‘Young people aren’t good at getting help’

Suicide is the second most common cause of death among people under 25 in Germany. But why is youth suicide such a problem and what is being done to help? The Local spoke to charities and healthcare professionals to find out.

‘Young people aren't good at getting help’
Photo: Oliver Berg dpa/lnw

In 2010 more than 600 people aged 15 to 24 took their own life according to the charity Freunde für das Leben (Friends for Life). And at present around 10,000 people of all ages commit suicide every year according to Germany’s Federal Statistics Office.

Freunde für das Leben reports that somebody in Germany ends their own life roughly every 53 minutes – and every five minutes somebody tries to kill themselves.

The problem is particularly serious among young people with more suicide attempts by under-25s than by any other age group.

But the actual number of deaths among under-19s has decreased slightly – from 240 in 2005 to 193 in 2011, according to the Federal Statistics Office.

‘It’s not always easy to tell’

The danger is that young people’s problems are taken for granted or considered insignificant because they are seen as being part and parcel of the instability of puberty.

“Unfortunately typical indicators of puberty are very similar to signs that a young person feels suicidal,” said Sonja Müseler from Telephone Counseling Berlin who are running a campaign to help young people talk about their problems.

“Many people dismiss these signals as a part of puberty but it is not always easy to tell the difference,” she explained.

Multiple causes

There are many possible causes of suicide or attempted suicide among young people according to Dr Braun-Scharm, who has worked as a paediatrician and youth psychiatrist in Munich for almost 30 years.  

“Some of the main causes are separation, bereavement, the death of parents etc. Psychological disorders among the children or their parents can also be a factor,” he said.

In terms of the treatment he offers, Braun-Scharm prescribes medication if a patient has already tried to kill themselves. But he stressed that the most important first step in preventing suicide is to talk to the adolescent about their problems – so that they know somebody cares.

‘It’s better to talk to a stranger’

This year Telephone Counselling Berlin launched a campaign to offer support to young people at risk of committing suicide. The initiative called Jugend Perspektivlos (Young People Without Direction) was launched in response to the higher proportion of suicide attempts among under-25s.

It was given its name, said campaign director Müseler, because there are lots of young people who don’t know who they are or what they want. “This search can sometimes lead to a deep crisis,” she added.

“As a rule young people aren’t good at getting help,” the 60-year-old psychologist added. “Our aim is to encourage young people to ask for help in difficult situations.”

Müseler believes it is best for people with suicidal thoughts to talk to people who are removed from the situation since they are able to remain neutral. For this reason family and friends aren’t always the best option.

“When you are young you want to solve your problems without the help of your parents – they are no longer the first people you talk to if you’re finding things difficult. But it can be equally uncommon to talk to friends of your own age about the difficult things in life.

“Naturally parents and families have expectations of their children and put pressure on them so it is good for young people to talk to an adult who is removed from the situation and doesn’t have the same expectations,” she said. “It’s better if the counsellor is a stranger.”

Help at the end of an email

Another project offering support is U25, which started in Freiburg twelve years ago and this year expanded to cover Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden and Gelsenkirchen.

Like the telephone counselling service, the programme offers anonymous advice and support – but by email not telephone. The ability to remain anonymous and speak to a neutral third party is the main reason why people get in touch according to leader of the Berlin branch Christina Obermüller. “It relieves some of the pressure,” she told The Local.

But unlike Telephone Counselling Berlin, U25’s staff belong to the same age group as their callers. It believes that peer group support is the most effective way of dealing with the problem.

“Young people prefer to turn to someone in their age group,” Solveig Rebholz, who is in charge of the U25 project, told The Local. "Adults and parents are often part of the problem."

In 2012, U25 received 1,938 emails from young people in trouble. Berlin’s telephone counselling service, meanwhile, has answered 2,836 suicide-related calls so far this year.

Next year Telephone Counselling Berlin plans to launch a new programme called Lebensmut which will work in schools. 

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