April 22, 2019
What’s Driving the Rise of Mental Health Issues and Suicide in Teens?
By Michael D. Shaw
This week, we feature a guest column from Mark Goulston, MD, former UCLA professor of psychiatry, FBI hostage negotiation trainer, and suicide and violence prevention expert. Goulston is the co-creator and moderator of the suicide prevention documentary Stay Alive.
Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among adolescents aged 15–19 years (after accidental injury). Moreover, a new study shows that the number of children and teens in the U.S. who visited the ER for suicidal thoughts and attempts doubled between 2007 and 2015.
It’s time to untangle the causes of mental health issues in teens and start saving lives. Let’s consider how we got to this point…
1. Babies arrive half-baked. When babies are born, nature’s work is done. Their nurturing in the first six months—the other half of being baked—wires them for life.
Babies are somewhat aware of their own helplessness, and look to their parents to provide security, comfort, and emotional support. When looking into their parents’ eyes, they are essentially asking, Can I trust you?
For the last few generations, babies have not gotten the deep connection they need with parents, and this has led to anxiety, insecurity, and fear later on.
2. We’ve turned into adrenaline junkies. As a society, we’ve always relied on emotional closeness, tenderness, and love to trigger dopamine, a pleasure chemical. We spent time together creating the reassuring feelings we need to carry us through life.
But in today’s age of instant gratification, we rely on quick hits of excitement and adrenaline, which also trigger dopamine, to get our emotional satisfaction. As we become busier, we have even less time to spare. Closeness and tenderness take too long to manifest and so adrenaline wins out time and time again.
3. As parents, we’ve become preoccupied. Parents no doubt love their kids, but also live in the modern world of distraction and busyness. Therefore, many parents today are preoccupied, rushed, and unintentionally “neglectful.” (This is not neglect in the traditional sense; here, “neglectful” refers to rushed feedings, and spending less time bonding.) Parents are adrenaline junkies, chasing work and achievement, with little time for emotional bonding.
4. When babies look up at their parents and get a “busy signal,” they internalize it for life. A preoccupied parent can’t tune in to where a helpless infant is emotionally. This signals to the baby that they are on their own, and that can be terrifying. It creates distrust and insecurity that stays with them. They never internalize the feeling it will be okay. The insecurities planted at such a young age are hard to address later in life.
5. Kids are missing the everything will be okay feeling that comes from their parents’ closeness, bonding, and reassurance. This sets them up for success, self-reliance, and confidence later in life. With proper nurturing, people can tap into the feeling that everything will be okay. Without it, they’re in for lifelong insecurity, distrust, and anxiety. This becomes problematic when they start hitting trauma later in life.
When children and teens don’t have this feeling in their soul, they fall apart at the first sign of trouble. When they don’t receive the approval they crave from teachers or authority figures, they often feel hurt, resentment, anxiety, and anger, which can lead to depression. Remember, Freud said that anger turned inward is depression.
6. Kids aren’t learning to cope. People who can take life’s inevitable hits reach into themselves when things get hard and come up with heart. They are the ones who received the maternal empathy and comfort that children need, followed by the paternal reassurance that everything would be okay. People who can’t take hits reach in and plummet.
7. The adrenaline rush transfers to the next generation. Kids, too, become fully indoctrinated into the adrenaline junkie culture, focusing on achievement, still trying to get approval. They learn to achieve without the emotional support of their parents. To that, preoccupied parents say, “Good for you,” and then take credit for being an awesome parent. This pushes the child ever further away and deepens the chasm.
8. And then comes the adrenaline crash. Suddenly, they aren’t focused, powerful, or in control. They crash and are back to feeling powerless, vulnerable, frustrated, helpless, and angry. They get behind. Parents are disappointed and yelling. They start cutting corners to get by. They cheat on tests or do other things in response to the pressure they feel to succeed, and things start to plummet.
9. Suicide occurs when everything crashes down. At some point, a person feels as though they are falling apart. They think, I’m coming unglued; I’m losing my mind. And there is a visceral feeling that they are falling apart. Before they fall apart and never come back, they decide to die by suicide.
Thus, staying distracted from our feelings is not a long-term solution. Feelings must be felt all the way through, in the same way you need to drain an abscess to heal. Ultimately, we must get off the adrenaline high and return to bonding. Excitement can’t take the place of intimacy. We have to stop believing that everything is okay when it’s clearly not.
Understanding the complex factors that are leading to increased mental illness and suicide is the first step to helping stop this crisis. Then, we can respond with empathy and understanding to save the lives of teenagers everywhere.