I initially wrote this piece several months ago after learning of the suicide of yet another young college student, this one the friend of a young person I know well.
Words are lacking to convey my sadness about this loss. The thought of yet another child in such pain and turmoil that ending it all was their solution is simply more than my mind can absorb. And more than we can accept.
SMOKE AND MIRRORS
Voices are increasing about removing the stigma associated with mental illness, particularly for children and young adults. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder…no longer are these foreign terms but instead are becoming part of our lexicon. We read and hear about mental health issues with far more frequency, but it’s not enough. There’s more – far more – that needs to be done.
Our children are in crisis. Right in our back yard. Or our living room. They’re dealing with stressors that many parents do not see, understand, or even want to acknowledge. They’re facing expectations to achieve that redefines “raising the bar,” making it beyond their ability to cope and function. And many are walking around every day, going to class and participating in life, all while presenting the appearance of being functional and handling it all when the reality is anything but. Not the case for all, but for many and the numbers are growing.
There’s a “magical threshold” that colleges flip like a light switch, assuming that a child who spent 18 years under the care of their parents suddenly becomes an adult, despite the fact that their brain isn’t fully developed until 25. They’re expected to “be adults” and take full responsibility for their lives yet many are painfully ill-equipped to meet the expectations.
There’s everything our middle and high school students face, far beyond what we ever experienced as students. Testing, grades, extracurricular activities, volunteering, part-time jobs, accelerated courses, dual enrollment, pre-college assessments, college preparation. Not to mention social media, video games, bullying, cyberbullying, peer pressure, drug and alcohol issues, and home demands. And the earlier emergence and diagnosis of mental health issues.
Our children, whether 13 or 21, are balancing on a tightrope that they’re finding increasingly difficult to walk. Many are slipping and others are falling through cracks that are swallowing them whole.
CIRCLE THE WAGONS
I’m a parent too and my own child, now a young adult, experienced some of these difficulties throughout school, so I know the struggles and the systems that work against parents trying to establish a “safety net” while supporting their child’s need for independence. Parents are labeled “helicopter” parents when they expect supports to be in place and communication to occur with those responsible for their child’s well-being. And yes, this includes in college.
Some parents are hands-on – I’m one of them. Others stay in denial because of fear. Some hope it’s a phase that will pass. Many struggle to help their child who may be resistant to their efforts. The reality is that the line between having another day to fight and the last day can be hair thin.
My heart goes out to this young adult child whose life had barely started. A child who was close to college graduation and all the experiences that accompany the transition into adulthood. No child should be so alone, unable to cope, and without the supports they need.
We as parents need to mobilize in new ways. We need to surround our children – all our children – as was done in communities years ago. If we’re told that if we “see something, say something” about unattended bags on the street, we need to start speaking up when we see, hear about, or think that a child is in trouble. Matters not whether he’s your child’s friend in middle school or she’s your daughter’s roommate in college. We need to be less concerned about getting involved and more concerned about not.
Forget about stages, phases, or momentary mood swings. We can’t afford to assume. We need to engage. Reactive is often too late. There’s not a moment to delay. Not one more young life can we lose. Not one more.
Debra Isaacs Schafer
Debra Isaacs Schafer is Founder and CEO of Education Navigation, LLC which provides special education services to employees as a company benefit, and a Special Education Advisor and Advocate in private practice. With more than 15 years of experience working with CEOs, senior executives, entrepreneurs, and working parents nationwide and years in the corporate arena, her work focuses on helping parents who have children with autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, and mental health issues navigate through school from preschool through college.
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