Too many of our young people are falling into deadly depression for many reasons. Or maybe just one.
The four horsemen of the Apocalypse are arguably the most memorable of the many graphic images of the end of times in the book of Revelation. As a vision of the future, they don’t paint a very rosy picture.
One of the more unfortunate realities of our present day is that more and more of our young — the people who have their whole lives ahead of them — aren’t seeing a very pleasant picture of their future either. And it turns out that the reasons why come in a depressing set of four as well.
Horseman No. 1: Social Media
In 2006, the social media juggernaut we know as Facebook moved from a college campus experiment to a global, shall we say, pandemic. The following year gave us the iPhone. Locate those years on a chart that follows the rise of teen suicides and you will see it all began with the introduction of these two hyper-compatible technologies. Coincidence? Apparently not.
Study after study has pointed to the adverse affects of life in the digital world as the root of this deadly teenage angst. Notable among them is the CDC report that establishes a 56% increase in suicides among children from age 10 to 19 in the years between 2007 and 2016.
“More study is probably needed to be definitive,” said Jeff Hubbell, Director of Behavioral Health Services at GraceMed, “but there’s certainly mounting evidence of a connection between using digital media and these tragic outcomes. It’s odd that something meant to connect us has actually had the effect of isolating so many of our young people. They spend less time building social skills with their friends and more time absorbing cyber experiences that often diminish their self-esteem.”
Staying up late in the blue light of a cell phone is not exactly helping either. The sleep loss — because the light upsets circadian rhythms — can contribute to depression. Not to mention the impact it can have on academic performance among teens who face incredible pressure to get into college.
Horseman No. 2: Economic Despair
There has also been an increase in depression and suicide among younger adults in recent years, a trend that has less to do with social media and digital devices than it does with an economy that hasn’t worked for those entering it for some time.
“When you think about it, the adult world in which millennials have had to make their way has been a hard one,” Jeff said. “First they were hit with the Great Recession in 2008, then just when it looked like their luck was changing, the world shut down for a pandemic. To say that job markets have been competitive is an understatement that hides a lot of the struggles of a generation with mounting student debt and little to show for it in their careers.”
One thing they have plenty of is stress. Millennials have experienced the slowest economic growth of any generation in U. S. history. Not surprisingly, they are also the generation with the highest likelihood of death by suicide. While there are forms of stress that can be motivating, the stress grinding down the futures of these adults in the prime of their lives is seeding their ranks with a deep and dangerous depression.
It would be misleading, though, to consider this a problem limited to college graduates. The reality is that the prospect of suicide is about four times as great among young adults who haven’t gone to college. The decline of the kind of blue-collar opportunities that existed for previous generations coupled with lower wages and higher cost of benefits like health insurance — it all adds up to a stifling income inequality. Home ownership is one telling economic symptom that the college educated and those without a degree share. Far too many of the former have too much debt to own a home while the latter simply can’t afford it.
Horseman No. 3: Addiction
Closely harnessed to the second horseman is the third, the abuse of drugs and alcohol as a means of coping with perceived failure. Although other generations have struggled with drug abuse (most notably the Boomers as they trekked through the 60s and 70s), the irresponsible proliferation of opioids that began at the turn of the century found a particularly receptive market among our nation’s hapless young adults. By 2017, more than 1.7 million Americans were abusing opioids and more than 47,000 died from their use in that year.
When addictions don’t result in suicidal thoughts and behaviors, they can still have a devastating impact — especially on teenagers. “You have to remember that teens are still developing physically and mentally,” said Dr. Lauren Poull, GraceMed Pediatrician at our Capitol Family Clinic in Topeka. “The introduction of drugs like the prescription pain killers that have been so abused in recent years interfere with the development of portions of the brain that control impulses and give us the ability to understand abstract concepts like rules and laws governing social conduct. So drug abuse can effectively disconnect a teen from capacity to mature right when he needs it at the most.”
Horseman No. 4: COVID-19
We tend to think of the coronavirus as the arch enemy of the older among us, and certainly it is true that youth has had some degree of advantage in terms of weathering the COVID storm.
But overlay the combination of isolation, uncertainty and deadly threat that this pandemic is for all of us on the vulnerability and stress of being young, and it’s not surprising that this unseen plague is cited as a factor in the rising tide of depression and suicide as well.
“For many, it may be a case of the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Jeff explained. “There are a lot of people out there who were just starting out in life and never thought of themselves as living on the streets. Too many of our young people have gone from hard to seemingly impossible circumstances because of something that came totally out of the blue. That feeling of helplessness is just not easy to cope with.”
The economic impact is one thing. Then there’s the idea that the only way through this is to distance yourself from the rest of humanity, right at a time when friendships are the way you measure the quality of your life. Add to that the grief born by so many of the younger generation as they absorb the loss of so many parents and grandparents to the virus. It all adds up to the reason why young adults (age 18 – 24) were the second highest group to report thoughts of suicide in a recent COVID-related CDC study. Only caregivers for the adults edged them out.
These four horsemen of the apocalyptic thinking don’t actually arrive on horses, of course, so how do we see them coming in the lives of those we care about? Here are some indicators to watch out for:
- Loss of interest in things that were once important
- Difficulty focusing and thinking clearly
- Withdrawal from others in their lives
- Inability to get a good night’s sleep
- Talking about death or fixating on it in writing or artwork
- Lack of energy
- Increased irritability
- Poor appetite
- Risky behavior
- Giving possessions away
So how can you help? “The most important thing you can do is just to be willing to talk about your concerns directly and honestly,” Jeff recommends. “A lot of people think talking about suicide with someone who is seriously depressed is like suggesting the idea. But there’s no evidence to suggest that. On the contrary, confronting the issue frankly can help to defuse some of the tension that builds up around the ideation. Then it’s very important to help them understand the need to get some professional help. Depression this severe may seem frightening, but it is also very treatable.
That intervening connection with someone who cares can make all the difference. That’s because whether you are a teen trapped in a demeaning world of social media or a struggling young adult who can see no future, what you have in common is a sense that your life doesn’t matter. Live with that thought long enough, and it can entrap you into a kind of hopelessness that is inescapable on your own. It’s the effort someone else makes to listen and understand that so often can reaffirm self-worth and begin the process of reconnecting the young with that whole life that lies ahead of them.
This post originated in our State of Grace quarterly news magazine. If you would like to receive the magazine, please visit this link and give us your information. Thanks!