“So many words of sorrow from young people mourning their peers, remembering times of anxiety, depression and hopelessness in their own lives, and asking for change – whether it be from their school, their parents or themselves.
I think that young people have to stop blaming your school or yourselves for not doing enough because I think when someone is mentally ill they are not in a place that is reachable. It’s hard for anyone to imagine how deep the blackness can be; and sometimes no amount of love can break through. All that being said, I have to say that the kind of anxiety and depression that is rampant among young teens across our country is sometimes a different problem- not mental illness like bipolar or schizophrenia but a symptom of societal dysfunction that we probably could do something about.
Your stories of “mean kids” and those who are unkind are not new to your generation, and while this kind of teen mind game is not helpful for a person who is depressed, it is also not the cause. Feeling as though school is stressful, feeling awful over poor grades, ashamed of not measuring up- these too are not new to you.
Two things seem new- and these things would require parents to make some changes. First parents have to turn down the pressure cooker and let kids just be kids. Stop signing them up for every activity in the world to keep them busy after school, or because everyone else is, or because “she really, really begged me to let her,” or because if you don’t she might not get a college scholarship, and you sure could use that! Make them put down the phone or computer once in a while- it’s not true that because we have technology it’s a good idea for your kids to use it 24/7. Stop encouraging them to do stuff because “it looks good on the college resume.” In fact, stop talking about college altogether. Trust me, they’ll go, and they’ll be fine, or they won’t go, and they’ll be fine, or maybe, somehow, they won’t be fine at all, and that sucks but it’s not something you can prevent. Trust me, I know.
Second, somehow the goal of keeping children safe in the world turned into keeping children in a bubble in the world. The bad thing about this is that you are kept soft, like a crab without its shell, and so when something hurts, you have no armor. We can’t make a world where there is no cruelty- unfortunately, some people are just idiots. But when you “survive” the humiliation of having kids make fun of your name, or your clothes, or your failures at an early age, eventually you notice that the world did not end. It’s kind of a cliche, but our parents and teachers really let us experience the world with very little intervention. If our teacher yelled at us, we never told anyone, and eventually learned that some teachers were nuts, and we kept out of their way. If we forgot our homework at home, no one brought it, and we certainly did not copy our friends. We took the detention, and tried to remember next time. When we didn’t have money to go somewhere, we didn’t go. When a kid pushed us around, we either pushed back, or kept out of their way. Our parents kept their eye on us, but let us go. And we got hurt, we misbehaved, some of us broke the law, some of us had, indeed, low self esteem. And the world didn’t end. Without realizing it, we were developing the kind of shell we would need when we left home. And thank goodness, because things got harder!
Young people should rebel more. And rebellion is hard because there are consequences. If you tell your parents you’re not going to do something you don’t want to do, it’s true they will be mad and might ground you, but I promise they won’t “kill you.” If you decide to take lower level courses because you would rather have more time to hang with friends, or read books or sit around and stare at the wall contemplating the meaning of life, I promise you will still get into college- though maybe not Harvard. Take the SAT’s just once and live with your grade; apply to four or five colleges, and then be done. You should just ask your girlfriend to the prom with your words, in a quiet place, without a prop- just you. You should skip school in the spring on the first nice day, and take the loss of points on your GPA (maybe the school should just freaking lighten up on this skipping school punishment but that is a story for another day.) You should go out at night, and do silly things like make snowmen at midnight in a neighbor’s yard, or go pool hopping in the summer, or take the train to Boston just because. Forget trying to please teachers who tell you that their subject is the meaning of life- be true to your childhood, and play- they already had theirs, now it’s time for yours. I promise that getting into a “good” school offers little advantage just because of name, and certainly not any advantage worth your childhood- I promise that your own drive and motivation is what will make your education special. When you are old and gray you are not going to wish you had gone to a better college.
I started this post talking about my son’s mental illness, and segued into a speech about how giving kids back their independence and childhood will make you healthier- mentally and physically. I was unlucky, because my son had a serious mental illness that I didn’t cause, and he didn’t cause and society didn’t cause. It just came, out of no where, like a sly darkness. But most of you are not in that place. There are these two kinds of mental illnesses- the one kind is a tragedy and no matter what part you get in that play, it is hard to make it come out well; but the one I think most of you are experiencing is more culturally spread, and I believe you can do things to lighten your load. It has to be done early, as we can see by the recent suicide of such a young child, and it has to be done often. Your childhood is not about preparing for college, it’s about preparing for life.”