Compassion alone is not enough


In high schools nationwide, and mine is no exception, we are seeing more and more teenagers suffering from mental health crises. Students at my school are talking openly about this – trying to raise awareness by making videos, creating T-shirts, and even speaking to the faculty.

This is good. We need to be made aware of these issues. We need to understand how anxiety and depression make it difficult for our kids to learn and form relationships, and we need to treat them with compassion.

But it’s not enough.

We also need to get serious about figuring out why so many students today are suffering, and what we can do to turn the tide.

According to one article I read this week, teenagers are more stressed out than adults in our society right now. And it’s not just teenagers in trying circumstances who are suffering. We’re talking about teens living in safe neighborhoods, in permanent housing, in stable families with middle-class incomes.

Their futures look bright to us, so why does the world feel so bleak to them?

There are a lot of possible reasons. Maybe it’s social media — and with it, cyber-bullying. I certainly believe these are both factors. The correlation between smart phone usage and depression is undeniable, as I’ve written in previous posts.

Maybe it’s the growing academic pressure some students feel, as expectations about college and the cost of college keep rising. A growing number of students feel pressured to make the perfect application, to excel in academics and sports, to rack up leadership roles and find time to volunteer. They don’t feel like they can ever make a mistake.

Maybe it’s also due to better reporting and less stigma around talking about mental health issues, which have always existed. Adolescence wasn’t easy for most of us.

But I think there are a few other factors at work, too, factors that merit our attention.

First, I think our broader culture is creating a sense of despair. We all feel it. The constant negativity in the news, the anger in our politics, the fear created by mass shootings and terror attacks – these all play a part. We can’t necessarily change that, but we need to help adolescents learn how to filter it and when to turn it off. (I know I have to, to maintain my sanity.)

The lack of nature is a problem, too. Children today spend less time climbing trees, roaming through backyards, camping and fishing. We know being indoors all the time – even if it’s in a gym, getting exercise – is bad for mental health. We need to give our teenagers more time in the natural world, more opportunities for adventure, without their devices.

Woven through all of these reasons, I believe, is another huge problem: the lack of a sense of purpose. Too many teenagers are just going through the motions – studying because we say it’s important, playing sports because everyone is doing it, posting to Instagram because it’s weird if they don’t.

But none of it is giving them deep satisfaction. None of it makes them feel needed or makes them excited about the future.

If we want to help our teenagers, we need to help them develop a sense of purpose, and this is something we can do.

We can help by treating them like capable young adults and giving them responsibilities – like fostering rescue animals, helping with household maintenance, cooking meals, caring for siblings.

We can also do it by enlisting them to help the less fortunate – through serving at food shelves, building or repairing houses, taking care of an elderly neighbor’s house or lawn.

We can do it be involving them in purpose-driven activities, like political action, social action and mission trips.

We can do it by encouraging participation in fun activities not tied to their college applications – like hiking, snowshoeing, rock-climbing, dancing and cooking.

I’m not saying these steps will cure our teenage mental health crisis. I don’t want to oversimplify a complex problem, which has both neurological and social causes.

But I do think we have a role to play, even if we are not certified therapists.  We can all help adolescents realize that life doesn’t have to be a constant, serious pursuit of social and academic perfection. It can be fun and rewarding, even if we make mistakes along the way. Especially if we make mistakes along the way.

Let’s try to send that message to the teenagers in our lives this holiday season.

Are you interested in student engagement? My book Beat Boredom is now available at Beat Boredom | Stenhouse Publishers