In my youth, older people cared about younger. That was rural Maine. The young naturally resisted advice about work, health, standards, what not to do, and the way-out-there place called The Future. Now and then, we listened. Older folks were WWII veterans, teachers, livers of life. Today, getting on that wave is hard, but the data is damning. We are failing America’s teens.
How? Lots of ways, even if the task is harder, slope steeper, cultural and intergenerational gaps wider – which they may not be. Before saying it is “impossible,” look at the data.
Pre-COVID, 36 percent of high school kids were alienated, and reported “persistent feelings” of hopelessness. On the left, people say change is too slow; on the right too fast – but here is the thing, that alienation is real. It exists.
Then came COVID, which turned a controlled fire into a forest fire. Teens depressed or reporting persistent hopelessness, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), jumped to 44 percent. One in five considered suicide, and one in ten tried.
Missing – empirically, logically, and intuitively – was “connectedness.” The definition of “school” changed from happy, regular, personal interaction to “zoom,” distance, and disorientation. Teachers did their best while political actors fumbled, kids becoming collateral damage.
In an age when politics is somehow everything, kids’ mental health seems secondary. No one intended this, even if some foresaw it, but it happened. Personal interactions, at the key developmental ages of K-12, have been amputated, leaving kids in emotional deficit.
Data proves the point. National surveys show connections to adults at school are vital to mental health. With them, a third of kids still suffer; without them, more than half feel hopeless. With restored ties, suicide drops in half, so do attempts. Needed also are peer-to-peer connections.
What else is happening? Big thing. We need to be honest about the damage. Tectonic plates are shifting. We need to think hard about how to reverse them. We have the power, need to use it.
High drug abuse, climbing before 2020 due to legalized marijuana, instant access to high-potency drugs, addiction, and overdoses – disproportionately affects youth. CDC reports alcohol-related traffic deaths at 28 percent of the total, and drug-induced at 16 percent. Shocking, 80 percent of domestic violence is tied to drug abuse. Kids are again collateral damage.
More immediately, abuse of fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, meth, and prescription opioids – and overdose deaths – have been rising. “Driven by illicit fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, methamphetamine, and cocaine,” the impulse to escape, self-medicate, and experiment is often fatal.
Past pales by comparison to what is happening now, a harvest of negligence, accelerating escapism, confusion, drug addiction, fatal overdoses. This is no joke. The curve looks like a plane suddenly going vertical, not a gradual takeoff.
Overdose mortality – kids who died – ages 14 to 18 jumped by 94 percent between 2019 and 2020 from fentanyl, as addiction soared. Data jumped 20 percent in 2021, overdose deaths topping 100,000.
Data is not partisan, not politics. It is societal. This is the world we created – and it is consuming America’s next generation. Yes, borders need to be closed, respect for law enforcement, rule of law, and non-addicted life choices restored.
Yes, a combination of data-based prevention (real education about drug use and addiction), effective treatments (empirical, faith-based, lasting), enforcement (good laws consistently applied), and international engagement (as most illegal drugs are foreign) is critical.
But there is more. The greatest influence in our lives, every one of us, was a caring adult – a parent, grandparent, teacher, neighbor, or combination of “older folks,” who gave us compass, helped us set some standards, told us the truth, how life worked, what would kill us.
Intergenerational connectedness is the most important part of any society’s survival. Passing forward social norms that worked, life lessons acquired, hope and love vested in us – is our job.
We must stay engaged. We cannot all lead our community, state, or heaven-forbit the nation, but we can affect the lives around us positively. We can reach outward, make connections, relieve some of that early-life fear and anxiety that naturally attends growing up.
Here is the thing. Compassion, empathy, and connection between older folks and youth is part of what makes this nation so great, no kidding, no politics. If we lose that awareness, are afraid of it, fail to teach those who resist because they do not know and are young – we lose the nation.
A mountain of data suggests we are failing our teens. Actually, it does not suggest, it proves. Due and owing is that IOU we gave our elders – a need to pass forward the care they showed. Because they did, we must. If not obvious before now, it is now.
Growing up in rural Maine, people took time to point me in the right direction, forgive and correct errors, teach with patience, help me imagine the possible, avoid the incorrigible, and find a road that went somewhere. We owe the same to today’s teens. They are waiting. The time is now.