Understanding the suffering of young people | psychology today

I’ve been collecting mental health statistics for a project I’m working on called ‘Youth Disorders’. Among the most alarming are those from studies conducted before the pandemic:

  • National data from 2019 shows prevalence rates of a major depressive episode in the past year at 10.5% among 12-13 year olds, 16.4% among 14-15 year olds and 20.1% among 16-17 year olds.1
  • According to data from the National Child Health Survey, 10.5% of young people aged 12 to 17 had a current diagnosis of anxiety in 2016.2
  • “In 2019, around one in five young people (18.8%) [grades 9-12] had seriously considered attempting suicide, one in six (15.7%) had made a suicide plan, one in 11 (8.9%) had attempted it and one in 40 (2.5%) had a suicide attempt requiring medical treatment.3

Since problems like these are hard to define, they are hard to count. But at least roughly, the numbers bear witness to the widespread pain and struggles of young people. They suggest that something is seriously wrong, and I try to find answers by exploring the predicament high school and college kids find themselves caught in.

When we look at the numbers, we don’t come across the individuals themselves – the children who descended into depression, were overwhelmed with anxiety, or contemplated suicide. We encounter “givens”, instances of a general phenomenon.

There is a deep irony here. The numbers are meant not only to measure the magnitude of these problems, but also to spur us to action. Articles analyzing the datasets and presenting the numbers – mostly found in the medical and psychological literature – are usually explicit: we need to tackle these issues and get people the help they need. But this concern never goes beyond the most abstract and generalized formulation addressed to a nameless class of sick people, whose texture and uniqueness of life disappears. And the same goes for their pain, which cannot touch us or teach us anything about how we live now.

Mental health statistics can be valuable. But precisely because they are numbers, the suffering they quantify must be grouped into behavioral categories and the individual sufferers sorted accordingly – the depressed, the anxious, the “suicidal ideaters”. With few exceptions, each discrete type is then reported separately, in its own specialist research literature, and without necessary reference to another question. Thus named and categorized, suffering and suffering become readable, understandable and, at least in principle, manageable by institutional intervention and professional treatment. We “know” the problem.

This abstract way of “knowing” about problems came to me a few years ago at a one-day “Crisis on Campus” symposium sponsored by the American College Health Association. To address the “increasing mental health demands of our country’s students,” the event’s sessions brought together university presidents, policy experts, counseling center staff, and researchers analyzing trends in mental health assessment data. The sessions documented in numbers the “epidemic” of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, and the “exponential” growth in demand for student services. The presenters called, of course, for more data.

In contrast, a mid-day panel with students was billed as “We are the many faces of mental health.” In previous sessions, the moderators had indicated that during this lunch-debate, we would “hear the students”. I was looking forward to this session. From discussions and interviews with students over the years, I knew that young people had a lot to say about their world and the challenges they faced. In the morning session, the university officials who spoke were stunned by the problem and the dramatic expansion of their psychological services. And the afternoon would bring the research types, which would predictably come with statistics and familiar “wellness” ideas. I expected the students to shed a first-person light on what was wrong with them.

They did not do it. Although the two participating students apparently dealt with their own mental health issues, neither was asked about such an experience. Both were active in their campus chapter of Active Minds, a national group that promotes student mental health advocacy. Both spoke as para-professionals, answering questions from the moderator about various student outreach efforts, efforts to identify and place troubled students under administrative scrutiny (including by other students) and, as needed, liaising with campus professionals and their bureaucratic structure for attention and concern.

Student panelists highlighted their goal of getting students to speak up. While commendable, I couldn’t help but feel that such efforts often end up being an exercise in not listening. Having students share their struggles in a form of framing can be a subtle way of giving them an identity as victims of a particular type, understandable subjects for institutional purposes. We listen but in order to hear the speaker’s ‘problem’ or ‘condition’ which, when exposed and named, can be circumscribed by an official ‘understanding’. The speaker’s unique stories or perspectives disappear, as they did in this panel. Not hearing, we remain isolated from their pain and deaf to its sources in the real challenges that our institutions help to create. The “problem” is tackled, but the students remain unknown.

Listening to young people and their stories of struggle forces us to resist defining them. The meaning of their suffering is not in medical or institutional categories of things but in their irreducible experience. We, their parents, friends or supporters, must witness and make space for this experience and allow it to speak to us about the worlds in which they live.


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