Student suicides suggest a bigger discussion about what adolescents face

Posted: February 20, 2014

IT'S BEEN A MONTH since Penn freshman Madison Holleran died by suicide. An athletic and academic standout in high school, she had been dismayed by her 3.5 grade-point average at Penn and had struggled to balance her studies with her varsity track training.

By Jan. 17, she was so despondent, she took her life. Three weeks later, Penn sophomore Elvis Hatcher did the same. Both suicides ignited much debate about the life-or-death pressures of college life (particularly in the Ivy League).

I don't doubt the conversations have been important. But by focusing so intensely on college suicides - which occur only half as often as do suicides by young adults not enrolled in higher education - we've missed an opportunity to broaden the discussion to include all young people at risk.

For example, we know that depression causes 90 percent of all suicides. But we seem not to recognize and mitigate, as parents and as a society, the controllable factors (i.e., not hereditary) that contribute to depression in young adults in the first place.

The notion is obsessing Shenille Latrice, CEO and founder of iChoose2Live, a nonprofit that uses the arts to help young people grab life by the horns. She is working on a documentary called "We're Too Young To Die," in which young adults from diverse backgrounds talk about the pressures that pull them down so low that, sometimes, their thoughts turn to suicide.

"We have to understand, these young people are growing up in a completely different way than any generation before them," says Latrice, who, at 31, is not much older than the kids she seeks to help.

"Pop culture influences them 24 hours a day through social media. They feel pressured to put their best face forward on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram," she said. "There are so many outside influences competing to make them feel inferior, like they don't have enough. Their day can be ruined if something they post on Facebook doesn't get enough 'likes.' "

It's easy for any adult to dismiss the pain caused by young people's comparisons to each other. After all, we might say, "Didn't we do the same when we were their age? And none of us fell apart, did we?"

Perhaps. But maybe the lumps we took as kids didn't feel as deadly as they do to kids today.

Our failures weren't subject to instant, snarky review via a mortifying video gone viral or an imprudent Twitter post getting flamed by haters. Making a mistake didn't have the potential it has today to cut off a kid from his or her community, their snarls strengthened by the jeers of online strangers able to escalate the derision with the tap of the "send" button.

There's not much that young people fear more than being isolated from their own peers - especially as they begin to dream of lives on their own, away from the family nest.

It can make a kid feel awfully shaky.

Eileen Bazelon sees the brittle fallout of social media in her work as an adolescent psychiatrist.

"For some people, the virtual world - although interesting, important and useful - gets in the way of having real relationships with real people," says Bazelon, who has been in practice for decades.

She notes, too, how the 24/7 pull of social media can cut into sleep, wreaking havoc with mood. In fact, a new study from the School of Public Health at the University of Texas Health Science Center found that, in teens, sleeping six hours or less a night increases the risk for major depression.

"These results are important because they suggest that sleep deprivation may be a precursor for major depression in adolescents, occurring before other symptoms of major depression and additional mood disorders," principal investigator Robert E. Roberts said in the journal Sleep, which published the study this month. "Questions on sleep disturbance and hours of sleep should be part of the medical history of adolescents to ascertain risk."

Obviously, the causes of major depression - the kind that can lead a young adult to consider suicide - include so much more than too little shut-eye and too much Twitter. A teen's notions about success and failure, family and peer relationships, school environment, academic ability, medical history, exposure to violence - all can affect a kid's ability to rise with grace when life knocks them to their knees.

It takes resilience to get through adolescence in one piece, whether you're in college or not.


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On Twitter: @RonniePhilly