Is an unequal society the cause for teen depression and suicide?

How does a teenager in an affluent suburb in Silicon Valley or Northern Virginia, receiving one of the best educations in the country — maybe the world — reach the brink of suicide and sometimes go through with it?

That is what New York Times columnist Frank Bruni tries to diagnose in a recent column called “Best, Brightest — Saddest?” about a “suicide cluster” in Palo Alto — in which nearly 10 teens have thrown themselves in front of trains — and a larger examination of the pressures teens in America face.

“[W]hile mental health professionals are rightly careful not to oversimplify or trivialize the psychic distress behind them by focusing on any one possible factor,” he writes “[recent suicides have] prompted an emotional debate about the kinds of pressures felt by high school students in epicenters of overachievement.”

Given a tendency in the U.S. to treat suicides and related psychological issues as a consequence of an individual’s distress, Bruni is commendably unique among social commentators for looking at society’s role. He even goes so far as to suggest the problems in Palo Alto and other affluent communities like it are a consequence of a profoundly unequal society.

“These are to some extent problems of affluence and privilege. But they have relevance beyond any one subset of our country’s populace,” he writes. “They reflect a status consciousness that bedevils Americans at all income levels, and they underscore an economic trepidation that is sadly widespread and is seemingly intensified by the gaping divide between the haves and have-nots.”

This article speaks to who I was at 17, an over-stressed, ambitious student at a competitive public high school that served an affluent string of Chicago suburbs. My head was a swirl with upcoming tests, papers, homework assignments, college applications and entrance exams on which I wanted to excel. Academic achievement was celebrated at my school in a way I can both appreciate and see as a contributing factor to my anxiety. I still remember the day National Merit Scholars were announced. By lunchtime, I knew everyone who had received the awards, with people telling each other about it all day. My school newspaper published where everyone was going to college. As an associate editor on the paper, I remember sitting in the news office (yes there was an office) going through with some editors where our classmates were going to college with much more interest than was probably warranted. For my own part, I was embarrassed for not having taken all 4-level classes (the highest level in my school’s tiered system). Although I liked many of my classes and did well in school, I was obsessed with getting A’s and constantly felt inferior to my classmates. After a nervous breakdown in my senior year of high school, my mom thought I should see a school counselor, who referred me to a psychiatrist.

I felt going to a therapist was a sign of my inability to cope as well as my peers. I also felt guilty. Psychiatrists were for people who had been abused as kids, not people who had normal families and were bound for top 20 colleges. My parents weren’t even the helicopter type. They made a point of encouraging us to handle tasks like homework independently and told us that whether you learned in school was more important than whether you earned straight A’s.

Looking back now, and reading about how college admissions have somehow become even more insane than when I was 18 — with parents sending their kids on social service trips to low income countries in Central America and Africa and internships starting as early as high school — I now believe my troubles and those of many others were brought on most significantly by our pressure cooker environment, not by an individual deficiency in myself or my parents’ style of child-rearing. I now realize that even though I had friends, I felt profoundly isolated socially because I had no one to talk to about how stressed and overwhelmed I was.

In a sad way, everyone in this kind of society is a competitor. It is one that celebrates success and discourages failure, even though failure is the only way you grow emotionally and not tolerating it can lead one to become paralyzingly hard on oneself, as I’ve found.

***

It is uncommon in American society, even among well-educated people, to link what we call “mental illness,” “mental health issues,” and “psychiatric disorders” with the way our society is organized. Instead we see mental disorders as an individual problem and encourage people to seek out help on their own through medication and therapy. The majority of mental health research dollars goes toward looking for clues inside of us — in neurons and genes — even though these discoveries have not been successfully translatable to curing the identified psychiatric disorders. In fact, no less than the director of the National Institute of Mental Health has said that the way we diagnose mental illnesses like depression and anxiety is not based on biological criteria — in part because research has not yet uncovered biological evidence that corresponds to what we call depression and anxiety.

So why in America do we so often think the way to treat mental illness is to change the individual rather than reduce social isolation, which is strongly connected to mental troubles? Why don’t we think more about the psychosocial consequences of a highly competitive, individualistic society?

Part of it may be our strong culture of individualism. Other countries are much more inclined to connect socioeconomic policy with mental health. Even in the United Kingdom, which has seen a similar current of economic conservatism since the 1980s to America’s, there is recognition of the connection between socioeconomics and mental health. Just a few days ago, 442 psychotherapists, counselors and academics writing a letter to the Guardian saying that that nation’s austerity cuts were having a “’profoundly disturbing’ impact on people’s psychological wellbeing and the emotional state of the nation.”

“The past five years have seen a radical shift in the kinds of issues generating distress in our clients: increasing inequality and outright poverty, families forced to move against their wishes, and, perhaps most important, benefits claimants (including disabled and ill people) and those seeking work being subjected to a quite new, intimidatory kind of disciplinary regime,” the letter stated.

***

Unfortunately, Bruni, like so many other educated people, concludes his otherwise excellent article by pointing the finger squarely at the individual, in this case: parents. Modern parenting “can be not only overprotective but overbearing, micromanaging the lives of children, pointing them toward specific mile markers of achievement and denying them any time to flail or room to fail,” he writes, paraphrasing a former dean of Stanford Julie Lythcott-Haim.

It’s not that Bruni is wrong or that Lythcott-Haim is wrong when she says, “There’s something about childhood itself in Palo Alto and in communities like Palo Alto that undermines the mental health and wellness of our children.”

But trying to solve teen suicide with another book about how to raise kids, which Lythcott-Haim has just authored, or another column chiding helicopter parents, which is what Bruni has just written, is a drop in the bucket. When we’re not seeing books celebrating Tiger Moms or Little League Dads, we’re heaping criticism on them, and yet nothing changes.

While it would be welcome if parents chilled out and let their kids be unique individuals rather than Ivy-aspiring automatons, there are sociological reasons why this probably will not happen.

Because the truth is, it makes sense that parents are putting incredible pressure on their kids to make it into the receding tier of society that has some semblance of economic stability (at least for now)? They are understandably afraid that if their kid doesn’t take a pretty particular and narrow path in life, he or she could face economic instability. This is not a totally unreasonable fear in a society where one can fall into insurmountable debt because of a health procedure or a layoff. The least risky route to avoiding that is one that starts in a good school district and ends at an elite college. The reason parents in Palo Alto or Scarsdale or Fairfax or Winnetka are not going to want to be the first to chill out is the same reason baseball players are going to want to be the first to stop taking performance-enhancing drugs unless Major League Baseball begins seriously enforcing against it. Everyone else is doing it, and if you don’t, you lose.

This is why we need collective action rather than exhortations for individual behavior change. When people fail to band together as a group and address through policy and culture change the social causes of poor health and wellness, they are incentivized to look out primarily for themselves and their families. In this highly individualized world, we see epidemic levels of depression and anxiety that — despite a lack of evidence — we attribute to biology, personal issues, and even flaws in character.

You see this especially in gleeful media coverage of celebrity “meltdowns” like Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan and Charlie Sheen. In a society as competitive and stratified as ours, where us mortals recognize if we had substance problems or exhaustion, we wouldn’t be able to access anywhere near the resources that celebrities do, empathy goes out the window.

Psychologist Bruce Alexander has written in his book The Globalization of Addiction that people in free-market societies take up addictions because they are psychosocially dislocated as a result of the emphasis on individualism

“A free-market society is magnificently productive, but it subjects people to irresistible pressures towards individualism and competition, tearing rich and poor alike from the close social and spiritual ties that normally constitute human life. People adapt to their dislocation by finding the best substitutes for a sustaining social and spiritual life that they can, and addiction serves this function all too well,” he says.

***

This isn’t to say we should or could swing from a highly individualistic to a highly collectivist and society, one that treats everyone the same, which raises conservative hackles. But the irony is, our society’s increasingly narrow and unattainable version of success is actually making us less individualistic and not more — imposing university aspirations for instance on the kid whose dream is to be an auto mechanic or a sailor.

The pressure cooker environment of the teen years continues in adulthood, where overwork is a symptom of an economically unequal society in which people fear losing their jobs if they don’t keep the pace on the treadmill. (And yes, there are policy solutions to reduce workloads and improve people’s quality of life).

I believe there is another thing at work too in the way we deal with teens and mental health, which is that we tend to trivialize their experiences. We tell teens that it will get better when they get older, we sigh with relief that we’re no longer that age. It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that it doesn’t have to be that way.

I understand this reaction. My first instinct when I hear about how stressful it is to be a teenager today is to distance myself from that time. Those were dark days. Glad I’m done with it.

But when I think about it a little more, it’s a paltry response. It is tempting to look down at teens’ concerns as petty, or to tell them it will get better, which is only slight consolation at that age, especially if you are contemplating suicide. And it allows those of us who didn’t like high school to tell ourselves that time didn’t mean anything to where we our today. But the truth of the matter is, many of us are haunted by those ghosts and would have led better lives if being a teenager in America were different.

I loved that Frank Bruni chose to spotlight this issue, but he, like everyone else, ultimately fell short of any meaningful recommendation.

At the end of the article, Bruni quotes Adam Strassberg, a psychiatrist and father of two Palo Alto teenagers: “Maintaining and advancing insidiously high educational standards in our children is a way to soothe this anxiety.”

Strassberg, Bruni says, “recommended lightening children’s schedules, limiting the number of times that they take the SAT, lessening the message that it’s Stanford or bust.

“’I will never be neutral on this issue,’ Strassberg wrote. ‘The ‘Koala Dad’ is the far better parent than the ‘Tiger Mom.’’”

I couldn’t agree more. But I think this parental moralizing is a symptom of a society that fails to take collective ownership for kids and teens’ mental health — as well as our own.

Americans tend to dismiss the idea that we could tackle existential problems like this based on policy, even though our country has done exactly that time and again with laws that have improved our economic security (see: Social Security, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act). It takes a community — or, to invoke Hillary Clinton, a village — and ultimately a society agreeing to explore what it is that contributes to such vast mental distress across the socioeconomic spectrum during the teenage years. Rather than consider it inevitable or part of being that age, we should all take responsibility for failing our teenagers. It’s not just them we’re failing either. We are all hurt by a highly competitive, highly stratified society, and it is thus in all of our interest to improve it.

Photo: Norris House, 1247 Cowper St., Palo Alto, CA 5–27–2012 4–48–30 by Sanfranman59. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 by Wikimedia Commons.

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