No easy answers in fight against student depression, suicide

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including the recently published  “New Warfare:  Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”  In addition to teaching courses in international politics, international organization and law, and U.S. foreign policy, he has served as chair of the Political Science Dept. at UM-St. Louis.

By Marty Rochester

On most measures, the vast majority of Americans have seen their lives improve over the years. For example, in 1940, only about 40 percent of homes had central heating, 60 percent had flush indoor toilets, and 70 percent had running water, not to mention very few people had air conditioning for coping with sweltering summers in St. Louis and elsewhere. 

Most people, at least those with a roof over their heads, now routinely enjoy such creature comforts, along with cell phones and other gadgets that make life easier.

In terms of basic amenities, then, we should be feeling better over time. Yet we know, based on all kinds of statistics, that there is a general sense of malaise today, with many people experiencing extreme depression. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 40,000 suicides occur annually in the United States — someone dies from suicide every 12 minutes on average — making it the 10th-leading cause of death. Although younger people have lower suicide rates than middle age and older adults, the suicide rate for adolescents and young adults is nonetheless substantial and, sadly, is increasing. It is the third-leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds. 

Teen suicide is so tragic and such a mounting concern that some local temples have started launching discussion groups on the subject. 

The source of the problem has variously been attributed to drug dependency and genetic predispositions; “helicopter parents,” who overprogram their kids’ schedules; parents at the other extreme, who are inattentive to their kids; the rise in divorce and family dysfunction; the loss of community in a transient nation; bullying; and the role K-12 schools play in adding to stress, anxiety and depression through excessive testing, homework, grade competition and other academic demands. 

The view that schools are the culprit has been most forcefully expressed by Vicki Abeles in her “Race to Nowhere” documentary that has been widely shown by PTOs around the country, along with her New York Times op-ed in January, “Is the Drive for Success Making Our Children Sick?” 

The problem is that she has her facts wrong. Data show that at most schools, except for some elite suburban institutions, homework is scant, grade inflation is rampant, competition is devalued in favor of a “self-esteem” driven culture where every child gets a trophy regardless of accomplishment or effort — and thus the reality arguably is inordinately low rather than high expectations. 

For example, Jay Mathews, a columnist for the Washington Post, points out that based on a University of Michigan study, 15- to 17-year olds devote roughly 3½ hours a day to TV and leisure, including increasing hours spent texting, tweeting and playing video games, compared with 42 minutes on average studying. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that youngsters spend 7½ hours daily with entertainment media. 

The main obstacle to child “free play” and “relaxation” may not be draconian teachers and testing regimens but kids’ growing addiction to electronic devices that allow no downtime for reflection and quietude. 

We are hardly overchallenging our kids. A study by the Education Trust concluded that barely one in five high school graduates can meet the minimum academic requirements to enlist in the Army. At a time when foreign kids are working much harder and performing better than American kids – see the film “2 Million Minutes” and Amanda Ripley’s book “The Smartest Kids in the World,”  which chronicles the big demands made on schoolchildren from Finland to China – the last message we should be sending is to lighten up on education.

At the very least, for those kids (and parents) who want high-powered academics such as Advanced Placement courses, such options should be available while the stress-challenged can choose lesser pressures, rather than our insisting on a one-size-fits-all stress reduction model.  

Abeles does get a couple of things right in terms of the fallout we see in higher education. Precisely because so many kids these days are constantly being stroked and told how wonderful they are, they have artificially high aspirations they often cannot meet. 

Not surprisingly, as she wrote in the Times column, “94 percent of college counseling directors [in a recent survey] said they were seeing rising numbers of students with severe psychological problems.” 

Part of the problem would appear to be what Lou Grant on the “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” called “spunk,” or lack thereof.

Peter Gray, in a column on the Psychology Today website in September headlined “Declining student resilience: A  serious problem for colleges,” writes about what he identifies only as “a major university”:

“Students are increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life. … Faculty [have] noted that students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when it comes to grading. … [They] described an increased tendency to see a poor grade as reason to complain rather than as reason to study more.”

Gray quotes the head of counseling at this university as saying: “Less resilient and needy students have shaped the landscape for faculty in that they are expected to do more handholding, lower their academic standards, and not challenge students too much.”

He also quotes Dan Jones, past president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, as saying that today’s students “don’t seem to have as much grit as previous generations.” 

In February, the New York Times reported on new efforts by schools to test for “grit” and social-emotional skills. But what is the likelihood that these assessments are going to be rigorous and worth the extra testing time?  

What is the takeaway from all of this? On one hand, concern about teen depression and suicide is all too real, and we are obligated to do what we can to prevent such terrible tragedies. 

On the other hand, some of the solutions proposed by Abeles and others, such as coddling students even more with easier workloads and less pressure, still greater grade inflation, and shielding them from hurt feelings and failure, would seem only to aggravate the condition. 

What is needed are not only more heath care resources targeted at this issue, but also more careful diagnosis of the problem, as well as thoughtful interventions. 

This, indeed, is too serious and complex a concern to treat with simplistic remedies.