HealthMental Health The Blue Whale Challenge: 13 Reasons Why We Must Talk About Teenage Suicide

The Blue Whale Challenge: 13 Reasons Why We Must Talk About Teenage Suicide

As a mental health practitioner, I present my reasons for a conversation surrounding teenage suicide and its awareness & prevention plans.

Trigger Warning: Trauma and Suicide

Posted by SnehaJanaki Ramesh

A young teenager died by suicide earlier this weekend. Based on inputs from his friends, his death appears to be linked to the Blue Whale Challenge. The Blue Whale Challenge is believed to be a self-harm game where a social media group goads participants to complete a self-harm challenge everyday, for 50 days until they are encouraged to triumph via suicide. There is controversy about the existence of such a challenge, however this highlights the dangers lurking in social media that we need to be vigilant about.

13 Reasons Why’ is a novel by Jay Asher, which was adapted into a Netflix series and featured over this summer. It portrays a teenage girl’s suicide, after which a classmate receives tapes revealing the reasons behind her decision. The series gave rise to a lot of discussion and debates, rightfully so!

Also Read: 13 Reasons Why: Unpacking Teenage Suicide, Sexual Violence And Mental Health

The increasing number of suicide reports is a worrying trend.

Regardless of whether teenagers are influenced by any game, TV show or other sources teenage suicide needs to be addressed. As a mental health practitioner, I think suicide is extremely concerning and I feel the need for awareness, prevention plans and interventions. I present my reasons for a conversation.

1. Teenage Troubles Turbulences: The book by Jay Asher and its Netflix series gives us a glimpse into teenage minds and their lives. This is a phase where they are undergoing a lot of physiological changes, which in itself can be quite challenging. They taste freedom while moving out of the cocooned school environment to a more liberal college environment. Teenagers might face multiple microaggressions on a daily basis, in college, while commuting, within their homes to name a few. They are highly involved and influenced by their peer relationships, which can be emotionally strenuous.

2. Tug of War: Teenagers have a need for privacy and personal space and to a parent or a caregiver this can be worrisome and hurtful. Teenage is a transitional phase where they are not taken as seriously as an adult yet are expected to show maturity. This sends mixed signals and creates confusion about their identity and roles. It is important to acknowledge that adolescents are trying to create a self-identity that may differ from the one projected on them by their environment. Unfortunately, a lot of families come down too hard on teenagers, who then rebel and further distance themselves, thus creating an uncrossable chasm.

3. A Bully in Every Alley: A 2015 study conducted by IMRB International; an Indian market research firm, found that every third child is bullied in schools. A study by Norton Security reports that more than half the population of internet users between the ages of 8 and 17 have faced multiple instances of online bullying. Online trolls have become compelling, and are sometimes backed by political forces.

A vulnerable but strong headed teenager trying to assert their identity might face flak and violence for posting something that these groups find undesirable. Similarly, in The Blue Whale Challenge, makers convey that signing up for the game is like entering a point of no return, intimidating people to think that they actually don’t have a choice, but to follow through.

4. Curiosity about Death: Many teenagers have thoughts about death and dying, not necessarily suicide. This seems almost parallel to an intellectual pursuit about understanding the meaning and purpose of life. Conversations about these topics are generally discouraged and thought to be taboo, thus leaving them to reach out to their own peers wherein their confusions remain unaddressed for a good part. Therefore, we need to build an environment to better understand what is occupying the teenager’s mind, rather than panic based on our assumptions or worries.

5. ‘Suicide’ – Not a Joke: Very often when people are contemplating or planning to harm themselves, they talk about dying. Unfortunately we do not take it seriously, and pass it off as a joke. Or worse, we might sermon them about how “we have been through much worse” or that they “shouldn’t feel this way” or they should “see the beauty in life and be grateful” or “stop seeking attention”. All these approaches are akin to wishing away a problem. It certainly is not so simple and there is a definite need to intervene by having a genuine conversation. This would help to understand what is making them consider suicide and exploring what can be done to help make them feel safe and cared for. Also, this is a time to reach out to mental health professionals who may able to help handle the crisis.

6. Morality of Suicide: Often we take a high ground and label suicide as an act of selfishness or cowardice, thus painting it as undesirable. However this association makes talking about or seeking help even tougher. This is disrespectful and trivializes the experiences that the person may have gone through. Many survivors of suicide attempts, stay on, or are alive for the people they care for, while still carrying within them unresolved issues. Suicide is not an act of vengeance to teach anyone a lesson, but a cry for help, born out of loneliness, desperation, emptiness, and hopelessness among other reasons.

Also Read: Old Cola And Medication: A Personal Narrative On My Suicide Attempt

7. Poison of Words: The language that we use around suicide and mental health conveys our judgmental attitude, based on our morals. People in the mental health field have moved from using the words ‘committed’, commonly used for ‘committed a crime or a sin’. Suicide is now no longer looked at as a criminal offense; it is seen as an act arising out of severe distress.

8. The Need to be ‘Trauma Informed’: Trauma is any event or experience/s that an individual finds distressing and difficult to cope with. Trauma threatens an individual emotionally and/or physically. We don’t pay enough attention to seemingly small traumas like getting teased, catcalled, failing an entrance test, getting bullied or a break-up.

For example, research studies show considerable psychological effects of being bullied like an increased risk for anxiety and/or depression. Both the bully and the bullied are at a heightened risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviours. When we hear of big traumas like a rape, physical assault or an accident, we get extremely disturbed and try to brush it under the carpet. Through our response we may thus end up belittling, disbelieving and interrogating, making it difficult for trauma survivors to share and seek help.

A trauma sensitive person would understand that people find different experiences traumatic and try to cope in varying ways. All of us can offer kindness, our presence and support, which may go a long way.

9. The Butterfly Effect: The Butterfly Effect suggests the possibility that small actions might have a grand impact. The butterfly effect also suggests that a huge gamut of experiences combined with genetic, physical and emotional factors might all have a role in suicidal behaviour. We may not be able to pinpoint the exact cause and it is most likely that there may be more than one. This highlights the need to be more mindful of how we impact other people.

10. Red Flags: Some of the signs that we need to watch out for include the following. (This is a non-exhaustive list.)

  • Talking about dying or mentioning disappearing.
  • Disturbance in sleep and eating patterns.
  • Sudden changes – being sad, withdrawn, irritable, anxious, indecisive and indifferent.
  • Shifting to extreme opposite kind of behaviours or moods.
  • Inability to concentrate in routine tasks.
  • Disconnect from peers.
  • Giving away personal belongings.
  • Heightened use of addictive substances.
  • Self-harm and engaging in risky behaviours.

These are not necessarily related to suicide alone, but patterns that one can be observant about, acknowledge and further explore. These may be conversation starters to save the day.

11. The Numbers are Alarming: According to the Lancet report 2012, suicide rates in India are among the highest in the world for individuals aged 15 to 29. Early this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that 1 in 4 teenagers in India aged 13-15 have depression. These numbers are nothing short of alarming and signify that we are in the midst of a public health crisis. Yet, we in India tend to gloss over mental health concerns while prioritizing physical health concerns alone.

12. Far and Few Mental Health Professionals: According to the WHO report from 2011, the rate of psychiatrists and psychologists per 1 lakh people is about 0.301 and 0.047 respectively. These numbers convey the sheer shortage of professionals in these fields. There is a definite need and scope for well-informed community level interventions as regards mental health awareness and suicide prevention specifically. Also, there is a lot of stigma attached to seeking professional help, when in fact it is a significant health-based service.

13. Build a Bridge: We can open the gates of communication to facilitate people who are struggling to seek help. Responding effectively includes being open and kind, believing their narrative and being non-judgmental. In reaching out one may clarify the support required and that which can be provided. Creating a favourable environment will also help those who have attempted suicide share their stories and seek help.

Help for suicide prevention is available at a qualified mental health professional near you or any of the following helplines.

  • iCall, Mumbai – +91 22 25521111 (8am -10pm)
  • Vandrevala Foundation Helpline – 1 860 266 2345
  • The Samaritans Mumbai – 022 6464 3267, 022 6565 3267, 022 6565 3247

SnehaJanaki Ramesh is a Counselling Psychologist at Reflective Arena.

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