Diana van Bergen investigates suicide among young people. Together with her colleagues, she interviews young people who have attempted suicide or have suicidal thoughts. She also speaks to the families of young people who committed suicide. By taking a scientific approach to mapping these life stories, Van Bergen hopes to contribute to suicide prevention.
Text: Beau Oldenburg / Photos: Reyer Boxem
‘When I first started working on this theme, I did take some time to ask myself: Do I really want to do this? It's a tough topic. But as it turned out, I find it really motivating to work on something that truly matters. As it stands, we are not yet able to adequately predict who in a school class or clinic will attempt or commit suicide. Although there are those who believe that such accurate predictions will never be possible, I hope to prove them wrong. This is something I want to believe and contribute to.’
Every year, approximately 300 people aged 13 to 30 commit suicide. Youth sociologist Diana van Bergen has been working on this topic for nearly twenty years, and she sees an increase in suicide rates. ‘The situation is worse now than 10 or 20 years ago. I think that this is partly due to the growing pressure to perform. The fact that the problem seems to grow rather than diminish gives me extra motivation to continue to do this research.’
To gain better insight into how young people develop suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide, Van Bergen conducts interviews. One of the things she asks is what made these young people feel so hopeless. By systematically mapping their stories, Van Bergen and her colleagues gain more insight into exactly what brings young people to this point, and what helps them recover.
Van Bergen also delves into the life stories of young people who committed suicide. ‘They are no longer here to tell us what was going on inside them during the last months, weeks, or days of their life, but that is precisely where we need to go to find clues for effective prevention.’ That is why Van Bergen interviews those who were close to the young people who died. ‘Think of parents, siblings, or friends, but also people at school or any healthcare practitioners involved. By carrying out a psychosocial autopsy, I try to map someone's life story from A to Z, paying special attention to the last months of their life.’
Before Diana and her team visit parents and other relatives, they screen them to check whether they are ready to talk about the subject. Even so, it remains a difficult process for the surviving relatives and friends who go through this screening. ‘But we notice that they do appreciate going over everything one last time, looking at the life of the deceased young person chronologically. Parents want to help. I often hear people say: if my child's story can help prevent even one suicide, it's worth it.’
Clearly, these interviews also affect the researchers. ‘We’ve performed 35 psychosocial autopsies so far and spoken to 79 relatives and friends. It requires diving deep into a person's life. This can be hard and painful, which is why we always conduct these interviews in pairs. This has the added advantage that we can consult each other if needed, for example, if we think that the people we speak to could use some help.’
One of the most important conclusions drawn by Van Bergen on the basis of these interviews is that the young people she studies often feel excluded. ‘They find it hard to connect and do not feel part of a group, although they would like to be. That is why groups like LGBTQ+, young people in foster care, or people on the autism spectrum are overrepresented. I think that as a society, we should be more mindful of inclusion and make sure that we offer many different kinds of role models.’
In addition, Van Bergen's research emphasizes the need for more attention to suicide among young men. ‘It is striking that although women are twice as likely to attempt suicide, men are twice as likely to commit suicide. One possible explanation is that women raise the alarm more clearly and at an earlier stage. Men often don't talk about it at all, or talk about it in cynical and covert terms, which leads to their calls for help not being recognized as such.’ That is why Van Bergen and her team are planning to launch a new project aimed specifically at men in September 2023. ‘In this project, we hope to map the life history and last months of 24 young male suicide victims.’
As a researcher, Van Bergen has a clear dream for the future: a database with detailed accounts of all suicides in the Netherlands. ‘Statistics Netherlands (CBS) does have some brief demographic information and there are forensic reports, but these are often full of gaps. They don't tell us what a person's life was like, or whether they were bullied, for example. In England, these things are much better organized, with much better reporting. Every suicide is followed by a thorough, in-depth report of what was going on. It would be great if we could start doing that here too.’
Van Bergen collaborates with 113 Suicide Prevention at psychosocial autopsies. 113 focuses on suicides of both young people and adults, including the elderly.Are you considering suicide, or are you worried about someone you know? Talking about suicide helps, and you can do so anonymously via the chat function at www.113.nl or by telephone at 113 of 0800-0113.
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