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To comprehend the incomprehensible

After graduating from Cal-Berkeley, I spent most of a decade teaching high school English to adolescents — discussing books, reading their essays, and following their interactions. Reflecting back I realize that I came to understand that adolescence is a period in life like no other — fraught with change and contradictory emotions, enthusiasms punctuated by sudden ennui, a constellation of insecurities regarding nascent identity and purpose, all of which can overwhelm. For some, to be young is to live more intensely than at any other time in one’s life.

Now consider being an adolescent in the second decade of the 21st century where so much of teen interaction is framed by social media, focused intently on a small blue-lighted screen while practicing the art of reading between the abbreviated lines of texts, studying images, devoid of face-to-face cues, expressions, pauses and moments of silent hesitation. It’s a compelling (even addictive) form of communication that for the young is more than a tool; rather it can be a mooring line and a way of defining oneself.

Insert into this brave new techie connected world the jarring data from the Centers for Disease Control, recently published in the New York Times by Jane E. Brody. Her article points out that after a stable period between 2000 to 2007, “the rate of suicide among those ages 10 to 24 increased significantly by 56 percent — between 2007 and 2017 — making suicide the second-leading cause of death in this age group, after accidents like car crashes.”

Along with suicides, Brody writes, “since 2011, there’s been nearly a 400 percent increase nationally in suicide attempts by self-poisoning among young people.”

Such attempts have nearly “quadrupled over six years and that’s likely an undercount,” according to Henry A. Spiller, director of the Central Ohio Poison Center. “And these are just the ones who show up in the ER”

The numbers are extraordinary. And yet our reaction nationally is perplexing. Consider the frantic response to those young people who either died or were critically ill due to vaping. It was headline news and set in motion a concerted effort by the CDC to find causation.

Contrast that with the increasing phenomenon of youngsters making the purposeful decision to end their lives. Too often it is shrouded in secrecy, as if this painful and wrenching phenomenon is regarded as a societal taboo and therefore the search for causation is approached with a quiet reluctance. And yet it is an epidemic that begs to be understood.

How do we identify those kids who are most vulnerable? What skills and tools are available to cope with stress, depression, and perceived personal crisis? What are the reasons that we as a family, school or community are reluctant to openly discuss adolescent suicidal ideation and its concomitant feelings? Does research not tell us that conversations of this ilk lower the risk of young people turning to suicide (often an impulsive response to a sense of hopelessness or imagined crisis)?

And shouldn’t social media be part of this analysis? How to judge the impact of this need not to disconnect? Brody writes that research shows that school-age adolescent attempts increase during September to December and January to May. And there is the suggested correlation between attempted and completed suicides and cellphones. Research shows that some 85 percent of teens are looking at social media, and time spent online runs to eight hours daily.

Brody does include other factors, one being sleep deprivation often caused by the disruption of having a phone in the room.

For adults, the world known as adolescence can seem impenetrable, steeped in need to know, filled with inside information, a cauldron of trends, language and perpetual change. But perhaps just attempting to lean forward with concern and caring, talking about the hard stuff with empathy (we’ve all been there). Perhaps that can carry the moment until the next one arrives.

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.