Young Americans are killing themselvesat an unprecedented rate: teenage suicide is up fivefold in the last 20 years. The national response to this calamity has been curiously muted. There is a strange reluctance to link this epidemic with the massive changes in family life of the past two decades. There is, for example, a suggestive parallel between rising numbers of working mothers and skyrocketing teenage suicide, but most commentators would rather slit their wrists—or have their kids slit theirs—rather than hint at such a linkage. Certainly, no one would be so rash as to suggest that in order to “turn the clock back” on the teenage-suicide rate it might be necessary to turn the clock back on several liberating trends of recent decades.
Even when media and educational leaders claim to be attending to the problem, they are more often evading it. For instance, last fall CBS broadcast the docudrama Silence of the Heart, portraying a teenage boy who commits suicide and his family’s anguished response to his death. A CBS executive proclaimed that their dramatization of teen suicide would “help people put it in perspective,” while the leading actress in the production, Mariette Hartley, hoped that the production would “save lives,”
It was appropriate, however, that CBS distributed study and discussion guides based on the program for classroom use, for the public educational system is also implicated in the upswing in teenage suicide. But, of course, neither CBS nor anyone else wished to say so. To do so would imply an indictment of the fashionable teaching philosophies favoring individual “creativity,” value neutrality, and self-indulgence and ignoring or attacking traditional religious and cultural ideals. Some parents and legislators are now reportedly demanding that high school classes on suicide become mandatory. But until they say something about these larger issues, their initiative can only further weaken the schools and exacerbate the problem they hope to solve. Without a relentless examination of the ways modernism has robbed life of its meaning, last-ditch classes on suicide can only deepen teenage despair, sending even more of them in search of razor blades, sleeping pills, and waxed ropes.