Despite the recent spate of adolescent suicides in Cherry Hill, the incidence of teenage suicide is actually down over the last decade.
According to Dr. Howard Sudak, past president of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, we have made remarkable progress in recognizing and treating the clinical depression that underlies nearly 90 percent of all suicides.
However, a recently published study found that 10th graders from affluent suburbs had significantly higher levels of depression, anxiety and substance abuse than those from the inner city (“Privileged But Pressured: A Study of Affluent Youth,” by psychologist Suniya Luthar, Columbia University).
The themes of isolation and stress arise in every group of teenagers I have spoken with. A 15-year-old girl from Bucks County told me that she showed her mother a report card that had all A’s, except for one B: “When I told her I did the best I could, she said she didn’t believe me and that I could have tried harder.”
Teenagers complain that no one understands them, that they feel powerless in their worlds. One young woman told me: “I feel like my soul is a prism, but everybody just sees one color. Nobody sees the prism.”
According to Luthar, the primary source of stress comes from internal and external pressure to achieve. Harris Sokoloff, executive director of the Center for School Study Councils at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees. “There is a set of adult pressures, mostly from parents, that says ‘to be successful, you will do at least as well as we are doing,’ ” says Sokoloff. “And we know that in today’s economy and job market, that is almost impossible. So, many of our children are set up to feel unsuccessful.”
Sokoloff laments that extracurricular activities that used to be fun have become an additional source of stress. A colleague recently told me about a high school girl she was seeing for depression who complained that she hated track, but because she had been doing it for three years, she had to complete her commitment and do all four years or else it would look bad on her college applications.
Granted, suicide is a reaction to an illness called depression. And depression is often about brain chemistry and genetics. But stress can certainly put children who are already at risk over the edge.
Our children are suffering.
They tell us with words when they complain of stress and alienation. They tell us through symptoms of eating disorders, anxiety and depression, bullying and promiscuity. And they tell us through the amount of drugs they consume, both illegal and prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs.
I don’t want to join the legion of psychologists who tell hard-working parents to work even harder at parenting. What your children need is for you to work less, not more.
Several years ago, a successful businessman called and asked if I would see his 20-year-old son for consultation. He was concerned because his son had recently dropped out of college and seemed depressed. When I saw the son, he was somewhat depressed. When I asked him about his life, he first talked about his father: “My dad and I are very close,” he said quietly, looking down. “We would vacation together every summer. At first it was wonderful. Then, he would tell me that he was worried about his divorce. Then he worried about my sister, and then he worried about his business – that things were bad there. In order to save his business, he began working almost 80 hours a week. He says he does that to pay for our nice home and send my sister and me to college. So how can I argue?”
Several days later the father called. With his son’s permission, I told him that his son was depressed and I had referred him for treatment. Of course, the father was concerned and asked what he could do to help.
I explained that his son was seeing his future through his father’s eyes and it looked empty and unhappy. I suggested the best way to help his son would be if he took a look inside and thought about what he wanted his own life to be about.
I explained that he was more than a friend and economic resource for his son, he was a role model. Although he was modeling devotion and dedication, he was also modeling self-deprivation and unhappiness. When we mortgage our souls, our children continue to make the payments long after we are gone.
So what can we do? For now I will recommend we take some advice from Socrates and remember that an unexamined life is not fully lived. Our children are suffering in part because of our mindless pursuit of material goods and resources.
We can begin to change by doing things more mindfully. Take time every day to sit quietly. This can be a time for meditation, prayer or quiet reflection. Think about your life and what you would like it to be about. Think about what stands between you and the life you would like.
You cannot control the world, but are you at least treating yourself with compassion? Do you complain about your life but make excuses for not changing it when really the problem is your fear of change?
Spend unstructured time with your family. I believe quality time is a myth and that what we all need is quantity time.
I routinely ask people how they are. Those who say “hanging in,” usually look stressed. But those who say “I’m just hanging out,” usually look relaxed. So, I suggest you “hang out” with your family.
And last, to be a good parent, we must see the prism of our children’s souls. But in order to have the vision to do that, we must see the prism of our own.