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Social media and exaggerated expectations play a role in rising teen suicide rate

By now most of us are aware of the grim statistics on teen depression and suicide.

We don't want to think about it, we recoil from the very mention of the words, but it's nearly impossible to avoid the slew of news articles, government reports and opinion pieces on the topic. Sadly, many of us also now know someone who has been touched by a major depressive episode that has led to suicidal thoughts or actions.

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I've written about this terrible subject before and, I daresay, I will feel compelled to do so again because we simply can't avoid the conclusion that something is deeply wrong.

Depression rates among our youth have reached alarming levels. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that an estimated 3.1 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States — that's 12.8% of that age group — have had at least one major depressive episode.

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Adolescent suicide rates have been rising for more than a decade; the rate among girls by 2015 had reached its highest point in 40 years, and the rate for boys had increased by 30% over the same period.

Mental health professionals, educators and policymakers have been struggling to identify and understand the reasons for these troubling trends, which are common across all races, ethnicities and income levels.

The focus is on two concurrent developments.

It is no coincidence, experts say, that teen depression and suicide rates began spiking at the same time that social media started taking off. Enabled by the proliferation of smartphones, social media has become like a drug for our kids. It perpetuates an ever-present, gnawing need to feed upon their worst instincts and dwell on their perceived shortcomings.

Many kids check in to these sites compulsively, and for those already grappling with self-esteem issues the consequences can be ugly. At a time of life when emotions are particularly volatile, adolescents are fed a constant stream of idealized images of others' lives coupled with sometimes vitriolic and highly personal messaging.

At the same time, far too many kids today are feeling extreme levels of stress and anxiety because of exaggerated expectations — by their parents, their schools, their peers, and perhaps mostly crucially, by themselves — of accomplishment in academics, sports and other activities. The pressure to be "perfect" appears to be driving acute feelings of failure and hopelessness.

In our search for answers, perhaps it is also worth considering whether we are asking all the right questions.

Yes, life can be extremely stressful for today's adolescents because of social media's warping and magnifying of the lens through which they see themselves, and because of intensifying pressure on kids to excel at rigid academic and career paths.

It's possible, however, that in trying to address the problem by reducing the stress load on our kids, we are actually making it worse for them. Perhaps by focusing too intently on the causes of their stress, we are leaving them unprepared to handle those stressors.

In other words, instead of asking how we can make it easier on our kids, maybe we should be asking how we can better enable them to cope when times are tough.

"Lots of kids we see have suicidal ideation," or thoughts of suicide, said Jerry Weichman, a clinical psychologist who specializes in adolescents at Hoag Hospital's Neurosciences Institute in Newport Beach. "That typically comes from kids not having tools to navigate how they're feeling."

"There's a core set of fundamental values and strategies that we don't teach our kids that they need to navigate life and ward off stress."

The best way to help our kids is to foster greater resiliency in them, he believes. Rather than shielding them from stress, we must teach them through our words and actions how they can adapt and persevere through hard times.

Indeed, Weichman said, adversity can be seen in a positive light, as it can help kids develop the skills they need to rebound from difficulties.

While we're at it, we should also tell our kids that it doesn't matter where they go to college — and mean it, because teenagers can smell insincerity a mile away.

There's another important question we need to be asking: How can we do a better job of identifying kids in trouble and getting them the help they need?

Effective public education on depression is one answer, since parents and teachers are often ill-equipped to spot warning signs, and experts say that early intervention is paramount.

More school counselors and mental health services focused strictly on adolescents could also help. Budget cuts have decimated these departments over the past few decades, leaving many struggling kids without adequate resources and support systems.

We must also ask ourselves how we can remove the social stigma associated with seeking help for mental and emotional issues.

"Not only do the parents believe in a stigma associated with going to a therapist, but the children do," said Newport Beach therapist Helene Mickey Wilson, who goes by the moniker "Coach Mickey."

"That's why I talk about life coaching," she said. "No one wants the news to get out that something is wrong with you."

We can't afford to let these old attitudes and stereotypes prevail, nor can we downplay the statistics or write off depressive episodes as typical teen angst. The kids are hurting; we need to figure this out.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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