Opinion

Among youth, a plague of gloom with no clear cure

What to say and do if you think a teen is considering suicide

Learn about common signs that a teen is considering suicide, and what to say to a teen who may be at risk for suicide and ways to keep them safe.
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Learn about common signs that a teen is considering suicide, and what to say to a teen who may be at risk for suicide and ways to keep them safe.

There was an alarming recent article in the News & Observer.

It quoted one student at Green Hope High School in Cary who warned of declining mental health and rising suicide rates among his peers and a parent who described “kids who have severe anxiety attacks, kids who are cutting, kids who are contemplating suicide.”

What’s causing this alleged outbreak some describe as “post-traumatic stress syndrome”?

A new approach to teaching math, called MVP, which some students find difficult.

Seriously.

The language is so extreme — so troubled and troubling — that it is tempting to just dismiss it. This is just histrionic whining, right?

Unfortunately, it accurately describes broader trends. While I have no specific evidence that the MVP Math Curriculum is causing harmful behavior there is strong evidence that kids today find the once normal challenges of adolescence overwhelming. Consider:

• A recent Pew Research study reported that 70% of teens consider anxiety and depression a major issue among their peers.

• A 2017 American College Health Association Survey reported that 40% of college students surveyed reported being so depressed they “struggled to function,” while 60% felt “overwhelming anxiety” during the previous year.

• Another study found evidence that perhaps 1 in 5 college students “are so stressed they consider suicide.”

Summarizing a study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Time magazine reported: “Between 2009 and 2017, rates of depression among kids ages 14 to 17 increased by more than 60%, the study found. The increases were nearly as steep among those ages 12 to 13 (47%) and 18 to 21 (46%), and rates roughly doubled among those ages 20 to 21. In 2017 — the latest year for which federal data are available — more than one in eight Americans ages 12 to 25 experienced a major depressive episode.”

It’s important to note the rates of depression and suicide are also rising among adults and that these statistics may also reflect a greater willingness to acknowledge mental health issues. While providing context for the alarming rise of mental health problems among today’s youth, those facts do not diminish the depth and breadth of the crisis.

The forces driving this problem are myriad and complex — many of which are detailed in Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s superb book, “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

But, at root, it appears that many of today’s youth are suffering from relatively new cultural forces that put them under extreme pressure while also infantilizing them.

As the first generation reared with social media, today’s youth are trying to navigate the most fraught and confusing period of life – the who am I, what am I years – while receiving constant feedback on their self-worth through likes and swipes. They are also being told that their entire future hinges on their high school grades and extracurricular activities. Go, go, go – and no mistakes!

At the same time, fearful parents are micro-managing their kid’s lives, solving problems that children ought to work out for themselves, making them less resourceful. Parents are also more likely to dismiss their kid’s setbacks – it’s not your fault – rather than urging them to learn from their mistakes, making them less resilient.

Obviously there are no easy answers — if there are answers at all — to reverse these profound trends.

The liberal call for more school counselors might help, but it suggests the false belief that any problem can be solved by throwing enough money and resources at it.

Conservative demands that these fragile snowflakes just toughen up also makes sense — parents, are you listening? But that is also so vague that it is more a talking point than a strategy.

What’s clear is that we adults are failing our children. Now what?

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.

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