Growing rate of child and teenage suicides in Poland

For the past several years police statistics in Poland have been registering close to 5,000 suicides annually. What is most alarming is a steady 15% annual rise in suicides among the youngest generation.

17-year-old Krzysztof was found by his kid brother Arek who returned from school early. Just a couple of minutes more and it would have been too late. Krzysztof is now home from hospital, but since then has been silent and his thoughts remote. Arek overheard the next door neighbour whispering it might have been attempted suicide.

The latest figures speak of 61 suicides among children under 14 annually and 266 among teenagers between 15 and 19. Professor Brunon Holyst, who heads the Polish Suicidological Society, attributes the rise to social changes that have taken place in Poland since the rapid political and economic transformations started in 1989:

"The reasons, the motives, are connected with an acceleration process. We can observe the bad situation in families. Also the sometimes less than friendly situation in schools: some young people committed suicide because of difficulties in school."

Bozena Szafranska, a psychologist at one of Warsaw's specialist centers for children with school problems, stresses the importance of signals sent to grown ups:

"Suicidal children have some personal features such as low self-esteem, low tolerance for frustration, feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, guilt, anger. Children are not able to express those feelings any other way."

Photo: David Vaughan
These signals are often ignored by adults who tend to share a naive stereotype that childhood is a trouble free period. Unfortunately, a similar mistake is committed by many professionals in Poland who underestimate the problem of young suicides. Professor Holyst points to a 5:1 ratio of adult men and women who consider suicide as opposed by a 2:1 rate among boys and girls. This arises, ironically, from increasing equality between the sexes in terms of social pressure and expectations.

"We can say that the standard of living is equal within the young society and population. And conflicts, which are the origin and play the dominant role in the roots of suicidal behavior are the same, for instance, love, difficulties at school, a bad situation within the family, or an unfriendly attitude toward teenagers."

Psychologist Bozena Szafranska is worried by the disregard for life created by contemporary civilisation and culture and adults' reluctance to find time to discuss difficult issues with their kids. The latter might not seem strange in a predominantly Catholic, conservative country such as Poland.

"Parents or guardians rather hide it, than talk about this. They hide it because they feel shame, guilt, or embarrassment. They are afraid of social reactions, in their families, their neighbourhood, or their place."

Opinions that Poland ranks average in international reports on suicide is no consolation. The total number of unsuccessful suicide attempts cannot be verified, but unofficial estimates place their number at 10 times that of the figures for actual deaths. Children and teenagers with a parental suicide record are 9 times more likely to consider attempts on their life than those who do not have that family history. Professor Holyst:

"We can observe the accumulation of suicidal behavior within selected families."

It should be remembered that a child's suicide is always a cry for help addressed to us, grown ups. Unfortunately Poland has a real scarcity of hot lines and help centers for those discouraged by reality. And in contrast to the virtual world created by the computer age, in real life there still remains only ONE life to live - a life that must be cherished.