LOBNYA, Russia — Russia is hard on its children, and Yelizaveta Petsylya and Anastasia Korolyova finally decided, at the age of 14, to do what thousands of other Russian teenagers have done. There was one way to assert control over their lives, and that was to end them.
Russia has the third-highest teenage suicide rate in the world, just behind its neighbors Belarus and Kazakhstan and more than three times that of the United States. On an average day, about five Russians under age 20 take their own lives.
Psychiatrists and health experts here know why it happens. Alcohol abuse, domestic violence and rigid parenting all play a role. Too many parents expect unquestioning obedience. Social conformity is strictly enforced, especially outside the big cities. Isolation is a huge problem in such a large country. There’s rarely anywhere to turn for help — but even if there were, families would be unlikely to admit their failings to outsiders.
Suicide is an attempt to seek relief from all that, by taking charge. The two teens, called Liza and Nastya by their families and friends, left letters behind: They wanted to wear white dresses and be buried in white coffins, and in death their wishes were honored.
In the Soviet era, suicide was considered an affront to the state, the failure of a citizen to fulfill his responsibility. Psychiatry was more often associated with punishment than with therapy, and that left a stigma and mistrust of mental health care that persists. And, while championing the collective, the Soviets destroyed the old Russian sense of community. Bullying is everywhere. And so is loneliness.
“At home, you order, you enforce, you punish your kids instead of trying to understand them,” said Anatoly Severny, one of Russia’s very few child psychiatrists. “Schools use what I call repressive pedagogics. Kids are forced to do everything.”
When Liza and Nastya leaped on Feb. 7 from the roof of a high-rise on the north side of Lobnya, a mid-size suburb about 40 minutes by train from Moscow, the press took notice because UNICEF had just released a report on teenage suicide in Russia. Almost every day since then, there have been more reports of adolescents killing themselves — in Barnaul and Krasnoyarsk and Moscow and Yakutsk and Rostov-on-Don.
It seems like an epidemic, but in fact it’s the usual state of affairs. (The official statistics may undercount the suicide death toll by as much as 25 percent.) The media attention, unfortunately, lends a certain glamour to the act, said Sergei Belorusov, a psychotherapist and volunteer for a church-run Web site called Choose Life, which counsels those seeking help.
“At this age they don’t have a concept of death,” he said. “A teenage suicide is a message. They often think there’s something heroic about it. But they also think there’s a start-over button somewhere.”
Nastya was outgoing, open and frank. Liza, more complicated, wouldn’t let anyone get too close. Last May they began singing with a glee club at the Chaika cultural center. Nastya enjoyed it so much that she decided to take private singing lessons from Dmitry Konovalov, at about $8 an hour. Liza had a stronger voice, and more musical talent, but her mother wouldn’t pay for lessons. In disappointment, or anger, she withdrew from the glee club.
In January the two girls, friends since first grade, began cutting classes at School No. 8. But Nastya still came by for her twice-a-week lessons with Konovalov. He last saw her on Feb. 6, when they discussed what she would be working on at their next session, three days later. But the next day, she was dead.
“When you’re 14, you don’t clearly understand what suicide is,” Konovalov said. “ ‘How pretty I’ll be at my funeral!’ They don’t understand they can’t watch the reaction. It’s the end.”
Nastya, he said, never showed any signs of depression. But a month before the girls died, Liza posted a message on a Russian social Web site saying she would “respect to the end the person who stayed with her to the end.”
Nastya posted this message: “What would I do without my friends?”
Anton Baranov, who is a year ahead of Nastya and Liza at School No. 8, said they would all sometimes go out together in a group of five or six kids. The school is small — each grade has only about 25 students — so of course everyone knew everyone else. Anton said the school set up a small memorial to the girls, which came down after a week. The teachers talked to their classes about the suicides, but none had noticed ahead of time that there were any problems — despite the recent truancy.
“Nobody teaches teachers how to pick up on these cases,” Severny said. An attempt to introduce mental health services at schools has been “absolutely ineffective,” he said.
“The level of trust among students toward their schools, their teachers, even psychologists in schools, is very low,” said Alla Ivanova, a researcher at the Ministry of Health. “The culture is, you don’t discuss your problems with anybody.”
The suicide rate is highest in the Far East and in parts of northwestern Russia, said Bertrand Bainvel, head of the UNICEF office in Moscow. It is much higher in small towns than in cities. More boys kill themselves than girls. There is not a big seasonal variation, despite the long hours of darkness in a northern winter.
A teenager beset by problems at home, or breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or trying to deal with sexual identity, goes into a tunnel, Belorusov said. His job is to try to expand the dimensions of that tunnel. He gets four or five referrals a week from Choose Life. It’s crisis intervention — e-mail exchanges that attempt to convince the adolescent on the other end that someone understands, and cares.
“So then we try to solve the problem together.”
Suicide is not impulsive, he said. First comes the idea, then a weighing of pros and cons. This, he said, is when an alert parent or teacher or friend should pick up the hints. “But people put up a fence. They don’t want to listen.”
So, like Liza and Nastya, the teenager withdraws further. The tunnel narrows. “And then the only self-realization is in the romance of the flight down,” Belorusov said. “And that’s when you go to the roof.”