The recent, and exhaustive, article published by ESPN the Magazine, “Split Image,” served up a cautionary tale about image versus reality. It chronicles the life and times of Madison Holleran, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, who committed suicide by jumping from the roof of a Philadelphia parking garage. She was 19 (Fagan, 2015).
What is that cautionary tale? Things may not always—if ever—be as they seem.
Madison herself made that point in an Instagram post about a year before her death. It was a quote from Seventeen magazine: "Even people you think are perfect are going through something difficult" (Fagan, 2015).
Alas, the piece takes pains to reveal that, contrary to her online persona, a life replete with a great family, good friends and a long list of academic and athletic triumphs, Madison was struggling to keep it together.
Of course, she was not alone in despair.
Sixteen months after Madison’s death, Peter Cronkite, 22, grandson of famed CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, took his own life at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. He was just weeks away from commencement and the receipt of a major academic award (Morning Sentinel, 2015).
The deaths of Madison and Peter, along with thousands of others annually, put an exclamation point on the issue of youth suicide and beg questions about causality and prevention.
An epidemic of young people ending their own lives is fueled, in part, by rising rates of stress, anxiety and depression. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, resulting in more than 4,600 lives lost each year (CDC, 2015). Also, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center ranks suicide as a leading cause of death among college students (SPRC, 2015).
As for suicide prevention, there are many approaches to treating and, moreover, preventing mental health disorders.
On the treatment side, let’s start with Colby president David A. Greene who, in addition to offering chaplaincy and counseling services to students, urged members of the college’s community to “watch out for one another and seek support for yourself as needed.”
Yet on many college campuses that support may be hard to come by. Why? Because administrators often have trouble matching demand with supply. In a 2014 report, the American College Counseling Association states that 94 percent of counseling directors say they've seen an increase of students with severe psychological disturbances (Gallagher, 2014).
While some credit a slow, rolling destigmatization of mental health treatment with driving up the number of young people seeking help, it may be the case that changing societal dynamics also play a role (Wergin, 2015).
The Young Adult and Family Center (YAFC) at the University of California, San Francisco notes that “75 percent of all mental illness is present during adolescence,” but only about one-third of those suffering get treatment. YAFC goes on to report, “Five to ten years typically pass before an adolescent afflicted by anxiety or depression seeks help for their suffering and usually only after developing a comorbid condition such as substance abuse or after failing out of school” (YAFC, 2015).
Jason Brian, CEO of Redwood Recovery Solutions and a member of the national advisory board at the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), told me that his company's website, WePromiseToCare.net, generates phone calls from young people similarly affected. He said, "While they are reaching out for substance use treatment, there is often an underlying mental health issue."
With prevention in mind, YAFC believes that “grit”—or the ability to persevere in the face of adversity—is key to preventing such tragedies (YAFC, 2015).
So important is such resilience that Alex Lickerman, M.D., assistant vice president for Student Health and Counseling Services at the University of Chicago, has developed and tested a unique curriculum designed to help young people build resiliency. The Resilience Project covers a series of important topics (The Resilience Project, 2015).
– Leveraging the power of expectations
– Resisting discouragement
– Using the power of habit to achieve individual goals
– Self-modulating in the face of adverse events
– Learning to accept unpleasant feelings/outcomes and to move beyond losses
– Expressing gratitude for personal gifts and opportunities
– Defining one’s mission in life
Lickerman notes that short-term analysis of his resilience training shows reductions in anxiety and depression among youth of 60 percent and 35 percent, respectively.
According to Scott Poland, Ed.D., a professor at the Center for Psychological Studies and co-director of the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at Nova Southeastern University, “Young people who have demonstrated the ability to bounce back from adversity tend to fare better when the chips are down. But if resiliency has not been modeled by family or experienced personally, then the individual will be more at risk.”
In addition to building resilience, or grit, it is imperative that adults talk with young people about the often-transitory nature of acute psychological pain. Many of them simply lack the life experience to truly understand that one day it is likely they’ll feel differently than they do during difficult times.
Indeed, it is sometimes hard to see that far down the road.
Dr. Poland, also a senior research fellow at CARE, adds, “Suicidal youth want to end unendurable pain and are unable to foresee things getting better. This is often referred to as ‘tunnel vision’ or ‘constriction.’”
It is at the opening to that tunnel where parents and other caring adults can step in to educate and emphasize that the future may not be as bleak as one might believe. Sometimes, it just requires looking further on.
Stephen Gray Wallace is director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing positive youth outcomes and reducing negative risk behaviors. He has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor and serves as senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com and NBCUniversal’s parenttoolkit.com. For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit StephenGrayWallace.com.