Part of the difficulty that comes with dealing with emotional pain is the stigma associated with it. A common perception is that if a person is depressed or anxious, he or she must have something wrong that needs to be fixed. From this viewpoint, our healthy functioning then would be a life completely free of anxiety and depression. I don't know about you, but I don't know anyone who isn't anxious or depressed at times. Anxiety and depression are two of the feelings that make us human. One benefit of this realization is that we embrace those feelings to some degree. After all, if it's part of being human, then being distressed every time we feel anxious or depressed sets us up for pain on top of the anxiety or depression we already feel.
This added negative emotion is called a secondary disturbance in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). We are upset (secondary) about how we feel (primary). For example, we're depressed about how anxious we might get, or we're anxious about not feeling totally confident. Not only do we have one struggle, the primary one, but we have exacerbated our problems by bringing a secondary disturbance into the picture.
I had an interesting discussion the other day involving cell phones in the lives of adolescents. The conversation centered around the ubiquity of cell phones as well as the negatives and positives. I, for one, don't see the prevalence of digital technology decreasing (really going out on a limb there). Rather, it will become more and more entwined with our daily lives. So, what are we to do? What should we be concerned about when it comes to technology and adolescents? How much freedom should we give them with cell phones and the internet?
Deciding to do therapy is an important step in the process of meeting with a therapist, but a couple steps remain after doing so. Most importantly, one has to figure out a therapist to work with. But, finding a good therapist is a bit trickier than finding other service providers. You can't hop on Facebook and ask for recommendations for a good therapist, but doing so for a plumber or HVAC person would be perfectly acceptable. Another reason is the lack of good information about therapists. Services like Yelp or Angie's List provide us with all sorts of reviews on different businesses, but similar information is uncommon for therapists.
Will Ferrell's speech at USC graduation went viral a couple weeks ago. Besides being funny, he stresses the importance of making mistakes and not giving up. I also came across an article in the New York Times about Smith College and a class it started offering, Failure 101. At Smith they are actively encouraging students to fail well. In some ways, it sounds a bit trite. "Yes, the way we learn is from failing. The only bad mistake is one you don't learn from." But I'm not sure most of us deep down believe that maxim. We probably subscribe to something more along the lines of: "I'm going to do everything I can to avoid failure including not aiming too high for fear that I'll be setting myself up for failure. I'll reach a bit but only if it's something I have a good chance of achieving. Also, if I'm not doing as well as I would like, I'll lower my goal to something more achievable." I know I'm guilty of such thinking at times.
To actually embrace failure takes more than simply repeating the maxim. It's almost as though we have to seek significant challenge that almost promises some failure. A couple things could happen. One, we fall short of our overall goal but still accomplish some worthwhile ones in the process. Two, because of having pushed ourselves, we pick up new skills along the way. Three, our worst fears are realized, and we suffer a significant setback. This last result even brings positives since, in the vast majority of cases, we'll come back from the setback knowing we can survive even the worst of outcomes.
Gaming has become more and more prevalent in our society, and adolescents probably are some of the biggest consumers of it. The positive and negative effects of gaming are an active area of research, and, like many new technologies, we're still not totally sure what to make of its effect on us. (Check out the links at the end of this post.)
My concern when it comes to gaming is its opportunity cost. Time spent gaming is time that could have been spent on other endeavors. So, for example, if a teen were having a tough time academically in school but playing video games for hours on end each day, some of that time could have been spent studying and completing homework.
Part of being human is seeking to improve our functioning. Most of us want to get as close to our potential as possible, whether it be as a friend, spouse, parent, learner, or worker. But, what is real change when it comes to behavior, emotions, and thoughts? Permanency would be its most defining characteristic. Doing something better once or for a limited time wouldn't qualify as actual change; it would have to last for a good length of time to qualify. For instance, if one wanted to change workout habits and make exercise a part of his or her daily routine, doing so for a couple weeks and then stopping wouldn't be true change. The new routine would have to be some substantial length of time to qualify as change. The longer that time is, the more we can say that actual change has taken place.
In addition to a healthy perspective on college admissions, adolescents also can reduce some anxiety by knowing the likelihood of achieving one's educational goals. Some stats (NACAC, 2016) illustrate the point:
- Nationally colleges on average admit about 2/3 of applicants.
- 40% of schools accept more than 70% of applicants.
- About 33% of Americans have a bachelor's degree, 42% at least an associate's degree.
The likelihood of getting into college is very good. From my own experiences working as a school counselor, the average high school student can get into more colleges than not. In Illinois, for example, a student with an average ACT of 21 and a GPA of 3.0 likely would be admitted at a minimum of nine of the twelve state universities.
The statistic about educational attainment above speaks to one's expectations. The majority of Americans do not have any kind of college degree and are doing well for themselves. Some kind of training past high school is crucial, but it doesn't have to be the college route. Trade schools, apprenticeship programs, and vocational training are some of the other options.
Not having a bachelor's degree doesn't equate to some kind of abnormality nor does it destine someone to a life of poverty or lack of fulfillment.
Last week I visited South Carolina to see a couple colleges and was reminded of high school students seeking to get into certain colleges and basing their own sense of self-worth on those admittances. I'm not sure if anxiety about admissions is any greater or lesser than it has been in the past, but from my perspective, many students are putting themselves through a lot of unnecessary, albeit understandable, stress.
Some anxiety is good as it causes us to perform at a higher level and stay on top of our work, but too much stress is counterproductive as it leads to poor performance and burnout. Such negative anxiety partially arises from seeing one's worth through achievement and even more so when the arbiter of that achievement is external, as is the case with college admissions. Anxiety would remain at a productive level if students saw the process as a sort of game in which they would like to do well purely for the sake of doing so. Since falling short is no comment on self-worth, it is not to be feared to any damaging degree.
So, how do we help adolescents feel less depressed? If a lack of hope is seen as the cause of the depressed feelings, restoring that hope would be the answer. It needs to occur on two levels, societal and individual.
Mass alleviation of depressed feelings would need to be a concerted effort in which we help young people realize a baseline of hope. As frustrating as life can be, adolescents would feel that things are going to be okay, that their life always would be worthwhile. The only way they would feel so would be if their intrinsic worth wasn't based on proving it with success and achievement. They could experience a huge failure and still not see themselves as a failure. Unfortunately, that shift will require a wholesale change in our culture's way of viewing worth.
Individually, we can help each other them to the same place through all sorts of means. Our family and friendships probably are our biggest ones. They are best positioned to help us see our worth as an unequivocal, that is doesn't change based on our our mistakes or accomplishments. I would list quality work with a competent therapist as another means. A good therapist assists us in looking at ourselves and getting closer to a place of unconditional self-acceptance. These approaches are but two of many that are at an arm's reach.
One question that often pops into my head is the quality of life now and how it compares to the past. Are we better off nowadays? We also can narrow in on groups. So, for example, are teens better off nowadays? I have a feeling most people would respond, "No, they are worse off. Things were better when I was a kid." But, is that the case?
When it comes to depression, it appears things have gotten a bit worse for teens, at least compared to the recent past. The journal Pediatrics published a study last year in which 35% more of 12-17 year-olds reported an episode of depression when 2014 rates were compared to the rates in 2005. Whereas 8.7% of the study's adolescents reported an episode in 2005, 11.3% did so in 2014. My own experiences working with teens on a daily basis supports this statistic.
If more adolescents are experiencing depressive episodes, why? We know many of the factors influencing our moods including our upbringing, social influences, genetics, and trauma such as abuse or poverty, but how do those factors exactly lead to depressive episodes? Perhaps our thinking is negatively affected by those factors and those negative thoughts lead to depressive feelings. For example, if we don't believe we can do much to improve our lots in life, it makes sense that we would feel sadder about our current states.
In my next post, I'll propose some ways for dealing with this challenge.