Home Opinion Greg Blass Screens, social isolation and suicide

Screens, social isolation and suicide

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Suicide among most age and ethnic groups has been rising sharply. In fact, they are up 25 percent since 1999, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is it that isolates more and more with a sense of despair, that the only way out is to leave this life? Is there anything we can do to prevent our friends and loved ones from taking this permanent, irreversible step? What lies behind the climbing number of cases of depression, anxiety, mental illness and suicide?

Pick any age group, and theories abound. But all agree on a central point: people have to be willing to admit they need help. This is the crucial, first step in understanding how to reach out to someone who is struggling, or understanding how to reach out for help if you are struggling.

Researchers at the University if Michigan surveyed 50,000 students at 54 high schools and colleges. In this 2017 “Healthy Minds Study,” fully 39 percent described their struggle with a mental health problem. Fourteen percent suffered major depression, 10 percent with severe anxiety, with 11 percent of the total surveyed reporting thoughts of suicide.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 30 percent of our college students report that, at some point in the last year, they felt so down that they found it difficult to function. And for the seventh year in a row, college counseling centers tell the Center for Collegiate Mental Health of increases in students seeking treatment who represent a “threat to self.” And more shocking is the National College Health Assessment’s report that almost one student in twelve has a suicide plan.

Age 24 marks when most (75 percent) mental health cases have their first onset. But an often-cited book by Dr. Jean M. Twenge, entitled “iGen,” describes a dramatically increased use of anti-depressants among teens. The data she compiles are stunning. Her focus is on the so-called “iGeneration,” those born between 1995 and 2012. She documents the evidence of the association between heavy use of iPhones, smart phones and overall screen-time and the rates of depression, as well as the rates of suicide.

Twenge also analyzes what we all see among this age group: screen-time so absorbs life that it leaves little time for anything else, be it parties, homework, even sleep. In fact, teens who visit social media sites, use smartphones heavily, texting friends, posting selfies, and obsessively paying attention to “likes” are more likely to feel lonely, a first step in patterns toward depression. Indeed, this book should be read by every parent, teacher, judge, youth pastor and counselor.

The adult world suffers climbing suicide rates as well. We certainly hear of the famous who take their lives, as recently with Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Many who seem to have it all fall prey to their own sense of emptiness, loneliness and indescribable pain, with episodes that catch them completely off guard. Yet every now and then we will hear rare, compelling revelations of those who persist in their struggle when falling into those dark places.

Take the valiant narrative recently offered by a Newsday reporter at the height of her career, Daysi Calavia-Robertson, admitting mental health issues that she now overcomes thanks to the help of family and professionals.

“Remember,” she urges, “no matter what anyone else might say, this is not a weakness.” She relates with admirable candor her arduous journey with mental illness, her taxing effort not to “tip-toe outside the appearance of perfection because it doesn’t allow any room for anxious, bipolar or depressed people……whom history and society have so often stigmatized and discarded as ‘unfit’ and ‘crazy.’ ”

And then there’s the LI teen, Osman Gomez, Jr., who just shared with hundreds of people at a United Nations hearing in Manhattan how a program in his middle school in Freeport taught him techniques, like practicing “Victory Breath” and yoga. He credits “Youth Empowerment Seminars (YES)” for bringing an end to his overwhelming anxiety attacks. Now 16, the YES program sought him out after his mother, alarmed over his deepening depression and anxiety, and dropping grades, called middle school officials several years ago. “I was very paranoid,” he said, but the YES program “really showed me another way of life.”

Those are words deserving our reflection – showing one who’s on a disabling, downward emotional trajectory “another way of life.” The website for Youth Empowerment Seminar Art of Living deserves our local schools’ attention. It may be a key to saving isolated young lives here on the North Fork, for their never giving up even when they feel they can’t handle it.

For ways to reduce what can trigger a future suicide case, let’s consider some suggestions from these and other research efforts:

– Help a teen find other interests than screen time, with the knowledge of new, ample proof that more than 90 minutes of electronic device time in a teen’s day becomes more and more correlated with depression and anti-social behavior;
– Be sure a teen does homework and school work, talks to friends in person and face-to-face, staying off social media unless there is a task to perform;
– When off to college or school or the military, or living on their own for the first time, parents and other family members should have a heartfelt talk about not only how the best years of life lie ahead, but also that there will be lows, where depression or a deep sense of loneliness could set in, and not to hesitate to share this with family, or to seek help, and that there is no stigma to worry about;
– When children are away, keep up with check-in calls to them, and ask about friends made and if they know about a walk-in counseling center at their school, or on base or in the neighborhood;
– In adults’ lives, the sense of meaninglessness that increasingly leads to suicide can best be countered with reinforced feelings of being valued by others in their relationships. Much depends on their feeling that they are truly contributing to a world that matters; it’s hard for us to grasp how people can feel meaningless even when surrounded by others who love them and treat them well – despair can overwhelm them despite regularly enjoyable, social encounters;
– Let’s all start to treat mental illness just as we treat physical illness, and pressure health insurance carriers with legislation to end their discrimination when it comes to providing coverage for mental health care. Finding providers who take your insurance must no longer be such a challenge.

There’s a growing body of convincing research that Americans today are less likely to interact with their neighbors and to feel that they have people in whom they can confide; that the steep decline in religion correlates to a gripping sense of meaninglessness in life; and that adults with children are more focused on matters of meaning than are adults who do not have children. And consider the free training at the website of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org).

Then there’s this instructive point from a New York Times article by a behavioral scientist, Dr. Clay Rutledge, published last June 23, entitled, “Suicides Have Increased – Is This an Existential Crisis?” She argues that our divided and fractious political culture is more than simply ideological disagreement. It may be rooted in a “desperate search, common to all lost souls, to find meaning anywhere we can.” Thus can ideas become threatening, causing people to respond with increased bias toward their own worldview. She concludes that sources we depend on can suddenly not be enough to give life meaning.

The late Dan Ingram, born and raised on Long Island, hailed as America’s most popular DJ, was a household name during the early days of rock & roll in the 1950s and ’60s when AM radio cornered the listener market. In an interview in 2001 at the Museum of Television and Radio, he recalled, something “unforgettable” that “made it all worthwhile.” Ingram quoted from a neatly typewritten letter he received from a listener who said, “I was a battered child, and one day, standing on the Brooklyn Bridge with a transistor radio, you made me laugh, and I didn’t jump.’

Rarely can we be in that right place at that one crucial moment to save one deeply troubled. But maybe what we have shared here could be a guide on where to begin, on how to fill the void of someone’s lonely, isolated and hidden agony, to instill in them that they will never be alone, to assure them that reaching out and asking for help is never a cause for shame or fear of being judged.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg