Saturday, November 7, 2009

When Life Is Fragile, Throw an Anchor

"Faith is an anchor in a raging sea, calm in the midst of chaos, vision to know right from wrong, and the courage to express it." I wish I knew the author of these words so I could give credit where credit is due, but whoever did say them said a mouthful.

This morning I read a profoundly disturbing article about a suicide cluster in a city near my home. Apparently, four teens have taken their own lives in the past six months by stepping in front of a commuter train; a fifth was narrowly saved. Parents at the school are understandably terrified by this recent trend, and there is much conjecture about the possible causes.

"Adolescence is a period of great transition," says Dr. Madelyn Gould, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University who has written extensively on suicide clusters. "Peers become more important than parents. Imitating behavior is a big part of adolescence."

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among U.S. teenagers. Global suicide rates have jumped by 60 percent over the last 45 years. Correspondingly, so have the numbers of suicide clusters, Gould says.

"We don't know why we're seeing suicide rates so far beyond those of the '50s and '60s," says Gould. "There are theories, but we're not sure."

I'm not sure why we're seeing suicide rates so far beyond those of the '50s and 60s either, but I do have a few ideas.

In 1988, over 20 years ago, President Ezra Taft Benson said this: “If we continue with present trends, we can expect to have more emotionally disturbed young people, more divorce, more depression, and more suicide."

Four years later, in 1992, President Gordon B. Hinckley gave a conference talk wherein he quoted a speech by then Senator Dan Coats of Indiana about a study made by “a commission of educational, political, medical and business leaders” in relation to the problems of youth in the United States. A report called Code Blue, issued by the committee, concluded as follows: “Never before has one generation of American teenagers been less healthy, less cared for, or less prepared for life than their parents were at the same age.”

The Senator's own comment on the report was this: “I have seen the parade of pathologies—they are unending and increasing. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among adolescents, increasing 300 percent since 1950. Teen pregnancy has risen 621 percent since 1940. More than a million teenage girls get pregnant each year. Eighty-five percent of teenage boys who impregnate teenage girls eventually abandon them. The teen homicide rate has increased 232 percent since 1950. Homicide is now the leading cause of death among fifteen- to nineteen-year-old minority youth. …Every year substance abuse claims younger victims with harder drugs. A third of high school seniors get drunk once a week. The average age for first-time drug use is now thirteen years old.” (And remember, these statistics are from 1992. Today, as we approach 2010, I suspect that several percentages may have worsened substantially.)

The Code Blue report reached a telling conclusion. It stated: “The challenges to the health and well-being of America’s youth are not primarily rooted in illness or economics. Unlike the past, the problem is not childhood disease or unsanitary slums. The most basic cause of suffering … is profoundly self-destructive behavior. Drinking. Drugs. Violence. Promiscuity. A crisis of behavior and belief. A crisis of character.” (Imprimis, Sept. 1991, p. 1.)

President Hinckley went on to draw these conclusions about the Code Blue report cited in his talk: "...No one can blink at the fact that in this land, and in other lands across the world, there is an epidemic affecting the lives of millions of youth. It is a sickness that comes of a loss of values, of an abandonment of moral absolutes. The virus which has infected them comes of leaderless families, leaderless schools, leaderless communities. It comes of an attitude that says, 'We will not teach moral values. We will leave the determination of such to the individual.' Parents, in all too many cases, have abdicated their responsibility to 'train up a child in the way he should go' so that 'when he is old, he will not depart from it' (Prov. 22:6). Educators in all too many cases have adopted an attitude of moral neutrality. Many public officers have abandoned any reverent use of the name of God in public meetings, thereby closing the door to Deity when it is plainly evident there is a need for wisdom beyond their own. If we deny the one sure source of moral truth, then from whence will it come?"

Gordon B. Hinckley asked a good question back in 1992, and it's still a good question today.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not suggesting that all suicide is a result of the lack of moral compass in today's society. I know that clinical depression exists and that it is a killer that takes no prisoners. I also know that religious and spiritual people are not exempt from suicide or its effects. Sadly, no one is exempt, regardless of upbringing, religious affiliation, or spiritual inclination. Sometimes, in the moment, a person is just too ill to be influenced by anything but that illness.

Having said that, I am convinced that not only does belief in something greater than oneself give a suicidal person more impetus to fight that impulse when it comes, but that spirituality and religion––the existence in each soul of a core belief that there is a divine plan and meaning for his or her life––makes a person generally more resilient in the face of depression and specifically more resilient in combatting the urge to commit an act (suicide) that actively violates his or her belief system.

One last point. I think that a number of teens today have been short-changed. They have been over-indulged, over-scheduled, over-protected from natural consequences, over-complimented for false "accomplishments," (yet overlooked for meaningful ones), and they are overwhelmed by the emptiness of it all. This is particularly true in families where parents are so busy focusing on making money and promoting careers that parenting takes a back seat and love is expressed in superficial, sometimes guilt-based offerings that fail to satisfy. However, this short-changing of children can happen in any home where a mother or father has faulty information about how to nurture a child's good feeling about himself. Over-indulgence, for example, creates children with unrealistic expectations of life and relationships. They think that the world owes them a living (it doesn't) and that others will pet and pamper them as their parents have (they won't). Their subsequent disappointment (coupled with lack of understanding of their predicament and its roots) predisposes them to depression. Over-complimenting children for shallow achievements compromises motivation and deprives that child of the lasting, reality-based positive self-regard that is intrinsically derived from striving hard to act upon the world in ways that matter and reaping meaningful success, the kind that builds character. While self-esteem that is founded upon real growth brings joy; unsupported, pseudo-self-esteem puts a child at risk for depression. Over-scheduling exposes a child to unnecessary stress and sets in motion a pattern of too much adrenaline-driven behavior and not enough calm, centering stillness. This "running faster than you have strength" syndrome provides another predisposition to depression. Over-protecting children from natural consequences blocks them from learning how to confront, change, and take responsibility for their own behavior. Effective coping skills are not learned by those whose parents shield them from every unpleasant result. Identity development suffers as unhealthy dependence is fostered, another marker for depression.

Finally and perhaps most important of all, children need to feel safe in the world, and what makes them feel safe is having parents who set and enforce limits. Being an effective parent must include setting limits that can make you unpopular, and fear of being unpopular with one's children is considerably less of a deterrent to good parenting when the parent-child relationship has deep wells, filled with the kind of ready reserves that can only be accumulated by shared experience, by countless hours spent together, and by frequent and sustained interactions...all of which create bonds that don't fail and trust that doesn't falter. Setting limits also requires having your own moral center upon which to base them. I once attended a group session where parents of youth with addictions were told the importance of placing firm limits upon their children and either applying consequences for overstepping those limits or allowing natural consequences to take effect. It was also suggested that the young people be taught basic standards of morality to give them some guidance in their lives. All of the couples seemed to think this counsel made great sense, but I was shocked when one of the parents raised her hand and asked, "What are some standards you could suggest?" Suddenly everyone in the group was all ears. They literally did not have ingrained standards of their own at the ready to offer their children.

Case in point. The 1992 Code Blue report was right. We were and are experiencing "a crisis of behavior and belief." Doing something about that won't stop mental illness, and it won't stop suicide either. But it might save a few. Maybe more than a few.

And wouldn't even one life saved would be worth it?

"Whoever saves one life saves the world entire" (Oscar Schindler).


Anonymous said...

Oh, Sue...I see it, too. What an emotional topic! If only we'd known then what we know now!

jen said...

This post and your post earlier this week were truly great. Timely advice, some that the mainstream will think doesn't apply to them.
So, what are we to do, those of us that are trying to rear our children in righteousness? How can we have a greater effect on the world entire?

Sue said...

I guess that's a whole other post, Jen. But maybe it begins with speaking out, in love, even when it isn't politically correct or culturally popular.

And maybe the best statement of all will be our children and their examples.

Michelle said...

wow. What a sobering post. I am seeing depression and despair everywhere and I agree with the reasons you've outlined.

KC Mom said...

I'm so saddened by what those teens in your area are doing.
We recently had a young man in our stake commit suicide. So sad.
You are right about questioning when we will turn to changing our morals.
I say anchors away...

Sue said...

It's truly heartbreaking.

The suicide in your stake is just one tragic example of the fact that LDS (and other religious/spiritual) people are not excluded from the risk of suicide, but I do believe that a person with a strong sense of self and an ingrained belief system has a little more to fight the battle with than those who are struggling without those anchors.

karen said...

I think we all need to become leaders in our communities. For some (like me) it's hard to speak out, to be vocal in support of good. But we must. We simply have to find our voices and be heard in order to help save as many of our brothers and sisters as we can. Life is hard, but it's easier when we feel a lifeline out there.

karen said...

Thank you Sue for your thoughtful and kind comments this morning. You're always such a comfort! Baby is doing better today and out of the oxygen bubble.

Karen said...

Beautifully said, I wonder sometimes how to better prepare my children for their futures - Thanks for the reminder of limits and consequences.

Is it any wonder we are greatful to be led by a living prophet? How timely the advice is, all we need to do is heed the warning and follow the prophet!


Rick Machado said...

This article is typical of the well-intentioned but badly misinformed. Why Sue, the well-intentioned would quote someone as incompetent and as misinformed as Dan Coats, I have no idea.

First, few people use teen pregnancy rate (TPR), because they are so unreliable because of legalized abortion- we use the teen birth rate (TBR) instead. Only the ignorant would use the TPR to make a point.

Second, the TBR has fallen by roughly 22% since 1940- not increased by 621% as the Senator stated. It has risen and fallen during that time, but at most 30-40%. What the Senator failed to mention was that the TBR follows the ABR (adult birth rate ) lockstep, and has for 80 years.

Third, roughly 500K to 750K girls get pregnant each year, but again, it's impossible to know exactly. But it isn't over a million.

Fourth, the statement that 85% of teen boys who impregnant teen girls abandon them in incorrect. 80% of all males who impregnante teen girls are adult men, average age 21.5. 85% of ALL males abandon the teen mom, both adult and teen.

Fifth, although suicide is the the third leading cause of death it only accounts for 11% of total deaths. Auto accidents account for 40%, a far more telling statistic. Why aren't we abstaining from driving, and not from sex?

Last, the statement that these and other problems are rooted in self destructive behavior and the personal character flaws of the teens is a complete falsehood, as blatent a lie that can be told.

The TBR (and other "self-destructive" behaviors) is a function of adult behaviors and adult actions. The dynamics include poverty, sex abuse, violent households, and a host of other adult behaviors. Teens are pushed and forced into social corners, and pregnancy is one of the responses. it's an adult problem, and always has been.

Rick Machado
Public Speaker on Teen Pregnancy

Sue said...

Frankly, Rick, your rather strident rebuttal of the ex-Senator's stats (the accuracy of which can always be debated depending upon the paradigm of the organization collecting or presenting them) does not afford me much comfort on these or related matters.

The fact remains that too many of our young people today are in trouble, one way or another, and in my experience (no statistics involved), faith can be a mighty good anchor.

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