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Thursday, 24 December 2015

Adolescents, Depression, Suicide, and other troubling trends

Here's a recent article from the Atlantic on teenage suicides in Palo Alto. It got me thinking about my own students and about the stresses that teenagers in high achieving, competitive urban schools face. In the last few years, I've seen a number of students suffer from different mental illnesses: depression, self-harming, anxiety, eating disorders, and even thoughts of suicide. I've often wondered whether the pace and the level of stimulation that I deal with at my current school is sustainable -- on many occasions, I've thought that we humans are not designed to do so much and to hold ourselves to such high expectations. It's just too exhausting.

Here are some of the issues that I think affect teens (and perhaps adults as well).

1. Over stimulation or Hyper stimulation: There are only so many hours in a day and there is only so much that our minds and our bodies can absorb and deal with on a daily basis. When we have days of non-stop activity, coupled with information overload and incessant sensory stimulation, our bodies and brains become over-stressed. If this continues on a daily basis without breaks, then our bodies and brains literally fray and break down.
Possible antidotes: Limit technology, more time to do nothing (down time), more time in nature, more quiet time and rest

2. Loneliness and Isolation: With parents working longer hours and spending more time on laptops and phones, kids are increasingly disconnected from their parents. Our kids need real conversations, close conversations, with their parents. They need to feel loved, cared for, and valued -- not just for their grades and their performances, but for who they are as people. I have too many students who feel isolated from everyone -- they don't feel close to their parents, and they don't have a close network of friends whom they can really trust. As parents, we can't solve their friendship problems, but we can be there for them to let them know that they are loved.
Possible antidotes: Put away those phones and spend time talking and relaxing with your kids. Stay close to your children, and make sure that grandparents and extended family members are around as well. Maybe also get a pet.

3. Pressure, competition, and a deep sense of  inadequacy: My students often tell me that they feel stressed and anxious about grades and college admissions; they feel as though they're working as hard as they possibly can, and yet they're still not getting the grades that they want (or that their parents want). Much of this pressure is self-inflicted - it's not necessarily coming from the school or from the parents -- but the fact is that kids are feeling it. And often they feel it intensely.
Possible antidotes: Conversations to help kids keep things in perspective. Mindfulness, yoga, and time in nature  -- all ways to help teens recenter and think about what is really important.

4. Exhaustion: When I walk into my twelfth grade classes, my students inevitably look exhausted. When I cheerily ask them how they're doing, their response is almost always, "We're so tired." They never seem to get enough sleep. Whether this is because of the work load, or because of social media/gaming/ and other distractions, the fact of the matter is that a lack of sleep is clearly correlated with mood disorders. Our kids need sleep. And we need to make sure that they eat and sleep in healthy ways.

When I feel the pressure and pace of life in Singapore wear me down, I often wonder if it's healthy for kids to grow up in environments where the bar is set so high -- too high, perhaps. Maybe if we all do less, and worry less about doing everything so spectacularly well, we will all be happier? Sometimes I watch my students -- their exhaustion, their stress -- and I contemplate moving out of the city to the mountains. I don't think that our bodies and minds are built for the high tech, competitive, fast-paced, urban lifestyle that we've created for ourselves. I think that our biology and psychology are at odds with the world we've created, and the costs of this misalignment can be very high indeed.

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