If you analyzed several long-term metrics about young people over the past century, you would be impressed.
A CDC report shows crimes committed by the 10-24 age bracket in the United States have decreased significantly since the 1990s. Teenage birth rates are at all time historic lows. Use of illicit drugs such as alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana and cocaine by teenagers has dropped steadily since 1980.
But more broadly, as Western societies have entered a post-industrial era from centuries of compound growth, one would think the young generations live a happy, meaningful life. Western societies enjoy incredible technology, modern medicines to increase life expectancy and higher standards of living than ever before.
Yet why have suicide rates in the U.S. for ages 15-24 gradually risen since 2000, outpacing practically every other age bracket? Why has the clinical depression rate in this country grown by 37 percent between 2005 and 2014 for those aged 13-17?
Between 2016 and 2017, more children and teenagers committed suicide in Japan than any year since 1986. Note that Japan is one of the world’s strongest economies by GDP and one of the wealthiest nations in the world.
What is happening? Shouldn’t developed nations have happier youth? Does development, high incomes and innovative technology not bring happiness and a positive sense of well-being?
The problem seems to lie deep within our human psychology and our relationship to our environment. I would envision social scientists, psychologists and even biologists have explored every angle of this unsettling realization.
But I think the problem is one of an almost existential nature. It stems from the human desire to make sense of their life and navigate it in a meaningful way.
The youth need purpose, structure, a sense of firm direction and duty. Some may see these terms as renditions of old-world values, perhaps, but old-world values have stood the test of time because they work.
“During my high school years, we had four students commit suicide,” University of Georgia student Ryan Thistleton said, who grew up in Alpharetta and attended Milton High School.
The suicides at Milton perplexed me, as Alpharetta is a very well-off community with low crime. More grimly, the suicides are a micro-example of a broad mental health plague that seems to be striking at the heart of our country.
No doubt every event of suicide is nuanced and sensitive, and should never be individually dissected to explain what’s going on.
But I believe these developed nations like our own are in a kind of “psychosis,” an existential conflict in the undertow of purpose and a hunger for true meaning.
In an age of Snapchat and Instagram, people post "perfect" versions of themselves, leading others to compare themselves to this ideal. This comparison may cause depression, low self-esteem and other detrimental mental health effects.
Our societies have grown increasingly complex. Technology and social media keep us in a digital hurricane of constant information and input that drills into our minds every hour of the day.
As millennials, we drifted further away from the early 20th century crises of two bloody world wars and the Cold War that seemed to mobilize and propel working people into a clear sense of duty and work. We entered this strange Information Era, leaving our youth confused and uncertain.
Millennials are the least purpose-driven generation in America, according to LinkedIn Talent Solutions’ global survey done on various age groups. Only 30 percent of millennials prioritize purpose over work and income, compared to 48 percent of baby boomers.
Purposelessness is why Professor Jordan B. Peterson of the University of Toronto has gained prominence in recent years. His events constantly sell out and are filled with eager young people coming to listen to his speeches about life’s meaning, sorting yourself out, standing up straight and honing yourself to deal with life’s inevitable suffering and obstacles.
It seems our institutions, be they in education or government, have drifted away from emphasizing these simple yet enormously important value systems. Our schools teach youth how to take multiple choice exams and memorize recycled, and at times outdated, information most students will hardly apply.
But do our schools teach us how to arm ourselves for the complexity of life? How to be a good, honest, hard-working person? How to take on failure and grow and mature? How to find meaning? Do our cultural icons and music stars promote these values? What about our politicians?
Perhaps it’s neither the school nor the celebrities’ job to do so.
But the issue of mental health is here and we have seen no signs of a dramatic turn around for the better. I wish there was a simple antidote to this uncomfortable topic, but complex issues have complex solutions. Yet simple things can go a long way.
In wake of these troubling times, I urge all students to take a step back. Occasionally unplug from the interminable noise of celebrity events and meaningless social gossip.
Go see your families. Remind yourself why you love them and how much they mean to you. Take on the anxiety of school and the future of your career with both feet on the ground. Have confidence and direction.
Be grateful for what you have and to make it your central mission to improve yourself and your character every day, bit by bit.
Correction: In a previous version of this article, the infographic accompanying the article showed statistics that were incorrect. This has since been corrected and The Red & Black regrets this error.