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.”
Friends ‘to the end’
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.