My teenaged son has found a new slogan to brush off racial slurs: Black Lives Matter. Years of bullying and teasing in school and elsewhere over his eczema-triggered dark complexion have done little to dampen his spirit or his cool. However it is not as easy for every teen.
On August 19, a 19-year-old girl in Kerala committed suicide upset about the constant ridiculing over her dark skin. One can call her a victim of domestic racism or the so-called supremacy of white-skinned people over dark-skinned or dusky people in India. Complexion and body shaming are part of a teen’s growing up pains as are the pressure from schools to perform well academically and from parents not just to perform but often to out-perform their peers!
The social media – in the case of teens it is mainly Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok – adds to the insecurities in the coming-of-age years. The increased exposure to Indian and international media, their models and celebrities, have gotten into young girls in particular triggering eating disorders, inferiority complex and suicidal thoughts. When did high cheekbones, a more defined jaw line and visible collarbones become the Indian idea of beauty replacing plumper voluptuous figures?
The pressure to study, learning difficulties and verbal abuse are some of the factors that prompt youngsters to take the extreme step. A parent of a high-schooler told this columnist some time back how teachers in a reputed school in India asked the girls to get married if they scored low marks and not to waste time in school.
Anne Mathews, a lawyer who works as a school counsellor in Kochi, feels that it is not one factor that drives a child towards suicide but a combination of factors. The media and society may notice only one or two factors immediately preceding the incident but in fact there would be issues that had accumulated over the years and culminated in the fatal decision. Parental pressure is one aspect definitely, not just in academics but extracurricular activities too.
Also, Anne notes, with nuclear families and single children being the norm, youngsters are used to parents pampering every need of theirs. So when they hear a ‘no’ at some point, say in a love affair, they are unable to take it. Moreover, parents often brush off the problems of children as unimportant which make the latter turn to a peer for advice. The excess reporting in media inadvertently tends to glorify suicides. Domestic violence as well as substance and alcohol abuse are also contributory factors, Anne said.
A counsellor-cum-special educator at a school opines that upbringing and the strength to accept life as it comes play a big role in a student’s life. The upbringing is not conditioned by parents alone but the extended family, school and community. Lack of acceptance in these circles result in inability to face challenges and social pressures, which in turn makes a person act the way they do. Parents could help by adopting the right attitude and outlook themselves, which will help the kids to assume such attitudes and not be affected by certain social norms and perspectives, she pointed out.
While online games like Blue Whale have been known to lead its teen players to suicide, even books have been known to cause depression and worthlessness. A bestseller like an ‘An Unquiet Mind’ by Kay Jamison with passages like the following can trigger suicidal tendencies: “I think I hit the point of life where I’m just done. I cried, I fought, I tried, but everything is crashing down. My demons are screaming louder, trying to eat away the rest of me and this time we’re not going to fight back.”
Sheena, a school nurse, believes that it takes a certain courage to take such extreme steps, something a teen 10-20 years ago wouldn’t have dared despite verbal or corporal punishments at home or school. “Why can’t the same courage be used to take life head on?” she wonders.
Like everything else, for the new-gen teen courage is instant too. Sadly, it doesn’t always give them an opportunity to look back and “undo” the action.