NO ONE can say what's in the mind of a teenager who takes his or her own life but a look at the symbolic world they occupy might help.
Or that's what I decided as I was researching a project for schools on a discussion forum for addiction.
I don't have children so I started my research by talking to them or more importantly, listening. It didn't take long to remember what I was like, surly, argumentative, passionately loving/hating/wanting and most exciting of all, taking risks in a secretive world from adults – all extremes and all about me. But it wasn't until I discovered a new element to being a teenager that I was struck by its possible correlation to suicide.
And this is teenagers' online personas, their "second life" which blurs reality and fantasy like a drug.
Teens today are balancing two reputations – their online one and their offline one – and I can see how the lines between fantasy and reality get blurred too easily.
Last week I went online on a site called Second Life. Two hours later I found myself back in my sitting room feeling hungover after a great night out – (away from me).
Online personas are called avatars and the idea is that you pick the person you want to be from a line-up of all sorts of personalities from the computer geek to hippy chic.
I named my avatar (virtual persona) 'Pepsi sowhat100' whom, I later reflected, was my persona in Eighties' London when I worked at Vogue, a glass of champagne in one hand while gesticulating dismissively with the other. The frightening thing was that I'm 17 years away from my last drug, but, in virtual space, I was in euphoric recall – the best of those times without the reality of my hideous rock- bottom experiences. (Parents, talk to your children about their avatar personas if you want to know what's really going on with them.)
Because as much as I loved my night out in the electric blues and hues of cyberspace, where anything goes, I was shook by the easy seduction of its experience and the emotional hangover I had landing back in the less vibrant world of my sitting room – it wasn't an easy adjustment and I'm trained in how to ground myself.
As I reflected on that and on the games teenagers are into, I got a sense of how easily the idea of "ending life" appeals. A single click of the mouse ends an experience in cyberspace. It's easy to get addicted to the immediate gratification it offers and, more disturbingly, it's easy to see how the blurred boundaries of reality and fantasy can be mistaken and it's not just in cyberspace that this is happening.
Any parent who sees The Twilight Saga movies – a must-see for teenagers – will recognise a similar blurring of boundaries which are hard to pull back from. Beautifully directed and scripted, in Twilight teenagers use monosyllabic words like drops of hot breath in lush landscapes of protective forests and feel-good experiences.
I'd argue that these films (the latest, Breaking Dawn Part 2, is breaking box office records) are, in fact, about the seduction of addiction and the temptation to "die" for a better life, a life where staying up all night (vampires don't sleep) in an all-powerful state of knowing (they're all psychically gifted) is far more appealing, so much so that Bella, the heroine, wants to become a vampire. She wants to be bitten by a vampire who tells her that he wants to kill her. "I know I'm safe with you," she tells him in the film's best description of addiction.
Teenagers are living in a world where the click of a computer is taking them to the best of worlds or the worst, depending where their unconscious desires lead them.
The difficulty where teenagers are concerned is that they lack the grounding needed to define the difference between reality and fantasy and we need to find a way to meet them in this dilemma.
The lead in the latest film, Breaking Dawn Part 2, appears to be the perfect man – the girls love him and the boys feel threatened by his illusion of Romeo.
In addition to his exquisite willowy features, he's portrayed as successful, strong, attentive, all knowing, protective and sexually potent – the reality is that he's hideously possessive, overbearing and demanding (he's inside her head like a snake around a tree). His skin, like his psyche, is cold (a narcissistic psychopath) or that's the position I'm taking with the teenagers I'm talking to and that's before I go near the predatory, dismissive, all consuming demands of Bella, the female lead the girls are now mimicking in discos, I'm told.
Of course, the teenagers don't agree with me but they're talking and this is the "soul" element of the work which interests me.
The question seems to be how do we reach teenagers who live in a society that encourages an unhealthy level of individualism and/or unrealistic expectations, with programmes such as The X Factor contributing to the culture of self-obsessed celebrity.
As I see it, we need to meet teenagers where they are and invite them to join this world – this world of soul, where true love is a possibility and not an illusion. It is the illusionary world which is, I'm sure of it, leading teenagers to awful acts of unknowing self-destruction (of course, this is an oversimplification of the complex issue of suicide but it's a beginning).
Soul is hard to define but words I use to amplify it for teenagers staring at me open-mouthed include spirit, heart, life, passion, warmth, humaness, personality, individuality, intention, essence, innermost, purpose, virtue, morality, wisdom, death and God.
Because the attraction of symbols of strength for teenagers is about a deep sense of disempowerment, addictions provide another temporary illusion for them (weight lifting/dieting/gambling/ Facebook) but the hangovers, be they physical or spiritual, tempt them to metaphorically "click" to exit.
The exit they want is from the psychic overload they're not able to digest – they're not avatars so they're attacking that which grounds them, their bodies.
More darkly, I'm wondering if teenagers are engaged in an unconscious collective rebellion against adults. Are we at the receiving end of an unconscious demand to get our houses in order?
I'm wondering if teenagers feel let down by us and if they do, then we need to take their reality seriously if we're to come to grips with the issue of suicides and the patterns of cluster. Have we brought them into an uncertain world of our making with ridiculous expectations and a sense of entitlement and offering them nothing but our fears?
We need to show them more of our strength, our ability to admit that we don't understand them but that we're willing to try and together to inform and guide their choices as they struggle with the boundaries of reality and fantasy.
Christina Reihill is a psychotherapist and poet. Her schools programme, Soul Burgers Takes On The Twilight Saga, is subsidised by a recent Allianz bursary award. Visit www.soul-burgers.com