I still suck my thumb and I hate death;
I am afraid what will happen if I lose control;
Somewhere in my head aggressive thoughts killed my father…
So I suck my thumb.
I am a nice little boy,
I wouldn’t hurt anyone.
After psychiatrist Mary Giffin read that poem to a seminar of educators and health professionals, she paused and then revealed: “The teenage boy who wrote it committed suicide two days later.”
Last year some 5,000 Americans younger than 25 killed themselves; most were teenagers and perhaps 200 were 14 or under. When the scourge hit Chicago’s affluent North Shore suburbs, with 21 suicides in the past 17 months, community leaders turned to Dr. Giffin. The medical director of both the Irene Josselyn Clinic and the North Shore Mental Health Association, Giffin, 59, this summer began a series of seminars for teachers, ministers, police and social workers. They heard alarming statistics. Since 1958 the suicide rate among 15-to 19-year-olds has risen 130 percent, not including many seemingly accidental deaths that may have been suicides.
Why do teenagers kill themselves? “They do not have a sense of self,” Dr. Giffin says, “that permits them to withstand stresses. They are especially vulnerable to shame, which is the hardest feeling to recover from.” Drugs are not an important factor, she argues. “They may have used marijuana,” she adds, “but everyone uses pot, down to the fifth grade.” She faults television for creating what she calls “the limited frustration tolerance factor. In TV you live a lifetime in a half hour, and a struggle is portrayed in two and a half minutes instead of two and a half years. Whatever the predicament, it gets answered too fast.”
There are clues—often ignored—before teenagers commit suicide. “One boy gave away most of his beloved possessions the week before he killed himself,” Giffin recalls. It is also increasingly clear that if a relative or friend has committed suicide, “there is a kind of permission that killing yourself is the way to solve problems.”
The profile of the typical adolescent suicide, Giffin says, includes grief over the loss of an important relationship, poor school performance, abrupt change in behavior and lack of friends. (Just before the doctor’s own high school graduation, one of her best friends, the class valedictorian, jumped off a hotel roof to her death.)
Mary Giffin’s childhood in Rochester, Minn., where her father was a physician at the Mayo Clinic, led almost inevitably to her career. She broke a leg at 2, contracted polio six months later and spent much of her early life in hospitals. Growing up became a battle with taunting peers. “I could fistfight myself through anything,” she recalls. “I was a hellion on wheels. I even used my brace as a weapon. It is marvelous to hit someone on the head with.” Her classmates’ hated nickname for her, “Peg-leg,” has long since faded, but she still needs the brace.
During her convalescence Mary developed an unusual friendship with the elderly and austere Dr. Will Mayo, co-founder of the famous clinic. Noting the little girl’s interest in the healing arts, he commented: “Mary, I’m beginning to think you’d make a good medical secretary.” Giffin had other ideas. “If you don’t mind, Dr. Will,” she answered, “I’d like to try being a doctor first.”
The astonished Mayo began giving Mary what eventually amounted to a childhood medical education. She attended staff meetings at the clinic with her father. At 7, dressed in a tiny surgical gown, she stood on a stool in an operating room while Mayo performed stomach surgery. When she was 9, one of her friends was hurt in a sledding accident. After carefully strapping the girl’s leg to a sled as she had read in a medical book, Mary got to a phone and called the clinic. She described the situation and added, “I think it is probably a greenstick fracture of the tibia.” She was right. A few days later she received a formal letter from W.J. Mayo thanking her for referring the patient to him. It was addressed to “Dr. Mary.”