West Stockbridge — Teen depression, anxiety and suicide rates are at an all-time high. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth and young adults aged 15 to 24 years old. Why is this?
Is it our fault for not fighting harder against the temptation to let our kids of all ages spend hours a day on their computer, iPad, or iPhone, so we can spend more time on ours?
We’re all on our own in front of a screen as we scroll through Instagram and Facebook and binge watch Netflix for hours and hours. Is it the isolation that is causing anxiety and depression in epidemic proportions, especially amongst our young people?
Are we all spending so much time online we don’t even realize we’re starving for sunlight, touch, laughter, fun, connection, friendship?
Are songs and TV shows romanticizing suicide? Is social media killing our kids? Is it killing us all?
How often do we get together in person when we’ve something important to say when it’s so much easier to express ourselves via text or email? It certainly saves us time. What does it cost us?
Is depression a disease that some people just get – like the flu? Is anxiety something we inherit from anxious ancestors? Is this anxiety we all feel – this new anxiety – the result of modern overload? Does it result from the relentless barrage of bad news – all terrible – that comes to us through the same channels through which we connect to our loved ones?
These days I’m a writer and comedian, amongst other things, and while I’m fortunate enough to have a cheerful optimistic nature, I know what despair feels like.
I’m also old enough to know that if we choose to live fully, unblinkered, despair is inevitable from time to time. Unless we choose to anesthetize ourselves with drugs or Jack Daniels, etc., which is always an option. Although as they can lead to even thornier problems I’m not sure they’re terribly helpful in the long run.
Like many adopted people, the despair I feel from time to time is triggered by loss, rejection or abandonment of some kind. Like most other comedy writers, indeed artists of all kinds, I’m sensitive to – well, everything. It’s part of the deal.
I know for example that if it doesn’t hurt to write, it probably isn’t going to be funny. I’m at risk for a crash after writing a book or performing a big show. And I dread November, when the days are so very short and the prospect of a long hard Berkshire winter lies ahead.
But I’m old enough to have figured out ways to ward off what Winston Churchill called the Black Dog. Exercise, diet, connection with friends, music, sex, a trip somewhere different, finding ways to help someone else, a sense of purpose. I’m also old enough to know that joy will follow despair as surely as Spring will follow Winter if I can just hang in.
The teenage brain doesn’t know this yet. It isn’t as developed as it will be. The teenager in despair doesn’t know that things will get better. They don’t yet know that telling someone – reaching out to someone – can have a magical, healing effect. Even save their lives.
What do you do when you find out that a teenage friend tried to kill themselves, or worse, succeeded? Apart, that is, from wanting to hug them tight and shout something like this:
“Yes, what you feel is terrible and you’re right, there are terrible things happening all over the world and yes, right now you are in deep despair. I’ve been there. I know how you feel. But please hang in. Just hang in! I promise you that for every toxic happening there are many more good things happening every minute of every day. You have so much joy ahead of you! So many experiences that you’ll miss if you kill yourself! Like falling in love and changing the world and having kids and creating a life you love. All that is right around the corner from where you are now if you can just hang in. Hold my hand, breathe and hang in.”
But shouting at a teenager in a British accent is never a good idea, especially if you don’t know them.
I finally had an opportunity to do something when someone handed me bestselling British author Andrew Norriss’s book “Friends for Life” with a view to narrating and producing it as an audiobook. It’s about a young teenager who is being bullied at school when he meets a girl who only he can see. It’s a ghost story and deals with serious issues in a compelling story with a light, humorous tone. It was endorsed by Amnesty International as “the perfect book to open up discussion around mental health in the young.” It made me laugh and cry and after I finished recording the audiobook, I invited three Berkshire teenagers into the studio to talk with me honestly about their response to the story. The interview is included at the end of the audiobook. Here are a few excerpts from that conversation.
MIRANDA HASTINGS: “I think some people can acknowledge depression and talk about it. But for some people, they don’t even know what’s going on. And they’re having all these symptoms, but they don’t know what it’s from, and they feel like no one else is feeling like they are. But once someone starts the conversation, then so many other people are like, Oh, I have that experience, too. So I think it’s a lot more common than people think it is.”
JORDAN TAYLOR: “I don’t know a lot about suicide. I haven’t talked with many people about it. And I was just amazed by how I was able to empathize with a group of people that I hadn’t understood before.”
ELIZA KEENAN: “I liked that, essentially, it was a story about how the friendship between all these young people who were feeling lost and lonely and confused about their feelings, blossomed from that shared experience. I liked how Andrew Norriss wove it together, just through the fun that they were having together and what it was like to discover new friends. And they didn’t even realize at first that they had that experience in common. But in the end, it became their friendship that was worth living for. And that won out over the other feelings and thoughts that they were having.”
ALISON LARKIN: “I’m somebody who likes to fix things and help people by making suggestions about what they can do to feel better. But I learned a deep lesson from narrating this audiobook. Sometimes it’s much better to just shut up and listen.”
“Friends for Life” can be downloaded directly from www.alisonlarkinpresents.com OR for FREE with a one month trial subscription to Audible by clicking this link: https://www.audible.com/pd/B07X5MSKCQ/
Jordan Taylor’s blog on the experience can be found here.