultural beliefs, there is also a strong influence from the media, about which Uduman spoke of. “I would like to highlight the role of the media industry; 90% of television serials aired on local TV often depict self-harm and suicide attempts as possible solutions to problems, especially concerning romantic relationships. Some songs played on local radio often send subtle messages through lyrics that ending one’s life or two people in love ending their lives together can be something that’s romantic and brave,” he explained.
There is even a term for it in Japanese literature called “Shinjū”, translating to “double suicide”, which is a term referring to the suicide of persons bound by love, typically lovers. This narrative of lovers committing double suicide, believing that they would be united again in heaven, is something that is romanticised in cinema and pop culture. The thought of being together in death adds the additional layer of rebellion when it is opposed by your family when you are already experiencing a time where you have a strong desire to demonstrate your independence.
To combat this issue, Uduman stated: “We have to acknowledge the deficit in mental health/relationship education in our schools, universities, and broader society.”
University of Colombo Professor Emeritus of the Department of Sociology Siri Hettige also added to this, stating that there is a serious lack of awareness created in schools with regard to topics dealing with mental health education. Even to this day, when mental health is a most topical conversation, it is one of the least addressed areas in local schools – even worse so in the more rural areas of the country. He said that unfortunate incidents such as misguided acts of rebellion can be helped if we are to provide the necessary education and basic foundation to help young people sort through their very natural feelings.
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