I hesitate to mention it here, but I haven’t felt really well for several weeks now. It’s nothing serious, just one of those things that leaves you feeling tired and weak. And after a while, tired and weak leads to depressed – not clinically, but definitely down. I hesitate to mention it because there are people reading this post who are dealing with lasting, serious or chronic health conditions and I feel like a heel for complaining.
The reason I decided to bring up my respiratory infection is not, however, to have a wider audience for my complaints. I started crying for no good reason during a meeting today. I have spent the past two evenings at home feeling cotton-headed, and emotionally isolated. And all of this is the result of a not particularly debilitating condition. What if I felt this way all the time? How would I cope with that? These questions have led me to think about my role in working with young people – especially those who struggle with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation.
Some of you have heard me say that today’s students appear to have fewer coping skills and less resilience than the students I worked with when I entered my career twenty plus years ago. For some, this leads to an inability to take “normal” bumps in the road of life in stride (breakups, failed tests, etc.). For some, the life events they are attempting to take in are shockingly horrific. And this includes mental illness and personality disorders. A sobering truth: although college students commit suicide at a slightly lower rate than their age-mates who are not in school, suicide remains one of the leading causes of death among college students. This is a truth of which I am currently hyper-aware.
What can I do? My job is to do my utmost to keep them safe, to provide a safety net of concern, awareness and response when a student in crisis is brought to my attention. But what else am I to do as an adult who has successfully maneuvered through late adolescence and early adulthood? What are we all called to do to assist others who are struggling?
I try to stay away from making sweeping generalizations about our culture and how the “Jersey Shore” mentality is harming us all. But I do think the paucity of character and values in popular culture is detrimental to young people. And the influence of popular culture is multiplied by a vaccuum in their daily lives created by the disappearance of adults who are prepared to help them find meaning and purpose in life. Because we’re not talking with them about meaning and purpose. We’re talking with them about how to maximize their earning potential. We’re talking to them about filling their resume with activities that will help them stand out in a sluggish job market. They’re listening to their parents trying to figure out how to get above water financially, and they’re turning to vacuous tanned talking heads to escape their anxiety.
I’m not suggesting that we stop attempting to help our young people prepare for careers. I am suggesting, however, that we need to do a better job of recognizing the need for young people to feel that their activities, their work – their very lives – have meaning. That their lives have a purpose beyond that of basic survival and/or material comfort. And as sometimes happens when I am ruminating on such ideas, a perfect resource appears which can explain my jumbled thoughts better than I can. Yesterday, I saw the short film clip, below, over at The Better Man Project (a personal motivation blog I follow). I strongly encourage you to watch it – four minutes with the great Viktor Frankl, whose book Man’s Search for Meaning remains one of the most influential in my life. As always, Frankl speaks with eloquence and humor, and what he says is as true for today’s students as it was for the young people listening to his lecture in 1972. If we fail to recognize the “will to meaning” within an individual, we fail that individual. And the cost of that failure is very high – lives are, literally, at stake.