Though you wouldn’t be able to tell if you saw me now, at one point in my life I had hair. I was quite proud of it, too. I grew up during the Jheri curl craze, and like many during that time I loved my dripping wet curls. One of my most “traumatic” memories as a child has to do with a new curl I got.
One night I washed it with the wrong shampoo. When I woke up in the morning, I had clumps of hair all over my pillow. Later that day, I had my saddest experience ever at a barbershop. Before bald cuts were cool, I walked out with one. I was devastated. To this day some friends and family tease me about this unfortunate incident.
Of course, my use of the word “traumatic” in telling this story is overly dramatic. It was embarrassing (and quite funny as I look back on it), but it was far from being traumatizing. In fact, when I look back on my youth I feel pretty blessed. Like most, it wasn’t perfect, but it was good. The times I grew up in, though not perfect, were good as well.
Going to school, hanging out with friends at the mall or the movies, playing in the neighborhood, Sunday school and church on Sundays were the constants of my childhood. Growing up had its tough moments but it fortunately didn’t involve real trauma or danger. It wasn’t stressful. Overall, I and the kids I knew and interacted with saw the world and the familiar places and spaces we inhabited and frequented within it as safe, secure and happy places.
However, if I were a young person today, I wonder if I would feel the same way.
This thought came to mind recently after hearing about the profound grief and emotional pain students at Blount High School displayed upon hearing of the passing of two of their classmates. In the early morning hours of Sunday, Sept. 21, 17-year-old Maynora Smith and 15-year-old Naria Hughes, along with their father, Mike Allen, perished in a house fire. The days that followed were tough ones at Blount.
Their passing follows on the heels of former Blount football player and track standout Ja’Christopher McCants’ death in an automobile accident in August. Yes, untimely, unfortunate and heart-wrenching incidents like these have always happened, but it seems young people today have to deal with loss, tragedy and danger on a level and with a frequency that I and many my age didn’t.
At the start of this school year, sitting in an auditorium with just under 300 10-12th graders, I tried to put myself in their shoes as all listened attentively to the day’s speaker. It was a law enforcement official giving an active-shooter safety training presentation. Looking around, I began thinking: What’s going through their minds? What’s it like to be their age and have someone explain what actions you need to take if someone comes into the school with the intent of killing? How normal do they think this is? Do they see the familiar places of their world as safe, secure and happy places?
The law enforcement officer did an excellent job. Like at schools all across the country, it was a necessary and important training for staff and students. But is there anything normal about this “new normal”? Before, young people were just told to be wary of strangers; now, wherever they go they have to be wary of those acting strangely. Cumulatively, what toll do this and other dangers, stressors, uncertainties and tragedies take on our children?
Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data released last year shows suicides overall have increased 24 percent over a 15-year period; very alarming news itself. When it comes to our youth, CDC data shows that since 2007 suicide rates for adolescent boys and girls have steadily been on the rise. For adolescent girls, suicide rates have doubled since 2007. Additionally, teen depression rates have been climbing upward. As one researcher succinctly noted, “Teens are an increasingly vulnerable group when it comes to mental health.”
Feelings of isolation and aloneness are also becoming prevalent among young people. This may seem odd given how hard it is to go anywhere and not see an adolescent absorbed in some type of electronic device. Yet their constant connectedness can end up being a gateway to a world of bullying, mistreatment, pressure and emotional desolation that is “inescapable and even more threatening than ever before.”
As adults, it can be easy for us to become consumed with our own grown-up troubles and struggles. But one thing that’s becoming more and more apparent to me is that complexity isn’t something only adults have to deal with in life. Increasingly it’s becoming a defining aspect of our children’s lives as well.
Let’s make sure we’re providing the understanding, support and resources they need to navigate a world that’s much different from the one we inhabited as children.