Werther and well-being

How do we address mental health in our teenagers?

The American organisation ‘First Things’ has eloquently expressed concern that young people in relatively affluent cultures have been over-protected and ‘coddled’ over the past two decades, leading to too many of the more able in their early twenties to express anything from worry to outrage against people who disagree with them. They cite the number of times that ivy league university professors have expressed concern about stating a view that is outside of the dominant trending set of perspectives. The concern of First Things is that freedom of conscience and freedom of speech are being denigrated in the leading universities. A second concern is the lack of personal resilience in young people who champion a victim mentality in their personal protests. They see government and institution as existing to make them happy.

A recent ‘The Atlantic’ article (‘The Suicide Clusters at Palo Alto High Schools’ 28th November 2015) cited the clusters of suicide attempts in wealthy and success-driven communities in USA. Whilst wisely not claiming to know the factors that lead to the tragic choices of these young people, they suggested that the advent of over-protective parenting, an emphasis on academic success without a holistic base, and the rise of the ‘Tiger Mother’ were possible causes.

First Things advocates that an antidote to youth issues in USA is found in the book ‘Free Range Kids’ by Lenore Skenazy. I haven’t read the book but the notions are well-attested – that we should be seeking to build resilience and agency in children. My wife and I referred often to a book called ‘Raising Kids on Purpose’ when our family was young. It argued for similar ideas.

Just about every public discussion creates its own discourses that can create ‘common sense’ readings on either side of the debate. What to one parent is ‘keeping their child safe’ is ‘helicoptering’ to another. Tragedies occur on both sides of the divide: from the teen whose injury is because he hasn’t been properly supervised, to the child whose mental health is poor because she has not been allowed to mature.

A recent ‘History Today’ article covers the spate of suicides that was associated with the release of Goethe’s tale: ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’. The article by Frank Furedi reports that the media created a fear campaign that even questioned if young people should read novels. The advent of Romanticism into literature was associated with a series of tragedies, where young people suffering unrequited love followed the protagonist in the book and ended their own suffering, just as Werther did. Parents, scientists and church pastors spoke up strongly against Goethe’s book.

Goethe himself reportedly regretted writing the book at one stage. It is interesting that the book can of course still be read, but it is now not counted as a cause of any modern youth tragedy. It seems that troubled teens find their own cultural connections when they are in pain.

My experience with young people fighting mental health issues is all with particular individuals. It is possible to identify factors that link to studies and it is possible to ascribe ‘blame’ to a family dynamic, or to alcohol, or to a social matter, or to school, or to a medical issue. My limited experience is that the causes are deeply personal and particular.

Since much of the pain occurs in the young person’s mind, it is nigh impossible to know the causes properly.

By no means does this indicate that schools or families can’t act. The pro-active approach is very important. We need to parent and teach positively and deliberately. We need to be able to critique our processes honestly.

Yet, in the individual circumstance it is very easy for the outsider to ascribe blame. The media reports don’t fit so neatly when you are working through a personal circumstance with a family.

I write this article because I believe it is important to recognise that even when factors mount up against an individual, it is possible to find a way through it. Young people in the depths of poverty survive, even thrive. Victor Frankel survived the concentration camps of the Nazis. What are the positive qualities that they shared? How do we grow these in our young people?

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