- Even before COVID hit, there was an epidemic of mental illness in children and adolescents, and the pandemic simply amplified the scale of our children’s unhappiness. Tweet This
- Too many of us treat teenagers as if they can handle more than they actually can, and we project onto young people adult-like responsibilities, capabilities, and ambitions. Tweet This
- As adults in authority positions—parents, teachers, coaches, or mentors—we are partly responsible for the deteriorating state of adolescent mental health, argues Dr. Komisar. Tweet This
Many of us have seen the tragic news story about Lauren Bernett, the high-achieving James Madison University sophomore softball player who committed suicide in April. Unfortunately, adolescent suicide is on the rise, and Lauren is just one of too many victims.
Newly-released statistics on suicide rates reveal a rise in adolescent suicide from 2020 to 2022. This significant rise is evidence of the neurological and emotional fragility of adolescents, which has never been more obvious than during the pandemic. The increase in the despair and anger of teens—as reflected in rising suicide rates—are an example of the collective trauma we have all experienced. And yet this mental health crises, which existed before COVID, is also a communication to us as parents, teachers, and other authority figures that we are failing our children by not preparing them for adversity in their lives and by our handling of the pandemic in terms of the imposed social isolation and myriad of losses they experienced. Our children are the barometers of how we are doing as a society—much like a Faustian painting—and the unhappiness is off the charts.
Even before COVID hit, there was an epidemic of mental illness in children and adolescents, and the pandemic simply amplified the scale of our children’s unhappiness with us as parents and society. Don’t get me wrong: this is not about shaming or blaming. There are many parents who have tried everything to relieve the suffering of their children, and the result is still a sad one. However, in the majority of the families I treat, suicidal threats are a way for children to wake up their parents and adults in their lives to their unhappiness and to make necessary changes in the family and in their lives, such as addressing past and present family traumas, getting mental health treatment, and resolving social and academic pressures.
On an unconscious level, suicide is homicide, meaning that adolescents often attempt, threaten, or commit suicide as a result of rage towards parents or other authority figures who have let them down or failed to see or address their unhappiness. Sometimes, the rage is toward their peers for cruelty or rejection, and yet the unconscious feeling is still anger toward parents for not protecting them. That does not mean that suicide is always easy to spot, but there are precursors to the act of suicide, and it is our responsibility as parents, educators, and authority figures to inform ourselves enough to spot the signs so we can intervene as early as possible. We have to take a good look at the academic pressure we are placing on children, along with the lack of oversight we are administering over social media content and usage. Most importantly, we must take responsibility for the fact that too many of us today are not as present physically and emotionally due to our work responsibilities and ambitions.
The rise in adolescent suicide is a sign that society is suffering from an illness that is greater than a pandemic, and we are at a tipping point.
Adolescents have always been susceptible to suicidal thoughts and actions due to a variety of neurological, emotional, and developmental challenges. The right brain, or prefrontal cortex. along with the limbic system, is the emotional regulating part of the brain and is not fully developed until age 25. It does everything from controlling impulses, to giving perspective, creating order and assisting in executive functioning, and regulating stress responses. When young people between the ages of 9 and 25 feel sad, angry, frustrated, or excited, they struggle to regulate their emotions and keep these responses from going too high or too low. This makes rejections, criticism, disappointments, and adversities of any kind difficult to manage.
Adolescents also rely heavily on their friends to help them gain perspective and to act as sources of support through the rough waters of separating and individuating from their parents. In many ways, by isolating our kids from in-person contant with their friends during the pandemic, we did them a great disservice, because they were denied the support they needed to help them to cope with the increasing stress of COVID. This, too, is something we as adults have to take responsibility for and learn from.
A lack of in-person interacton has led lonely and isolated teens to turn to social media for virtual interaction. Research from the University of Pennsylvania found that during the first wave of the pandemic, social media engagement increased by 61 percent. Though teens turned to social media to feel less lonely, the irony is that social media use has been found to increase feelings of lonliness and depression. It is important for parents to talk to their kids about the lack of realistic images on social media and how easy it is to make unhealthy social comparisons based on a small snapshot of another person’s life. Parents can also continue to encourage teens to limit their time on social media so that it does not become all-consuming.
As adults in authority positions, parents, teachers, coaches, or mentors, we are partly responsible for the deteriorating state of adolescent mental health. Too many of us treat teenagers as if they can handle more than they actually can, and we project onto young people adult-like responsibilities, capabilities, and ambitions. We ask them to work as hard, if not harder, than we do and to think about and focus on the future before they are actually ready or capable. We set our sights too high, and when they fail to meet the expectations parents or schools set, they fall short of meeting those expectations in their binary world of good and bad, right and wrong, and success and failure. The bottom drops out, and their inability to see the world with nuance and gray forces them into the corner of feeling continuously miserable or leaving abruptly.
Our role in this teen suicide crisis should make us pause and think about the environment of adult-like expectations, achievements, and responsibilities we are creating for our kids before they are developmentally ready to handle it. In addition, our handling of the pandemic when it comes to adolescents should make us reflect on how pandemic measures may have done more harm than good to our teens, given that more teens have died of suicide since the pandemic started than from COVID. And if we are going to encounter future pandemics, we need to learn from how we handled this one so we do not once again force isolation upon young people. The rise in adolescent suicide is a sign that society is suffering from an illness that is greater than a pandemic, and we are at a tipping point. Will we listen to our kids or ignore their pain?
Erica Komisar, LCSW is a psychoanalyst, parent guidance expert and author of Chicken Little The Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.