During the past several years, my colleagues at the Deseret News have researched, reported, and highlighted the challenges of America’s growing suicide and opioid epidemic.
Like many journalists around the country, we discovered that the gut-wrenching stories of promising lives ended in tragedy were all too common. In our state, it was particularly severe: between 2007 and 2015, the youth suicide rate nearly quadrupled, with 44 teens in Utah dying by suicide in 2015. Preliminary data shows that 42 died by suicide in 2017. One high school alone experienced seven suicides in one year.
We learned that many of these problems, including depression, opioid abuse, and suicide grew from anxiety and all its complications. The complexities that emerged from our reporting included the detrimental influence of social media, fear of missing out, unrealistic expectations, and helicopter parents as well as disengaged parents.
“The more we looked into it, the more critical it became for us to seek answers to why anxiety was having such a crippling effect on teenagers and students,” said editor Doug Wilks, who has led the charge to cover this epidemic.
“The more we looked into it, the more critical it became for us to seek answers”
In June, the Deseret News launched “Generation Vexed: How anxiety stalks teens in Utah and across the nation.” The series is an ongoing initiative to help our state’s teens better deal with anxiety by providing tools, research, resources, and conversations to enable them to address their worries and maximize their potential.
We are working with community members, our solutions journalism team, and our events staff to create a space where people can get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. By bringing together families, churches, educators, LGBT advocates, legislators, doctors, healthcare providers, and drug companies, we are collectively able to engage in this important topic and ask the hard questions and have the difficult conversations.
Good questions to ask a struggling teen include the frequency, intensity, and duration of their anxiety. If it is happening with more and more regularity, if the intensity is becoming truly debilitating, and if the duration lasts longer and longer, there is likely a need for more help — even professional help to find effective tools and resources. Medicine also can play an important role along the way, but need not be the first solution.
Remember that you’re awesome. There is no one else exactly like you in this world, and that makes you incredibly special. Embrace who you are, and remember to love who you are. 🌟
— MentalHealthAmerica (@MentalHealthAm) September 5, 2018
When parents avoid or gloss over anxiety or depression it sends all the wrong messages. Too often when parents hear their teen say they are “stressed out” the response is, “buck up.” Or “you will be fine.” Or “this will pass.” Instead, parents should listen with empathy and show courageous vulnerability, sharing their own issues with anxiety or awkward situations. Having a parent say something like, “I can see how that interaction with your teacher could stress you out. Today I had a tough conversation with my boss and wanted to go curl up under my desk I was so frustrated.” This shows a teen that stress and anxiety come to everyone and there are skills you can learn to deal with them.
Our initiative includes in-depth reporting and coverage that has explored anxiety and medication, anxiety in girls, anxiety in boys, and how both educators and teens are coping with the issue, among other stories. Our journalists’ research has led us to potential solutions for anxiety found through in-patient care, licensed therapists, resource counselors, school principals, tech experts, world-class athletes, and even filmmakers.
We also set up the Deseret News Anxiety Community Facebook group along with a full anxiety page for questions, answers, and resources. As questions come in, our in-depth team sources them to local and national experts for response.
We launched a series of film screenings and discussion events for parents and teens in Utah and Washington, D.C. around the movie Angst: Raising Awareness Around Anxiety. The film, an IndieFlix documentary, addresses what anxiety is, its causes and effects, and what can be done about it.
After each screening, I moderate a panel featuring Karin Gornick, producer of Angst, Jenny Howe, a licensed therapist with degrees in psychology and child and family studies, and a mental health expert from the community or school. We engage the audience in a discussion about how to begin breaking the stigma of anxiety, the role of social media in teen anxiety, and what parents can do to help their kids.
The response has been overwhelming. At one recent event at Salem Hills High School in rural Utah, 1,000 people attended the evening screening. That school experienced four suicides in the last five years, leaving the community reeling. In nearly every screening at least one handwritten question contains a plea for help from a teen, or a parent, who feels isolated and alone in their battle with anxiety.
In Park City a very courageous teen stepped up to the mic, in front of a group of parents and peers, and shared her struggle. You could feel the empathy in the room. You could sense the relief the teen felt by speaking the truth and asking for help. Everyone left more confident that there was a path to a brighter future.
Doing nothing is not an option at the Deseret News — nor is just hoping that the situation will improve.
Some question whether a newspaper can make a difference in preventing teen suicide. We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we know that convening people in a space where they can ask the right questions may be the most important work we ever do. Doing nothing is not an option at the Deseret News — nor is just hoping that the situation will improve. While hope is important, it is not a strategy, or a solution. We will never be content with merely reporting on the tragic end. We believe we must be part of the solution that prevents a bad ending and ensures a better beginning for teens.
In some ways America’s approach to the suicide and opioid problem is similar to the famous poem written by Joseph Malins in 1895, “Ambulance Down in the Valley.” You may remember the story of the tiny town, which boasted of a mountain lookout with magnificent views of the valley. While the scenes were spectacular, the cliff was unacceptably dangerous. Many local citizens and passing visitors alike had tragically fallen from the cliff to the valley below.
Some of the citizens in the town advocated for putting a fence around the cliff, but others more persuasively made the case for simply parking an ambulance down below in the valley. So the citizens relied on the ambulance to deal with the ever-present and potentially lethal problem, repairing the results instead of preventing the cause.
As it relates to our suicide and opioid cliff, communities have added many new tools to the ambulance down in the valley, including vital overdose reversing injections, needle exchanges, counseling, and rehabilitation programs for those who have become addicted. But we have done far too little to build the fence at the top of the cliff.
Interventions and solutions relating to teen suicide have proven elusive for many families and communities. “Generation Vexed” is our attempt to build those fences in our own community, and the series has already had a transformational impact on individual teens in our state.
The Deseret News will continue to be a local and national voice on youth suicide prevention because it is our responsibility as solutions-driven journalists to lead, shape, foster, and highlight critical conversations on issues that matter. We encourage other news and media organizations to do the same.
Communities must realize they can never be content with ambulances parked in the valley. We will continue to share valuable resources and rigorous reporting to empower communities to build strong fences of safety at the top of the cliff, reduce the havoc of anxiety on today’s teens, and arm students with the tools and skills they need to succeed.
Boyd C. Matheson is opinion editor of the Deseret News.
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.