The kids are not all right

ImageI had an interesting discussion in my English 11 class today.  I was introducing an essay from The Economist titled “The U-Bend of Life.” The essay is essentially an expository piece dealing with research in the social sciences (economics and psychology, in this case) indicating that, on average, happiness levels increase as one ages, but only after passing the mid-forties.  To introduce the concept of happiness in various age demographics, I drew a simple chart on the overhead projector with these categories:

(1) Adolescents (age 12-19)
(2) Young Adults (20-35)
(3) Middle Aged (36-49)
(4) Distinguished (50-69)
(5) Venerable (70 and beyond)

These are my own broad categories and they are hardly scientific.  Yet the accuracy of the categories isn’t the point; my students’ perceptions of the categories is what matters.  Having explained each category, I asked my students to write down which of these five groups of people is, on average, happiest, and why, based solely on their own opinions and perceptions.

After I briefly clarified the important concept of averages (i.e., each category may well contain outliers–people who are horribly unhappy or deliriously ecstatic, but what is the overall average level of happiness?), they wrote their ideas, and shared them.  I’ve done this with each of my English 11 classes over the past three years (since the publication of the essay in question) and yet the results still surprise me.

My students unanimously insisted that some age group other than their own (most of them picked Middle Aged or, interestingly, Distinguished) is happiest.  I couldn’t resist.  At one point I practically yelled out, “But what about adolescents? Teenagers, like yourself? Surely teenagers are the happiest group, aren’t they? You’re so carefree! You have your whole life ahead of you!” You should have heard their response; a collective snort (for lack of a better term) of disdain. One by one, they told me that no, people in their age group aren’t incredibly happy.  The word that kept coming up was “pressure”.  Pressure to fit in, pressure to succeed, pressure to impress, pressure to achieve.

My English 11 class is hardly a representative sample, yet their response echoes a much broader social trend.  According to a fascinating documentary on W5, rates of stress, depression, anxiety, and suicide are rising all across Canadian college and university campuses. Mental health issues are at the front lines of education as never before.

Stress, depression, anxiety, and suicide are all related, yet distinct issues; each is a separate topic.  Yet my own understanding of the issues comes largely through the lens of clinical depression.  I’ve decided to begin a video series on the topic titled Alone in the Dark; the first video is embedded here.  Called “Semantics”, its purpose is to unravel the complexity and ambiguity of the term “depression.”

This weekend I’m planning to do two more videos in the series.  At some point I’d also like to address the topics of stress, anxiety, and suicide.  Because the greatest enemy faced by young people today is not mental illness, but the stigma, shame, and conspiracy of silence that so often surrounds mental illness and defines our understanding of it.  But addressing the issue begins the conversation.  The discussion must start in our schools, in our homes, in our churches, in our governments.  As the great Jewish philosopher Hillel the Elder so famously stated, “If not now, when?”