March 13, 2020 is Gen Z’s “Day of Infamy”, when K-12 school campuses closed due to COVID-related health risks, sequestering an entire generation of youth in the midst of their coming of age. Amidst the sudden, and now ever-extending health emergency, precipitating continued distance learning and canceled extracurricular activities, the emotional toll on teens only exacerbates existing pressures.
But there has been another cost [of social distancing] that we’ve seen, particularly in high schools. We’re seeing, sadly, far greater suicides now than we are deaths from COVID. We’re seeing far greater deaths from drug overdose that are above excess that we had as background than we are seeing the deaths from COVID. So this is why I keep coming back for the overall social being of individuals, is let’s all work together and find out how we can find common ground to get these schools open in a way that people are comfortable and they’re safe.– Dr. Robert Redfield, Buck Institute, CDC, July 14, 2020 [Bolded emphasis added by CMC]
Peace of mind or mental health, if you will, is not a static state but instead requires effort to achieve and sustain. Life is not a struggle-free experience. Every year, at least one teenage client reveals a serious mental health issue, from eating disorders to cutting themselves, to drug and alcohol abuse, and in 2020, one student committed suicide.
Even for those with undiagnosed mental health concerns, who are seemingly successful, earning straight or nearly straight A’s, extracurricular leaders, never having been suspended, may act destructively under the stress. One student created a fake social media profile to undermine a peer in the competitive academic meritocracy, which another student called, “A shark pond.” They’re suffering, many silently or secretly amongst friends.
High school students report regularly “competing” to earn the bragging rights of being The Most Stressed. They viciously undermine each other’s efforts to learn, overtly discouraging peers from asking questions by glaring at them during class, or blatantly demanding the kid who routinely earns the highest test score to “not try so hard”, so they don’t set the curve so high. And, while many teens rationalize that such behavior is normal or “just high school”, the learned carefulness to not draw the ire of peers in a competitive academic culture can have a lasting impact on the psyche of many teens.
Thus, pre-COVID, suicide rates amongst youth aged 10-24 were already increasing, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), up 57.4%, a rate of 6.8% in 2007 to 10.7% in 2018.
Although levels of stress amongst teens have risen in the time of COVID, mental health issues and behaviors that, when not addressed, have long negatively impacted the mental health of teenagers. No one should ever reach a point where the only acceptable alternative is to end their life, but they do, and the responsibility lies upon all of us to understand and address the reasons, no matter how complicated.
When the vitality of youth is snuffed under the weight of mental duress, an entire society bears the consequences for those who inevitably, after desperate but unheeded calls for help go unaddressed, suffer in silence. Let us collectively, each day, seek out those who suffer from mental illness and generously give of our time to diminish the scourge of mental torment, so a joy for living can be restored.
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