Suicide Among Young People Is Creeping Upwards

Nobody takes a duck-lip selfie with a canker sore. We present our best possible self, our idealized image to the world. We take a photo of our filtered face with the perfect makeup, of the perfect meal, with the perfect pose (that hides our [gasp!] imperfections), and of the wonderful time we are having at the perfect party. And even though the rest of us know those photos don't truly represent reality, many of us still secretly believe that everyone else is living a better life than we are.

Rates of suicide among young people are creeping upwards. Even at elite universities, where the brightest and most accomplished students are enrolled, clusters of youngsters are taking their lives in quiet desperation. The reasons are, of course, complex and nuanced, but many point to the damaging effects of social media, our incessant obsession with presenting perfection, and that millenials, digital natives, are essentially the Photoshop Generation: never before has a 14 or 22-year-old been so easily deceived into believing that only she has pimples, that only he doesn't have six-pack abs, and that only they are friendless. Sadly, someone with a pre-existing vulnerability can be pushed over the edge by those deceptions.

Solutions are also complex and nuanced, but they have to include a collective willingness to present ourselves as we are and to begin to believe that who we are is enough. Canker sores and all.

Be well.

Joel Nunez, Ph.D


The growing achievement gap

If you are like many Americans, you are concerned about the growing achievement gap between rich and poor children. It is the not-so-secret epidemic happening in plain sight. By 2020, more than 65% of American jobs will require at least a four-year college degree, meaning that less affluent children who are failing to do well in elementary and high school right now are preparing to be left out of economic opportunity and will continue the disastrous cycles of generational poverty, community violence, and mass incarceration.

"What is the government doing about this horrific problem?", some may ask. I contend the more important question is, "what is the average American parent willing to do?". Right at this very moment, summer learning loss is affecting millions of poor children who are "enjoying their summer vacation" without picking up a single book until September. "C'mon Dr. Núñez, you mean we should deprive our children of pool time, TV time, and running around time during the summer? Don't their brains need a break?" No and no! Of course kids need to exercise their bodies but we can be more intentional as adults about structuring their time so that their brains get proper exercise as well (and no, the brain gets all the rest it needs during sleep--it requires challenging cognitive activity during waking hours in order to grow smarter and more nimble).

If you really want to do something about the growing gap between rich and poor that's going to bite us all in the rear end in just five years, stop expecting the government to fix and I can do something substantial right now.

Be well.

The Link Between Self-Esteem and Learning

Just as children suffering from chronic hunger are listless, lethergic, unfocused and thus have grave difficulty attending to a school lesson, so do children suffering from chronically low self-esteem experience similar challenges.  Just as poverty is toxic to the child's brain, flooding cerebral areas essential for learning with the stress hormone/neuro-chemical cortisol, so is diminshed self-worth toxic to the mind and heart of a child.  In the former case, the child needs a healthy diet to replenish not only his energy reserves and physical functioning but also to restore his brain function.  In the latter case, the child requires steady doses of value from a reliable source in order to eventually internalize that value and believe himself to be worthy of being taught and capable of learning.

Not only are healthy levels of self esteem crucial for learning but they also become strong defenses against the inevitable obstacles, setbacks, and failures children will experience in life.  Problems are tough enough to face when you believe in yourself, they are virtually insurmountable when you doubt your own value and have not developed the inner toughness that whispers, "whatever comes my way, I can handle it!"  A strong sense of value and dignity as a human being leads to the development of resilience, the seeds of which each of us is born with.  Resilience is the capacity to bounce back following failure.  It is also the ability to emerge stronger after exposure to adversity.  People with poor self-esteem most often do not develop acorns of resilience into mighty, weathered oak trees because rather than bounce back following a challenge, they shrink back from it in the first place, terrified.  Considering themselves to be far too fragile and unequal to the task, they learn to avoid dealing with problems head on.   Unbeknowst to them, the great tragedy is that in avoiding problems, they also avoid growth.  In turning tail when things get tough, they miss the fact that life is handing them a golden opportunity not to flounder, but to flourish.   As the eminent author and psychiatrist Dr. M. Scott Peck writes in The Road Less Travelled, "problems are the cutting edge that distinguishes between success and failure.  Problems call forth our courage and wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and wisdom.  It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually."

On Spelling Bees & Schemas

“I don’t agree.  Even though the kids were given help to spell the words right, they should still get the same prize as the kids who won.  They had the courage to get up [to the podium, during a dreadfully-orchestrated elementary school spelling bee], they deserve something for that.”  Amid the backdrop of many high school students  clamoring raucously against her point, a young lady in her early twenties voiced her opinion. 

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