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The Inner World of a Suicidal Youth tells the story of Electra, a twenty-two year old girl who committed suicide in 2002. The book is based around the actual diary entries written by Electra during over a decade. As such it is an interesting description of a depressed teenage mind and shows how deep and dark the abyss of severe depression can be. As stated in the preface of the book it is a fact that every year in the United States more teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, and asthma combined. Suicide is thus a severe problem influencing a large number of families. In the United States, every year 250 000 people try to end their lives and approximately 32 000 succeed. Suicide is nevertheless an act which, so the health professionals claim, could be prevented in many cases. Millie Osborne's book is meant to increase the understanding about the workings of a young suicidal mind and thus help parents and health professionals detect alarming signs which may indicate that a teenager is in a danger zone. This is certainly an important objective.
I had high expectations for the book. I thought that after reading it I could actually understand the inner world of a suicidal youth a little bit better. Electra's diary markings showed how her depression slowly progressed to a point where suicide seemed to be the only alternative and exit to be taken. The views of Electra which cover roughly twelve years also describe her development as a person in an interesting way. Whereas some of the first marks do not notably differ from the "normal anxious thoughts" of a teenager, later notes express views filled with self-loathing, hate and feelings of meaninglessness. By reading Electra's own thoughts the reader is able to get a partial perspective to the world through the eyes of a suicidal young person. This perspective does not offer an explanation why some young people are suicidal whereas others are not but Electra's first-person account is worth reading as a sad story of one particular life. The diary markings could have been published under the title "Electra's Diary". That kind of book would have been interesting.
This being said, The Inner World of a Suicidal Youth did not fill my expectations at all, on the contrary. In addition to the diary entries the book includes roughly thirty-five pages of Millie Osborne's analyses. These analyses which should be the substantial part of the book are very disappointing and the tone is something else than what one should expect from a professional psychiatrist. Osborne's analysis about Electra's situation and development seem nothing more than her opinions or guesses regarding what could have lead to Electra's suicide. Given the fact that the subtitle of the book is "what every parent and health professional should know" it is utterly unclear why the author spends pages analyzing, for example, Electra's mother in the following way: "She was waitressing at a seafood restaurant in Manhattan when she first met him [Electra's father]. Handsome, tall, and articulate, he had all of the familiar signs of a man with wealth; after all he came with the lunch crowd of silk patterned business suits." If, as Osborne notes, the book is meant to be an in-depth account of the evolution of self-esteem and the suicidal process one cannot but imagine what the relevance of the above-described passages is. It is also interesting how the book can describe events, like the first meeting of Electra's parents, which took place in 1979. True, it is mentioned in the preface that Electra's life was researched and examined through discussions with family and friends. One can suppose that this kind of research gives a very distorted picture about the actual relations inside the family.
Given the fact that Millie Osborne is a MD and a psychiatrist it is more than surprising that she does not offer any substantial explanation for Electra's depression and suicidal thoughts. Osborne does not mention any psychological theories and does not refer to psychological research which would support her analyses. The text is non-technical and easy to read. This is reflected also in the level of Osborne's analysis: "She wanted to live. She wanted to enjoy her life and the people in it...She could not internalize happiness, as much as she wanted it, even envied it as apparent in those around her...Electra was a troubled person who used suicidal obsession to try and solve general life problems people face every day. Troubled people like Electra need a different kind of help, beyond basic counseling; the kind of help that proves very challenging to even the most credentialed experts." This kind of "analysis" is something that any undergraduate student of psychology could write. In the back cover of the book it is claimed that Inner World of the Suicidal Youth will spur more effective means to recognize, treat and heal those at risk and vastly reduce suicide among youth. Given the shallowness of the analysis I have to conclude that this claim is a gross overstatement.
One more complaint, perhaps the most severe, that needs to be raised against Osborne's book is this. In the final analysis we again hear low-level analysis about what happiness is. The author explains: "Happiness is the ability to take control of those actions and inactions that help build the fabric of life. Happiness is what rescues us from disappointment and loss. Happiness is planted in the first ten years of life by parents that project the earthly image of a loving God onto their children. Happiness is God." How seriously Osborne's references to God should be taken is unclear but it is certain that a scientific psychological study should not include them.
The book is advertised as a scientific study in psychology and that was the reason why I opened it with high expectations. After reading it I must say that I cannot recommend it to anyone. This is a shame because Electra's own thoughts are actually worth reading. Unfortunately, they should have been published without Millie Osborne's speculations.
© 2009 Antti Kuusela
Antti Kuusela, MA, is finishing his PhD thesis in the philosophy of mind. He is also studying behavioral sciences and psychology in order to get the competence to work as a teacher of philosophy in high school. He lives in Helsinki, Finland. You can contact him through firstname.lastname@example.org