What Matters Most (Hint, It’s Not an Elite College)

New research shared at a recent meeting of the Conference of Pediatric Academic Societies shows that the percentage of young children and teens hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or actions has nearly doubled in the past decade. The numbers do not include children who died as a result of their suicidal actions.  Just over 50 percent of those hospitalized were ages 15 – 17, and 37 percent were between 12 and 14 years of age. Hospitalizations during the fall and spring were higher than in the summer.

It is tragic that so many young people feel so helpless and alone that they think about death, a permanent “solution” to, in most cases, a temporary problem.  Many factors lead children to suicidal thoughts and actions, including school stress, and there is strong evidence that social media, and cyberbullying, are drivers as well.  The Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” has certainly driven home the idea of suicide as a response to trauma.

This latest research adds to a body of research that has been alerting parents and educators that too many of our children suffer from emotional illness – including depression and anxiety, which can horribly lead to preoccupation with suicide.

When are parents and schools going to take mental health problems among our youth more seriously?  I have spoken to too many of our graduates to think that our own community is not affected. The Detroit Jewish Federation study of 2016 reported a high incidence of depression and anxiety among our own youth.

There are things we can do now.  We need to teach our children resilience, to coach them through problem-solving rather than solving problems for them, and to show them how to deal with difficult challenges, and support them in the process. “Saving” children from issues they encounter, protecting them at every step, always coming to their defense, actually harms children.  Children need to hear that when things are difficult, or they fail, they can get up, learn from the experience, and move on.  They also need to know it is okay to make mistakes, to be wrong about something, and to believe they will be stronger from the lessons learned, and the support and love they received from the adults in their lives. And they need to learn that life is not always fair!

Parents, educators and other adults in their lives need to pay better attention to what is transpiring on social media. Parents need to have filters in place, and think long and hard before giving younger children access to social media. For young teens, when they are introduced to social media, parents must monitor it. Things move so quickly. There must be consequences when children use social media and technology inappropriately, and we need to set limits on how much screen and face time children have each day.  These are all great tools when used properly. But as a result of all that they see and hear on a daily basis, they can become desensitized to the struggles of others; hence, we need to be more direct and deliberate in teaching our children empathy. (Of course that only comes when parents show empathy!)

To tamp down the undue stress our children face, Frank Bruni’s book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, should be “required” reading for all. It may be the most important book you read about the false idol – the “elite” college- that too many parents chase for their kids. This obsession with college admission makes too many of our teens anxious and depressed. Teens feel trapped because they hear a relentless message about getting into the “best” college. Too many well-meaning parents justify all of the pressure placed on kids as good for their children in the long-term, and schools justify it by saying they are simply meeting parent demand.  One high school student told me that parents apply pressure because they are “terrified.” Terrified of what?  Not getting into the “right” college and therefore not able to succeed. Really?

Our mindset is stuck in a world that no longer exists. While a college degree is still very important, it is important today for different reasons. Many of the professions that parents either directly or indirectly push their children into will either not exist in the next 5-20 years, or will look very different. Mostly, we can’t even imagine the world our children will be entering. What will be driving the economy? What kind of jobs will there be? This is not some futuristic garble – it’s already upon us. (Check out this most recent Pew Study report that supports exactly what I am writing and supports the changes we are making at Hillel! The Future of Jobs and Job Training.)

Regardless of the world they inherit, it will be more complex and variable than ever before. If they are not emotionally healthy and secure, and if they are not grounded in ethical thinking supported by strong family and communal structures, then little else will — or should — matter.

Teach resilience! Monitor social media, and help your children learn the appropriate use of technology – one idea is to take all devices from your children at a prescribed hour and “put them to bed until morning,” just like everyone else in the house.  And, please, read Frank Bruni’s book, and take his research and the important message of the book to heart.  These three actions are a start in responding to our children’s level of anxiety, stress and depression, which can lead to suicidal thoughts and actions.

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