Growing Up Helpless in a World Without Hope: Teenagers, Divorce and Suicide

Growing Up Helpless in a World Without Hope: Teenagers, Divorce and Suicide
Growing Up Helpless in a World Without Hope: Teenagers, Divorce and Suicide

On January 22, 2017, fourteen-year-old Naika Venant committed suicide in her Miami, Florida foster-home while broadcasting her death on Facebook. Her suicide might be ascribed to her troubled past. However, not all teens who commit suicide are escaping horrible lives.

Consider sixteen-year-old J. C. Ruf, who lived in the Cincinnati area. He pitched in a youth baseball league. One evening in October 2016, according to USA Today, he took his grandmother out to dinner while his mother went to a Bible study. Later he talked to friends before he committed suicide. He left a video suicide note on his cell phone.

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Growing Up Helpless in a World Without Hope: Teenagers, Divorce and Suicide
Suicide Rates for Teens Aged 15-19 Years, by Sex – United States 1975-2015. Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control (The Chart is public domain, but the CDC Media Office, 404-639-3286, requests this caption.)

The rise in teenage suicide is part of a growing trend in American life. Suicides are undoubtedly acts of desperation, that come from the perception that life is hopeless. While there were more teen suicides during the early nineties, the most recent figures represent a thirty percent rise since 2007.

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One common element in many suicides is the sense of being unloved. The high rate of divorce contributes to this perception. Consider the following statistics, assembled by a law firm that specializes in divorce:

  • 50% of children in the U.S. will see their parents divorce in their lifetime
  • 43% of children in the U.S. are living without their father involved in their lives
  • 41% of first marriages end in divorce
  • 60% of second marriages end in divorce
  • 73% of third marriages end in divorce
  • The average first marriage lasts eight years

This epidemic of “no-fault divorce” impacts the lives of countless children. In the 2018 book, Primal Loss: The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak, author Leila Miller interviews seventy children of divorced couples.

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She found two main reactions to divorce. Many felt that the divorce was partially or wholly their fault.  Others felt an immense anger with no outlet to express their feelings. Although these two reactions may appear contrary to each other, many felt both emotions in face of the divorce. This sense never goes away. Every moment at home is a reminder of the divorce, every “family celebration” is an expression of being part of a broken family.

This loss of the sense of family has a great impact on the lives of teens. They experience a world of fleeting and false intimacy when living with a parent who may have a series of “friends,” some of whom may become stepparents. They may imitate that pattern in their own dating, often with disastrous results to their moral lives.

Another layer of confusion is found in the moral relativism that is so much a part of modern life. Youth naturally search for answers and certainties in this phase in their lives. Living in a culture in which everything is relative, young people need something reliable model models that can help bring order to their lives. Instead, counselors, teachers, social workers, and psychologists serve them a dose of confusion, teaching that each can have his or her own contradictory truth and that all of them are somehow equally “true.” There are no answers, just an ever-expanding set of questions, dilemmas, and conundrums for which there are no solutions.

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Such experiences deliver young people into the morass of nihilism – the belief that everything is meaningless. Thus, they come to see life as both painful and pointless. Suicide seems to offer an escape that so many young people seize as a “solution.”

Fortunately, not all such desperate situations lead to suicide. The human experience is far too varied for any such simple answer. There are, for example, over 40 million people in the U.S. who have experienced parental divorce.  The Centers for Disease Control estimates that about 5,000 teens take their lives each year. Thus, most children find a way to survive the trauma, although the wounds never fully heal.

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