Daniel Peters
Source: Daniel Peters

With this week’s countdown to the beginning of autumn, no doubt more than a few people are mourning the impending loss of warm, sunny days. For many more, such days may seem a distant memory regardless of season…or sun.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which promotes National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month every September, “Suicidal thoughts, much like mental health conditions, can affect anyone regardless of age, gender or background. In fact, suicide is often the result of an untreated mental health condition ... Each year, more than 41,000 individuals die by suicide, leaving behind their friends and family members to navigate the tragedy of loss.” NAMI points to feelings of shame and stigma as roadblocks to open discussion about the scourge of suicide (NAMI, 2017).

And that’s too bad because, in truth, open, honest dialogue about difficult issues, perhaps especially with youth, is critically important to many issues, including depression and death by suicide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24—approximately 4,600 lives ended each year. Additionally, the CDC notes that actual deaths from youth suicide are only one part of the problem, citing a nationwide survey of high school students in the United States that found the following (CDC, 2017).

  • More young people survive suicide attempts than actually die
  • 16 percent of students reported seriously considering suicide
  • 13 percent reported creating a plan
  • 8 percent reported trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey
  • 157,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 are treated annually in emergency departments across the country for self-inflicted injuries

Such statistics and the aforementioned dialogue were both topics of a late August presentation on the island of Nantucket (Mass.), a community that seems to have more than its share of such tragedy (Shepard, 2014).

Fending off concerns about “suicide prevention fatigue,” my speaking partner, Scott Poland, Ed.D., a professor in the College of Psychology at Nova Southeastern University, and I focused on the positive, titling this particular keynote “Parenting 2.0: Safeguarding Our Children in Challenging Times.”

Challenging times indeed.

In addition to youth suicides, we also addressed adverse childhood experiences, youth homicide, teen driving crash deaths, and bullying.

So, what was the positive?

Encouraging news from the Search Institute that illuminates a common-sense framework to help kids thrive. Protective factors, or “developmental assets,” spanning eight categories (Support; Empowerment; Boundaries and Expectations; Constructive Use of Time; Commitment to Learning; Personal Values; Social Competencies; and Positive Identity) are easy to access and apply to the complicated task that is raising children and teens in the 21st century (Search Institute, 2007).

More granularly, these recommendations speak to the inherent value of the constructs and actions listed below.

  • Family support and communication (reminding kids they are the most important thing in your life)
  • Other adult relationships (young people benefit from having at least three other important non-parent adults in their lives)
  • Caring schools and communities (It really does take a village, maybe more!)
  • Opportunities to serve others (see Youth Service America)
  • Family, school and neighborhood boundaries (young people need to know our expectations and the consequences for non-compliance)
  • Positive role models (of all ages)
  • Creative, fun activities (with some downtime as well)
  • A sense of achievement (support learning, both academic and other)
  • Modeling of positive values (such as honesty, integrity, responsibility and social justice)
  • Learning how to plan and make positive choices (and resist destructive ones)
  • A sense of control, purpose, and hope for the future (all build self-esteem)

Also offering a healthy prescription for young people is Richard Lerner, Ph.D., the Bergstrom Chair in Applied Developmental Science and the Director of the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University. Lerner rebuts the notion of adolescence defined by conflict with parents, mood disruptions, and risky behavior, serving up “the ‘5 Cs’ that are proven to fuel positive development: Competence, Confidence, Connection, Character, and Caring. When the 5 Cs coalesce, a sixth emerges, Contribution: where young people contribute to their own development in an energetic and optimistic way” (Tufts University, 2017).

Sound easy? (Hint: it’s not.)

That is why, for my part, I’ll add a 7th “C”: Courage … for parents and young people alike.

There’s no getting around the fact that raising healthy, well-adjusted, achievement-oriented teens and young adults is hard work. But hard is different than complicated. And when we invest our time and energy in the “right” inputs, such as those articulated above, the challenges associated with such things as substance use, social media and suicide are more easily overcome.

As for America’s youth, they are coming of age in an increasingly fast-paced, technology-infused society that too often incites stress, anxiety and its close cousin, depression.

In a January 1, 2017, Psychology Today piece I excerpted a TIME magazine cover story that offers, “Adolescents today have a reputation for being more fragile, less resilient and more overwhelmed than their parents were when they were growing up. Sometimes they’re called spoiled or coddled or helicoptered. But a closer look paints a far more heartbreaking portrait of why young people are suffering. Anxiety and depression in high school kids have been on the rise since 2012 after several years of stability. It’s a phenomenon that cuts across all demographics – suburban, urban and rural; those who are college bound and those who aren’t” (Schrobsdorff, 2016).

Which brings us back to the courage thing.

Tackling adversity and doing hard things helps parents and adolescents build the resiliency they will need to protect themselves during difficult times—until the sun (once again) rises above the inevitable shadows in life.

References

CDC. (2017). Suicide among youth. Gateway to Health Communication & Social Marketing Practice. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/healthcommunication/toolstemplates/entertainmented/tips/suicideyouth.html (20 Sept. 2017).

NAMI. (2017). Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. National Alliance on Mental Illness. https://www.nami.org/suicideawarenessmonth (20 Sept. 2017).

Schrobsdorff, S. (2016). Teen depression and anxiety: why the kids are not alright. TIME. October 27, 2016. http://time.com/4547322/american-teens-anxious-depressed-overwhelmed/ (20 Sept. 2017).

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