May is mental health awareness month. And to contribute to our collective awareness of mental health, I want to discuss a current crisis. I honestly don't use those words flippantly. The mental health of our preadolescent and teenage students in our country is in severe decline. I want to share with you some statistics that show this drastic decline and challenge us to rise as a community to support our most fragile groups.
In February 2023, the CDC released a shockingreport about teenage suicide in America. Suicide rates reached an all-time high in 2018, and though there was a slight decline in the next couple of years, in 2021, rates jumped again to reach an all-time high. Of particular concern is the level of hopelessness among our younger generations. Just a few statistics from that report:
When we see statistics like that, many want to jump to conclusions about the cause. Please don't be too quick to blame COVID or social media. Most experts in this area say COVID was a stressor that split open cracks already well formed in our society. However, some fair blame can be directed toward smartphones, screens, and social media.
Jonothan Haidt, a psychologist, has begun publishing data that strongly implicates social media with the rise of anxiety and depression in teenagers, specifically teen girls. His work is extensive, and I would point you to this website for a deeper review. But, the most significant conclusion from his work is a definitive turn in mental health among our teenagers with the introduction of the front-facing camera on smartphones (we can now take endless selfies) and the rise of Instagram. These both happened around 2012. The data is obvious, and though Dr. Haidt has faced pushback on his data analysis (this is part of science), the skeptics need more stable ground in their arguments.
So, we can put some blame on screens and social media. But from my perspective as a therapist, we continue to mishandle this problem. Our first mistake has been that we adults have drowned ourselves in social media as adults. We could have been better examples. Our kids witness us scrolling, posting, and commenting as frequently or even more than they are engaged with their social media apps. Children learn from watching their parents. No child development expert would disagree with that statement. And we need to be honest. We have been bad examples. We should work on setting better boundaries with our use of social media. I would love for such a cultural movement to abandon social media so dramatically that the billions these companies are raking in from selling us as a product dries up. It is a bit of a pipe dream, but I can dream, can't I?
Secondly, as parents, we have attempted to manage the phone, screen time, and social media through a punishment/reward system. My bias is that punishments/rewards as a primary form of parenting are ineffective. They can have short-term value, but there are far more effective ways to parent. We need to stop taking phones or relying on router parental controls as the sole means to manage our child's screen time. Instead, we need to be having conversations about screen time. It starts with a relationship. Why does your kid like TikTok? What videos do they enjoy on social media? Do you watch them together? Do you have a relationship with your child outside of TV and other screens? Do you go on walks or eat meals without screens? Do you play games (not video games) together? If you want to read a classic about this kind of relational parenting, read Dr. Haim Ginott's Between Parent and Child.
Let me suggest a bit more controversial source of this mental health crisis. GUNS. School shootings have significantly increased.* In the 1970s, there were approximately 60s deaths nationwide from school-related shooting incidents. We are currently on track to have over 400 school-related shooting deaths this decade. These numbers have only increased since the 1970s. Lockdown drills are common practice for all ages in public schools. Young elementary children know that lockdown drills are designed to keep them safe from an active shooter on their campus. Many express significant fears and anxiety, knowing this is a constant reality.
My wife is a public school teacher. If I had the time and space to explain the procedures, rules, and expectations they must keep in mind for these lockdown drills, it would overwhelm all of us. Teachers are evaluated in their handling of lockdown drills. During drills, people go around wiggling locked doors. Children hear what it will sound like if a gunman is walking the halls. This is practiced stress and trauma. Now look, we used to have fire drills in school. The fire alarm would go off, and we would celebrate a break from our work while we walked outside. But during those drills, we were not walking through simulated smoke, seeing fire trucks, or feeling the heat of an actual fire. But in gunman lockdown drills, children are pressed to "remain silent" so they are not heard, and then in the silence, a door is wiggled, attempted to open. For all children, this is stressful, but for a sensitive child, this repeated lived-out terror.
As I write this blog, I feel inclined to write a much longer blog about guns and mental health. That will come in July 2023. But let me say for this post that our cultural obsession with firearms harms us. The late game theorist Anatol Rapoport illustrated that conflict will always escalate in games where there must be a winner and loser (we call them zero-sum games). We are witnessing this before our very eyes. Exercising your right of gun ownership to keep an arsenal of weapons in your home only contributes to the cultural escalation of violence. Weaponry reduction and inviting whole communities into conversations for creating safe and peaceful spaces in our cities is the right direction.
Our children witness this escalation. They genuinely fear that their school is next. I fear that the school down the street is next. This is not a far-off problem we can dismiss as "their problem." Our children see it, and their mental health is suffering.
So what do we need to do?
*Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security, https://www.chds.us/sssc/charts-graphs/