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Putting one’s body on the line. An ethnology of a consultation for suicidal adolescents

Contract DREES / Observatoire National du Suicide (2019-2020 | CERMES3
Coordinator : Philippe Le Moigne, CERMES3 (in collaboration with Margot Morgiève)


The vulnerability of adolescents faced with the risk of suicide, regardless of what form it takes, is increased today by tensions originating in the increasing personalisation of social life, leading each person to become the author of their own actions. To understand the impact of these tensions, a study by factors is insufficient, hence the project to study in detail the life situation of these adolescents faced with this risk.

Two types of tensions in particular merit detailed examination. In the area of relationships, an initial tension drives them to be affiliated first of all with their family, and at the same time to mark their independence. This equilibrium between loyalty and distance is sometimes simply impossible for them to find. In the area of success, adolescents are asked to make scholarly and professional investments for which they cannot immediately measure the benefits. This may lead to them developing behaviours guided by the exercise of authority over oneself, which may lead to inextricable situations (marginalisation, violence, harassment, drug abuse, anorexia, etc.).

To describe these processes, we plan to observe the consultations in two hospital departments of child psychiatry, one in Tours, the other in Rouen. To the extent that the first unit is primarily focused on managing family problems, whereas the second sees more adolescents coming from Child Protective Services, we hope in this way to theoretically cover all of the isolated suicidal problems with the project. The study will take place over two years. It will include interviews with care personnel in the services (N=30), and participant observation in the consultation for the young people admitted for a risk of suicide (N=20). In the end, we will reconstruct a typology of risk situations, with the goal of encouraging the development of other ways of coping for these young people that may prevent them from again resorting to suicidal acts.

This proposal is in the theme ‘Suicidal Behaviours and Adolescent Processes’, in the call for proposals. It first seeks to define the conditions of a field survey, drawing on a review of issues found in English-language literature. Next, basing its analysis of the process of adolescence on the perspective of a requirement of increased personalisation, the project proves to be heuristic in more than one way. For example, the perspective permits clarifying contemporary modes of adolescent affiliation and in this way provides a key for understanding the spread of suicidal ideas on the “social networks”. It allows us to understand as well why the obligation to feel valued has grown among young people even though the proof of their success has been deferred. This tension raises a need for mastery and respect among them which may lead, as the project hypothesises, to new expressions of suicide, driven notably by a need to look good and by revenge.