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Rash of teenage suicides sets off alarm in Russia

MOSCOW -- After a rash of teenage suicides in Russia, including those of two 14-year-olds who plunged to their deaths from a 14-story building while holding hands, experts are urging the government to take immediate action.

“Children are constantly under pressure,” Lyudmila  Rubina, a Russian child psychiatrist, told Al Jazeera. “They can’t find a common language to express their feelings at home and sometimes they are physically punished. There is no support at school and schools don’t want to play any role in the child's upbringing.”

Russia has the world's third-highest rate of suicide among teenagers ages 15 to 19, with about 1,500 taking their own lives every year, according to a recent UNICEF report. The rate is higher only in the neighboring former Soviet republics of Belarus and Kazakhstan.

In recent years, there have been 19 to 20 suicides annually per 100,000 teenagers in Russia — three times the world average, Boris Polozhy of the respected Serbsky psychiatric center in Moscow said Friday.

"Until the highest authorities see suicide as a problem, our joint efforts will be unlikely to yield any results," Polozhy said.

In the southwestern Siberian region of Tuva, the rate reaches a staggering 120 suicides per 100,000 teenagers, while the nearby region of Buryatiya has an average rate of 77 per 100,000. Both regions are impoverished and have high crime and alcoholism rates.

'Better kill me'
Two 14-year-old girls, Liza Petsylya and Nastia Korolyova, killed themselves this week by jumping off the roof of a 14-story building while holding hands. They had skipped classes for two weeks and were terrified of what their parents would do to them once they found out, Russian media quoted their friends as saying.

Several other recent teen suicides have been reported elsewhere in Russia.

Experts say that domestic violence and problems in schools are among the main reasons why adolescents take their lives.

Relations between Russian children and their parents are often "notable for their cruelty," said Natalya Sinyagina of the Education Ministry's Center for Education Issues in Moscow. "(But) school is also not the safest place for kids."

Russia's public schools are underfunded, are staffed with poorly paid teachers and have been widely criticized for neglecting the issue of bullying among children.

"We've seen cases when a child says, 'Better kill me, I'm not going to school,'" Sinyagina said.

'Lend a helping hand'
Internet-savvy and handy with cell phones and computers, Russian teens spend hours on social networking websites and idolize pop stars just like teens elsewhere in the world. Experts say some teens romanticize early death and suicide, perceiving them as games, and are attracted by online suicide clubs that list the best ways to take your life.

"Video games and information found online have devaluated death," said Urvan Parfentyev of the Moscow-based Center for Safe Internet.

"I have seen websites that offer a thousand ways of killing oneself," said Zurab Kikelidze, Health Ministry's chief psychologist.

Pavel Astakhov, the government-appointed children's rights ombudsman, said school psychologists should find and help suicidal teenagers on social networking websites and crack down on cyber-bullying, another widespread cause of teenage suicides.

"Each suicide case must be thoroughly investigated to find out what caused it: whether it was the situation inside the family, problems at school or conflicts with classmates," Astakhov told Itar-Tass, Russia’s news agency. "In critical situations, children cannot be left alone, face to face with their problems. The entire society must lend a helping hand, and first of all, professionals –- psychologists and psychiatrists. No preventive efforts will be successful without their help."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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