We are currently in a climate where suicide is now the leading cause of death amongst our youth with 8 young people taking their lives a week. In fact, we have the highest rate of suicide in the world*.
It seems that the bigger the issue of youth suicide becomes, the more overwhelmed we become and the less focus this issue receives in the larger media sphere. It’s understandable that we are bogged down by the complexities of this issue, but a lack of discussion and education is not solving the problem. My feeling is, that in order to adequately address the situation we need to understand the grass roots of the problem.
This is where I believe it gets a little tricky. Is it that we are raising a generation of young people who are ill-equipped to deal with the harsh realities of life or are the realities of life becoming more challenging? I think it is a bit of both, but I believe the key to overcoming this dire situation lies in addressing the former.
Furthermore what I am about to say does not necessarily apply to those young people who suffer severe mental illness or mental disorder. My reflections are more of an overview in regards to resilience, or lack of it, in the broader population of our youth. It is also only one theory based on my personal observations and experience.
Many years ago, my thinking on this topic was put to the test. I was working at a very low socio-economic school. Domestic violence, alcohol, drug abuse and neglect were a huge part of the fabric of these young peoples lives’. I worked under the guise of a behavioural management specialist but in truth I was placed there by child protection services to oversee the plethora of children under their radar in this particular school.
Fair to say, there were many challenges in this environment. We ran a breakfast program and for some kids, this would be the only consistent meal they would eat in a day. Strangely enough the vibe at the breakfast room was always light and full of laughter. As I have maintained and continue to maintain the premise; if you feed a child, you develop an instant and lasting bond with them. I reflect fondly upon this time and am grateful for having been a part of it. I still see some of those kids today, now in their early 20‘s and am greeted with hugs and warmth.
Back to the issue though! Over time I came to notice that the rates of depression and self harm among these youths were relatively low. They fought hard to get through each day and seemed to revel in even the smallest of achievements. They had little in the way of material goods and worked hard for everything they had, often, down to the shoes on their feet. Don’t get me wrong, these kids had their bad days; almost always as a consequence of their immediate environment but the will to survive was strong and the joy was real.
Several years later I was working in a very expensive and elite K-12 school as school counsellor. Although there was some 1200 students, I ignorantly assumed that this was going to be a walk in the park. These kids had their needs met. They were well clothed, seemed to have everything a child could want and more. I had barely scratched the surface when the illusion came crashing down around me.
Where do I start. I could honestly write a book on the madness I encountered there. I was the first counsellor employed at this school as their was an assumption that one wasn’t needed. To this day I have never been so busy in my life. One of the first things that struck me was the incredibly high rate of depression and self harm amongst students. Eating disorders were also rife and the general mental health of students was, how could you say….fragile.
There were students as young as nine years old disclosing their desire, and well thought out plans, to commit suicide. I spent as much time dealing with parents and staff in distress as I did with the kids. It seemed they were largely like me, confused by the fact that their children had everything they wanted and yet, were so miserable. This particular school also had a no failure policy and ran on the theory that only positive feedback would be of benefit to a child or young person. That’s a whole other issue in itself and definitely a future blog topic!
It may be worth noting, at this point, that these observations are based on a broad overview of each presentation and may be referred to as a generalisation. Amongst both groups were settled, well balanced children and amazing parents. Naturally, I had little to do with these families.
For the best part of 12 months I pondered the disparity I had come across with these two groups. It didn’t make sense and defied all my pre-conceived ideas about what made children happy. It took me the best part of this time to finally shift my thinking enough to make sense of this. I wrote out various case studies, cross compared them, reflected upon differences and finally came to a conclusion.
Simply put, those who were striving to thrive were happy to be alive. Those who received everything and strived for very little became complacent and complacence is a breeding ground for depression.
Let me give you an example. Once again this is a generalisation but it helps to illustrate my point. If a child in the wealthy school wanted an Ipod they would, generally, be given one. At no point in the journey of receiving their prized possession was there a sense of striving or achievement. Therefore the possession was just another material asset which had no attachment to a better sense of self. If a child from the impoverished school wanted an Ipod, they would have to work, beg and borrow to acquire the item. When they did get the item, the emotion attached would be a sense of fulfillment and achievement. The item would be an ongoing reminder of that person’s capabilities in the world, further enhancing a sense of self worth.
If the child from the lower socio-economic school didn’t get the Ipod they might experience disappointment but would, for the most part, manage this feeling as it was familiar. The feeling of disappointment must be felt and overcome time and again throughout childhood in order to establish resilience.
Although a simple example, it highlights the point. If you strive for nothing, therefore achieve nothing then what is it that you equate your self worth to? Furthermore the latter school gave nothing but compliments and gentle praise to it’s students. If these accolades are not earned then they hold no weight in relation to valued worth and sense of achievement.
As parents we love to see our children happy. It is imperative, however, for them to achieve their own happiness. Furthermore and even more importantly we must not rescue them from experiencing all other emotions and feelings, including disappointment.
Kids are resilient; if we allow them to be.
* Australian Bureau of Statistics, Youth Suicide Rate.
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