James D. Sutton, EdD, Consulting Psychologist
When two related circumstances come crashing together on the same day, it's hard to cast it off as circumstance. The real question becomes one of, "What is the lesson here, and how do I best learn from it?"
Event #1: On a flight home from Washington, D.C., a fellow passenger passed me a copy of the May 5th, 2001, US News and World Report. The magazine contained a gripping article about youth suicide ("Where Do Hopes Go?").
According to the article it had been a year since two friends, a couple of teenage boys, deliberately ended their lives by crashing a parent's vehicle into a huge tree in front of a church in East Haddam, Connecticut. The whole community was shaken by the event.
At first, nothing seemed "typical." The boys came from caring middle-class homes. The act had been planned for weeks, and the boys had freely discussed their plans with friends (who were sworn to remain silent about it). In hindsight, however, there were clues. Between the two boys there was unresolved grief, persistent drug use, serious deterioration of grades, abandonment of commitments and talk of no-way-out hopelessness. In the end, neither of these boys felt that things could ever improve or that anyone, even friends, could help them. (If you think about it, this is a type of arrogance, but I don't fault youngsters for it; their perception is flawed. Strongly insisting that they are wrong usually just adds fuel to their fire. If anyone, adults included, knew exactly what to do to make their life work out, wouldn't most of them do it?) No wonder the Surgeon General has proclaimed youth suicide to be a national crisis in this country.
What makes this East Haddam story even more gripping is the fact that a survey taken some time before the dual suicide had indicated that 30% of the community's 8th-graders reported being depressed "All or most of the time." To the question, "Does your community care about you?" 80% of the teens reported, "No."
To their credit, the folks of East Haddam are working on the problem in a community-wide effort to not only care about their young people, but to make certain the kids know it.
Event #2: It's the evening of the same day as I check my email. There's one from a worried mom. Her 13-year-old daughter had shut down in school. There were other related concerns, but the primary problem was noncompliance. This girl was not dangerous; her behavior threatened no one. The remedy consisted of removing her from her regular school and placing her into a behavioral class in a very tough alternative school.
At this facility, youngsters and their things are searched upon entering the school, and they are forbidden to bring a lunch from home (a security issue). Apparently there's a physically demanding, boot-camp-like component to the program. According to the mother, the girl was traumatized by the whole experience. She lost focus, lost sleep, lost weight and lost hope. There was some temporary improvement in some grades, but at what cost? If the situation actually was as this mother described (an important if), her concerns seem justified.
I was an educator long before I was a psychologist. I know full well the challenges schools face today in providing education that is accountable and fair to all concerned. But in this girl's case it is possible that the school's "cure" for her noncompliance could do serious harm to her one way or another. Instead of trying to figure out why she might be having trouble (something that might respond better to focused intervention than punishment), someone in charge seemed more concerned about how many weapons she might try to pack into a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Ignorance, indifference and a one-size-fits-all approach to handling young people and their problems are worse than ineffective. They might eventually start running some kids into trees.