We must build a better path through a culture that harms the mental health of Kansas teens


Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of expanding the conversation about how public policy affects the daily lives of people across our state. Inas Younis was born in Mosul, Iraq and emigrated to the United States as a child. She is a writer and commentator who has been widely published in various magazines, websites and anthologies.

When terrible things happen to good people, our first instinct is to formulate great explanations that ease our anxiety and allow us to conclude that “this could never happen to me”. We choreograph our responses and try to move on with our lives. But when tragedy strikes a little too close to home, we can no longer afford to trust our safety stories.

When it comes to dire statistics on depression and suicide, we’ve all been struck, either because we’ve suffered a major depressive episode and have considered ending it, or because we know someone one who did.

Nearly 47,000 people die by suicide each year in the United States. In Kansas, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 24, ranking kansas 15e in the country for suicide rates.

Traditionally, mental health professionals and policymakers have been tasked with identifying and understanding the reasons for what we now commonly call “Mental Health Crisis.” But a crisis of this magnitude forces us all to start paying attention.

Many professionals in this space attribute the rise in mental health issues to the COVID-19 pandemic, but according to social psychologist and best-selling author Jonathan Haidt, we need to go back to 2012, not 2020, to understand this. that is happening.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a helpline for people in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified auditor, call 800-273 8255.

Crisis Text Line is an SMS service for emotional crisis support. To speak to a qualified auditor, text HELLO to 741741. It’s free, available 24/7 and confidential.

In fact, just before the pandemic, rates of depression among teens almost doubled. This sharp increase is not due to the reasons we suspect. This was not due to a desire of young people to self-diagnose, nor to a desire of clinicians to over-diagnose. These are just the safety stories we told ourselves.

The data offer us a less reassuring explanation.

A prominent advocate for adolescent mental health, Haidt testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Technology, Privacy and the Law on May 4 that smartphones and social media are significant contributors to teen depression and suicide. Between 2012 and 2015, smartphones went from optional to universal among teenagers.

Haidt claims that social media “transformed childhood activity, attention, social relationships, and consciousness between 2009 and 2012.” According to the data, in 2015 mental health centers that catered to teens and students were overwhelmed, and now hundreds of suicidal teenagers sleep in emergency rooms every night.

Although Haidt does not believe that social media is the sole cause of the crisis, he says there are no alternative hypotheses that can explain the suddenness and enormity of the problem.

Famous for his counter-intuitive sociological conclusions, renowned sociologist and author Malcolm Gladwell does not directly blame social media, but rather offers us a data point that may lend more credence to the social media hypothesis. Gladwell says statistics show that suicide rates have historically been higher in countries where citizens describe themselves as happy, compared to those in which citizens describe themselves as not very happy.

He sums up his findings by coining the phrase “relative deprivation,” which is the notion that people may feel deprived of something desirable relative to other people and social groups in their neighborhood. The phenomenon is facilitated by the widespread use of social media, where teenagers spend hours curating their image for public consumption and strangers can literally rate you with clicks and shares.

Gladwell explores this development in his bestselling book David and Goliath, which applies this theory to high school leavers at the top of their class. He notes that once small-town high school heroes enter the world of Ivy League status and influence, many of them experience a crisis of self-esteem and suffer from depression. .

Having spent their entire lives being a big fish in a small pond, being a small fish in a big pond threatens their self-image. Applied to social networks, the theory of relative deprivation leads us to conclude that in a world as vast as Instagram, we are all small fish in a big swamp.

Unfortunately, the solution to this problem is much more complicated than simply limiting or prohibiting the use of social media. Removing social media when peers use these platforms to organize their social lives can make teens feel like they’re no longer included in the conversation.

Unfortunately, the solution to this problem is much more complicated than simply limiting or prohibiting the use of social media. Removing social media when peers use these platforms to organize their social lives can make teens feel like they’re no longer included in the conversation.

We need a more nuanced approach that offers socially acceptable ways for teens to escape technologies that heighten their anxiety and threaten their self-esteem.

We need a counter-cultural movement that challenges the artificial dependency of these spaces. We need to facilitate the creation of a teen-led community culture that pushes back the idea that social interactions should be organized by a third party that seeks to profit not from their joy or accomplishments, but from their anger, anxiety and their need for social interaction. approval.

It will be decades before we have hard science identifying the causes of soaring suicide rates. Meanwhile, community business leaders, like this year’s Overland Park Leadership Class of 2022 took charge of having these difficult conversations, and of debating the fundamental questions: Why? Why now? What can we do about it?

Mental health is public health, and I am encouraged by these efforts and the work of the new Overland Park Crisis Team or OPCATwho provides mental health and trauma-informed support during emergency calls.

When it comes to the mental health of our teens, some of us might be tempted to invoke the old parenting adage that we need to “prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child”.

While adversity can help children develop the skills to recover and triumph in tough times, we also need to recognize that the bromides of the past may no longer be enough. In today’s world, the road is an ever-changing virtual landscape that is algorithmically hostile to healthy development. No one can or should prepare for it.

Maybe at this point in our history, it’s the road that needs to change.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own review, here.


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