‘Epidemic of premature deaths’ needs our attention. Now.

These are adolescents and teens, feeling pressured beyond unnoticed breakpoints.

The irony is, collectively, these young people who are committing suicide to escape pressures to perform mostly grew up shielded from failure. Some blame parents, plenty blame school systems, and many blame social media.

It’s probably a combination of all the above, but while causes are being figured out, it’s a time of triage. Families need help from experts on how, even, to be a healthy family.

Dr. Aaron Kheriaty is one of those experts. He has written and spoken a lot about these issues with the depth of expertise on depression and mental suffering, and compassionate care for human flourishing and help to conquer despair and find happiness. Because social factors seem so out of control and dysfunction is taking such a toll on young people and everyone whose lives they somehow touch – which, cumulatively, is all of us –  I asked him to be my guest on radio again and devoted the show hour to Dying of Despair.

That was weeks ago. It has turned into a series, and each week when Dr. Kheriaty is on the air again talking about these issues, callers light up the phones and ask questions, share experiences, seek help and hope, offer gratitude for the open discussion of what seemed taboo. It’s a powerful experience hearing people from California to New Jersey and many states from West to Midwest to East Coast join the conversation, even anonymously, engaging the conversation.

The recent ones are here, here, and here.

Between the last two, just after discussing these issues on radio, we learned that a teen in Dr. Kheriaty’s community had taken his life out of desperation over what he felt was unbearable pressure in school, or so he conveyed in letters he left. We were careful to talk about what needed to be shared, avoiding what didn’t.

A listener wrote this afterward:

Suicide needs to come out of the closet and spoken of. We need to take the story of the young man last week and talk to our kids openly. Not just about the act of suicide, but what it does to those that are left behind. Kids are so savvy, and when it happened twice (one student, one adult) within weeks at our local high school a few years back, teens felt like they could not express their fears or outrage. They expressed feeling shut down by the school to express how they felt…

 

My point is that if we don’t start speaking of it in the light, our kids will… in the private online chatrooms, snapchat, or Instagram. 1989 is long behind us, and we are in a rapidly moving scary age. As parents, we need to step up to the plate and talk to our kids! The high school kid was sandwiched between two other young (middle school) suicides in the same county. Perhaps the CDC can study the effects of not allowing children to fall, or feel any disappointment. For when disappointment of not good enough rears itself in their head, they see only one way out, because no one taught them that “this too shall pass”. It is truly an epidemic…

 

This is NOT our high school years. This is a whole other game of pressure and lack of connection to one another in our schools… Catholic, private, or public. #peacebewithyou

The principal of the teen’s school sent students and families a letter that quickly got published in local media and social media, because he wanted to generate awareness and cause change.

We ache…yet there remains valid, heartfelt concern for this tragic incident…A lot to ponder, and many conversations and changes ahead but how did we get here?

 

Our teachers and District have simply created and maintained a system that our community/country has demanded from us over the past 20 years since college admissions mania went into hyper drive, since vocational training programs were dismantled, and since earning “A’s” in AP classes became the norm.

 

Our teachers feel the pressure, administration and counseling feel the pressure, and now parents/students are really feeling the pressures. When we grew up nobody asked us what our GPA was, and it was “cool” to work on the roof of a house. This competitive culture has significantly impacted our young adults. We endlessly discuss test scores, National Merit Scholarships, reading scores, AP scholars, comparisons to other school Districts and this is when we start losing our collective souls–and our children.

 

We often shield our students from failure. We think that earning a “C” grade in a class is a the end of the world, and we don’t allow our students to advocate for themselves. We have also devalued a military career, a plumbing or welding job, and we are a little embarrassed if our children wish to attend vocational training schools instead of a major university…

 

We say hooray for those students who enter the armed forces, who want to work with their hands, who don’t want to be weighed down with the burden of being perfect in high school, and who earn a “C” in a tough class and are proud of themselves.

 

ALL of us as a community have to get to this point if we want to avoid our students feeling shamed, isolated, or worthless…

 

We must reach the point where, if our sons and daughters don’t live a perfect young adult experience, it is not the end of the world…it is simply an opportunity to lift the sails and head in another direction.

 

I sound like a broken record. If this offends anyone I am sorry.

 

We need to start now.

 

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Let Robin Williams memorials bring relief from suffering

How fitting a legacy that would be for a genius at comic relief.

This is the third time in recent weeks that I’ve been startled by a confrontation with depression, mental illness, or emotional distress that wrought  havoc or brought death before such suffering could be successfully treated. And those were only three high profile cases that are emblematic of countless others, especially people on the margins of society with no one particularly paying attention to them.

With no other thread than that, here are my encounters, and each one had impact.

The July 7th issue of ESPN magazine featured an article titled ‘The Pursuit of Radical Acceptance.’ It was about Chicago Bears’ Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall, and his struggle with ‘borderline personality disorder’, a mental health condition so little understood or talked about that Marshall made it his mission to “make an off-limits subject commonplace.”

He’s reaching out to players who might need help, teaming with mental health organizations through his charity and raising awareness and cash for early-detection programs.

“Where we are now is where the HIV community was 25 years ago,” he says. “We can raise all the money in the world, but people might not go get help. They’re still going to see it as a taboo topic. So it’s important for us to get the conversation started.”

Mental health issues can’t be taboo. They still are though, which is why so much of the population, including high profile celebrities, suffer in silence or within a small circle of closest family and friends. This must change.

Over the years, I recall several cases of prominent professionals whose grown children had ended their own lives, and couldn’t imagine the dreadful horror of such an experience nor how one could live through it. Once you’re a parent, you just know that’s the worse thing that could happen. And it happens to anyone, even the unlikeliest of people and families.

Like beloved Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, American’s Pastor as many people see him, who couldn’t save the life of his own son. I encountered that story again over the weekend in a poignant interview with Raymond Arroyo in ‘The World Over’ on the EWTN network. It covered Pastor Warren’s initiative, ‘A Gathering On Mental Health and the Church’, and the tragic event that inspired him to focus on the issue of mental health, the death of his own son. It’s heart wrenching beyond words to see these parents go out publicly trying to save others from such unspeakable tragedy.

But the hope of saving them is greater if they can be reached, and going back to Brandon Marshall’s point of his mission, mental health is still a taboo subject, so people won’t talk about it the way they will about any range of other health issues for which there’s a support community and charitable organizations championing the cause. Again, that must change.

Now, for the third time in as many weeks, the tragedy of mental despair unresolved and maybe largely unaddressed has hit us all, like a sucker punch that knocked the wind out of everyone. New media preempted coverage of the crisis in Iraq, the Israel-Hamas war, the brink of war between Russia and Ukraine, and other major breaking and developing news stories, for blanket coverage of the suicide of Robin Williams. How terribly tragic.

The articles and television videos and remembrances are so vast, let them celebrate this one man’s life and life’s work that elevated the hearts and minds and spirits of countless people while his own were sinking into darkness. Here are only a couple I’d like to point out.

Friend Elizabeth Scalia posted this on the ‘Murderous Mendacity of Depression.”

Depression is a hissing false witness. It lies and tells someone there is no hope; it lies and declares, “you’re a fraud”; it lies when it warns you to hide your feelings, because people won’t love you if they know how terrified and alone and desperate you feel; it lies and sneers that you’re weak — that you can just snap out of it, anytime, if you really want to; it croons the lie that love is not real, and hope is for suckers; it whispers the most insidious of lies: that your pain will never ebb, cannot be transcended, and has no value at all.

After a while, the pain begins to feel like all you are and all there is: a worthless, pointless void. And when your life becomes just pain-without-end, suffering-without-meaning, tomorrow seems like less a promise than a prison.

When depression wins, it is such a damned tragedy, no matter whether it has carried off a big rich somebody, or an ordinary nobody, because it is the victory of an incessant liar.

Biblically, that refers to ‘the Accuser, who stands night and day accusing incessantly until you hear and start believing that voice, which is the voice of a liar. Who doesn’t hear that voice? But who has moral and mental and spiritual support behind them and who doesn’t? That’s so key to making this a subject and condition to talk about in the mainstream public discussion of health.

My friend Kathryn Lopez posted this poignant piece on her blog, refreshingly innocent and yet deeply knowing about the human condition.

What if every person of faith who ever laughed at a Robin Williams joke, prayed for him? And every day it happened? Could this be a new way for us to live?

On Sunday night I turned on Dead Poets Society, the 1989 movie where Robin Williams, teaching his students poetry, famously encourages them to give a nod to Walt Whitman and go ahead and address him as “O Captain, my Captain.”

I remember watching Dead Poets Society when it first came out and being so taken with the pain of a young man who lost all hope.

Young men, we pray, grow up to be men. And even then … the burdens of pain may grow, despite success.

God help them, God heal them from the pain of what they believe about themselves.

We see talent, they can’t see past fear.

Sunday night, I had turned on the TV to see if anyone was doing anything different given the Christian extermination — and then-some — in Iraq. Not really. So after a quick journey into the center of the Teen Choice Awards, I stopped inside a classroom with Robin Williams, a movie I hadn’t seen in years. The daughter of teachers -– and a schoolgirl who quite liked being a student — I remembered how grateful I was a teacher was portrayed in a good light.

I didn’t watch much of Dead Poets Society Sunday night but I felt prompted to pray for Robin Williams Sunday night. Perhaps simply in thanksgiving. Perhaps because we are — all the baptized — are the body of Christ, and I was called to hear a cry for help from a brother.

Perhaps because he needed prayers and God wanted me receptive to this, interceding for his pain. God looks out for His Creation and relies on His adopted sons and daughters to do the work of His graces, living sacramental lives as the Body of Christ.

I only prayed briefly for him.

What a world it might be if, every time someone made us laugh or otherwise entertained or informed us, we prayed for him? What if we always prayed in thanksgiving and with the knowledge that we don’t know what lies beneath? Anyone who followed Williams’ career knew he had his struggles. We often don’t know. But it’s so often there — no matter how clever or talented. We’re only human.

We must pray. And be alert — looking and listening for opportunities and promptings. Our lives must be ones of prayer and we must set aside time and plead with God on behalf of those who suffer most. In front of us and a world away.

To say “we must pray” is so counter-cultural, and yet Kathryn Lopez is an editor-at-large of a national secular news organization out of DC and New York who regularly blends the secular and the sacred, faith and life, God and man, applying eternal truths to cultural relativism. She does it so well.

One of the Patheos bloggers posted an interesting piece on the saints who suffered from depression.

With this topic very much in the news today, it seems a good time to remember that even the holiest of people have suffered from periods of despair.

It’s a comfort of sorts, a relief for those willing to engage it, and a resource for hope.

Pray if you will or don’t if you won’t. Kathryn Lopez and Deadon Kandra  just make a suggestion and a very good one for those who see the merit and the power of prayer. God only knows what a difference it may have made for Robin Williams.

And all the other individuals out there whose names we don’t know who are suffering as he did. God willing, it may save their lives.