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Suicide biggest killer of 15 to 24-yr-olds: Can youngsters tackle life?

health and fitness Updated: May 15, 2016 13:26 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Teen brains bust all rationality parameters when faced with emotionally-charged social situations, such as relationships and conflict. (Representative photo)

Entrance exam pressure is not the only thing driving young people over the edge. Suicide is the biggest killer of 15- to 24-year-olds in India, followed by road traffic accidents, shows data from Global Burden of Disease Study 2013 that tracked death from 306 diseases, injuries and risk factors across 188 countries.

Globally, road injury is the biggest killer in this age group, which makes up 1.8 billion of the world’s 7.1 billion population.

While death from infections such as tuberculosis, malaria, diarrhoea and lung infections have declined steadily, data shows all’s not well for India’s largest ever generation of adolescents and young people. Suicides have almost doubled in teenagers and young adults in India since 1990, replacing tuberculosis and injuries as the top two causes of death in a little over a decade, reported the study, published last week in The Lancet.

What drives many hundreds of young people to take their own lives each year? Are they stressed about the rapidly changing social and economic uncertainties? Is the fear of potential joblessness driving them to despair? Or do they lack the emotional maturity and the social skills needed to negotiate life? 

No impulse control

The reasons are both physiological and social. Teenagers and young adults are far more reckless than young children and adults, and here’s why. Their brains are wired to react more impulsively to threats, confirm scientists from the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Weill Cornell, US. Biological changes during adolescence in the ventral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps regulate responses in emotional situations, makes teens react rather than retreat from danger, found the study.

This proclivity for risk because of changes in the brain that occur specifically during this age partly explains why more teens die in accidents and suicides than people in other age groups.

It also explains why teen brains bust all rationality parameters when faced with emotionally-charged social situations, such as relationships and conflict. Young men do worse than women, which suggests gender plays a role in impulsive response, perhaps because the male hormone testosterone peaks in young men during the late teens and early 20s. This finding that corresponds with the ratio of crime, substance abuse and road accidents in young men versus young women, reported a study in Developmental Neuroscience.

The connections between the emotional and the decision-making centre of the brain fully develop by the age of 25, and until then, teens are unable to cope with overwhelming emotional stimuli. (Shutterstock)

Brain training

Teenagers who reined in from responding to emotional stimuli had higher activity in the rational part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which controls behaviour. Unlike adults who use the prefrontal cortex to process information, teens depend more on the emotional part called the amygdale. The connections between the emotional and the decision-making centre of the brain fully develop by the age of 25, and until then, teens are unable to cope with overwhelming emotional stimuli.

So indicative are the brain’s connectivity patterns of impulse that they can be used as biological indicators of potential behavioural problems and social adaptation difficulties. Using neuro-imaging techniques, researchers from the University of Murcia studied the changes in connectivity patterns in the brain areas linked to impulsiveness to understand how the brain functioned in people who are ruled by emotion and do not worry about the consequences of their actions. The study, reported researchers in the journal, Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience,found that greater impulsiveness is linked to alterations in the connections between the areas associated with antisocial behaviour and those used to perform mental tasks.

 Mentoring minds

Data from suicide helplines in India shows relationship problems and ostracisation by peers are the biggest suicide triggers among men and women under 25, while financial problems is the main driver for older adults.

 “Deaths in (Indian) youth have been rising for the past decade, while other countries such as China and Sri Lanka have achieved just the opposite. As an immediate priority, the Centre must launch a national programme with active youth participation to address these leading causes of death and illness,” says Dr Vikram Patel, professor of international mental health at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a co-author of study published in The Lancet

On their part, adults – be it parents, teachers, friends or colleagues – can help young people more resilient to emotional situations. Simple measures such as letting them vent their fears of being abandoned can help them reach emotional stability and ride the maelstrom of emotions and apprehensions that haunt them. Instead of placing blame or offering unsought advice that is likely to make them retreat behind an impenetrable sullen or hostile wall, be the anchor that holds them steady in the emotional turbulence engulfing their minds.

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