MOSCOW, April 27 (Marc Bennetts, RIA Novosti)
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When sixteen-year old Margarita K. hurled herself from her the window of her 13th floor apartment in south-west Moscow on Thursday, she became the latest in a high-profile wave of teen suicides across Russia.
“Rita was just a few meters from me,” her handicapped father Sergei was quoted as saying by Russian media. “But I couldn’t reach her, and could only shout ‘Rita, what are you doing?’ when she was already on the windowsill. She didn’t look back.”
He was at a loss as to explain why his daughter had become just one of the over 1,700 Russians between 15 and 19 who take their lives each year, according to a UN report released last year.
Although adult suicide rates have fallen in recent years after a sharp post-Soviet spike, Russia ranks third in the world on teen suicides, according to the same UN report, with its figure of 22 suicides for every 100,000 teenagers some three times higher than the world average. The top two spots are also taken by former Soviet republics – Kazakhstan and Belarus.
But the situation may be even worse. Russian ombudsman for children’s rights, Pavel Astakhov, said earlier this year in a statement on his official website that the country could actually be the world leader in teen suicides as Health Ministry officials often simply listed such deaths as accidents.
Astakhov also described the numbers of teenagers who take their lives every year as “catastrophic.”
The same UN report said 45 percent of teenage girls and 27 percent of boys in the same age group had entertained thoughts of suicide. The country’s most popular social networking site, VKontakte, deleted this year a number of community groups that offered advice on the “most effective” ways for people to take their lives after public pressure.
The report also named social problems, alcoholism and dysfunctional family relationships as among the causes for Russia’s high number of teenage suicides.
And the situation with teen suicides has gotten so bad that President Dmitry Medvedev made a public appeal in April for Russian media outlets to tone down their coverage of the “alarming” trend for fear of inspiring a wave of copycat deaths.
“This must be treated extremely gently,” he said.
Medvedev was speaking shortly after two 14-year-old girls had joined hands and jumped from the roof of an apartment building in a region near Moscow. Their deaths triggered a storm of media interest in teen suicides across Russia.
But Kirill Khlomov, head of Crossroads, a Moscow counseling center for at-risk teenagers, said he was glad that “at last attention is being paid” to the problem of teenage suicide.
“The situation for teenagers is very difficult,” he said. “There are simply not enough psychiatrists and psychologists with sufficient qualifications to work with teenagers in Russia.”
He also suggested the “social earthquake” that had taken place after the collapse of the Soviet Union had left teenagers with “no clear vision of their future.”
“We need a systematic, preventative program to work with parents, teacher and teenagers,” he said.
A spike in psychiatric problems, including schizophrenia, among Russians under 20, has also contributed to the deaths, a leading child psychiatrist said.
“The rise in teenage psychiatric problems is undoubtedly linked to suicides among teenagers,” said Moscow-based Health Ministry psychiatrist Nina Sukhotina. “Apparently harmless phases or situations can often end in tragedies.”
Psychiatrists have also blamed Russia’s system of mental health care for the failure to stem the tide of suicides.
“All suicides have a history of psychiatric, psychological or social problems,” said Anatoly Severny, president of the Independent Association of Children's Psychiatrists and Psychologists.
“But this is a question of organization,” he added. “Help must be accessible, as only then can we begin to lower the suicide rate among teenagers.”
Under Russian law, schools are obliged to employ at least one psychologist, but Severny criticized both their qualifications and their necessity.
“They are isolated at schools from their professional colleagues,” he said. “And as neither the principal, nor the teachers know anything about psychiatry, they are unable to control his or her work.”
But Khlomov stressed that there was no one factor responsible for the depressing statistics on teen suicide, which he called a “complex problem.”
“This is the last cry for help, when all other cries have gone unnoticed,” he said.
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