Of the 10 adolescents present, several admit to having attempted suicide, with several more admitting to regularly endangering themselves with misguided attempts at independence. Though these are not particularly troubled or noteworthy delinquents, but absolutely ordinary adolescents between ages 13 and 19, all admit to feeling dangerously alone. Loneliness, fear, isolation, intermittent depression and inexplicable rage are frequently referenced as main contributors to young, risky behavior. But what about underestimation of adolescent ability?
“They either try to control us or criticize us,” says one 15-year-old, explaining why most adolescents hesitate to share with adults their impressive capabilities, intense feelings and self-inflicted pains. “They make you feel like nobody really cares what you think, so we try to stop caring, too.”
In touring as a creative artist, activist and social entrepreneurship representative of empowerment-focused, non-profit organization GoodMakers, all adolescents I meet, whether male, female, gay, straight, publicly or privately schooled, all express deep confusion as to why they are never taken seriously. Sure, they crave attention; but often only turn to negative tactics as a result of neglect.
“I believe many adults are less apt to respect the work and opinions of young people because many adults are not confident enough in their own skin to listen to what may be another approach to an issue or problem,” says Rick Singer, founder of college admissions and counseling service The Key. “Another reason adults are less likely to listen or embrace youths ideas is a belief that youth have no real experience.”
“They see us venturing out, inevitability exploring life, and are so overwhelmed with how to deal with that, that they just tell us to shut up and do what they say,” adds another 16-year-old. “But they don’t think about how that really affects our brains.”
As youths begin discovering the neurological, hormonal, emotional and spiritual capacity of human life, developing subsequent desires to exercise such growing potential, they are most often met only with suppressive instruction from fearful elders. And it is this refusing to dignify young ideas with legitimate attention, adolescents report, that allows for fatalities.
“It is when they are isolated, pushed to the fringe, have no one to trust, open up to, that a young person is able to take their own life,” says HopeLine representative Reese Butler. Such was the case during my freshman year at NYU, when a young woman known as a “happy enough, straight A student,” jumped to her death from a dorm window, marking the first amongst several that year. Adds Butler: “The reason African-American women have the lowest rate of suicide in the US is because they have a strong support network of sisterhood to open up about how they feel. That needs to be taught and emulated in the younger populations.”
Though many consider consecration of budding excellence and community building a task for teachers, international youth mentor and former CNN journalist Charles Tsai puts it best: “For the most part, schools reinforce the status quo. We need schools to create more caring and capable citizens who are capable of improving our planet.”
Thus, creating easily accessible opportunities for cultivation and encouragement of young life is key, says Tsai, offering a “space where young people can congregate, form community, work together to create positive change and find meaning in something bigger than themselves.” Otherwise, attempts for adolescent fulfillment often become risky. “After I turned 15,” shares an inmate from San Quentin Prison, “that’s when I really needed someone… that’s when the problems began.”
“The youth are our future,” adds Singer, addressing our need for adolescent guidance and support. “It is our responsibility to teach, mentor and coach our youth through the efficacy needed to create, implement and lead projects and movements that will impact society.”
With 1 in every 13 people using Facebook, such expansive global platforms are more than possible, they already exist. Each 20 minutes, 1 million links are shared, 2 million friend requests accepted and nearly 3 million messages sent, proving that the tools required to channel adolescent energy into positive, planetary action are presently available to us. We need only guide them. Meanwhile, ‘liking’ ‘DRUGS’ is up 1131.9% this year.
With the college suicide rate up 300% in the past three decades, there is no denying our need to implement more effective relationships with today’s youth. What’s more, the necessary tools already exist. If we are all a reflection of our current global dilemma, adolescents ask, how many more unnecessary deaths will it take for adults to realize our world is suffering from lack of community, intergenerational communication and global integration?
As Tom Brokaw, puts it: “There is no more important test of a nation’s place in history than the condition of its children.”