Over the past few weekends, I’ve gone back home to Redlands, a city I have spent many hours writing about before, including for this newspaper. Those stories, first about my melancholy coming home for breaks and second about the aftermath of the massacre in nearby San Bernardino last December, discuss my struggles to fall in love with my hometown after living so far from it the past few years.
Recently, however, my trips home have had a much different tone to them, making me realize all that time I spent writing down my angst towards Redlands was not just a symptom of teenage dissatisfaction. It was the only way I could find my way out.
In the past month, two people I know committed suicide. One, a friend’s older brother, graduated high school last year. The other, one of my sister’s friends, was a junior in high school. My senior year, one of my classmates, a year younger than me, also killed himself.
I’m not sure if these stats are “shocking” or “normal” but does that even matter? The point is three young people, in the last three years, all came to the conclusion that, as a result of several differing factors, they couldn’t be here anymore.
In a way, mental illness has become normalized, especially amongst teenagers and even more especially amongst teenage girls. Looking back, my three closest female friends in high school all had, at some point in those four tumultuous years, expressed thoughts of suicide or seen a therapist or suffered from disordered eating. So at sixteen, listening to these friends’ secrets and traumas, it did feel “normal.” Because so many people I knew were dealing with it.
I don’t think you need me to tell you that this is the heart of the problem.
We’ve published many articles already in this newspaper about mental health at UC Irvine and the lack of resources and funding — even more on the general stigma about mental health issues, how talking about depression or diagnoses is still taboo. A vicious cycle of people feeling like they can’t talk, meaning their symptoms and pain only get worse, so statistics rise and prescriptions are written and pills are taken but still there remains an unwritten rule that “we just don’t talk about it.”
Finally, at least in Redlands, we’ve decided to talk about it.
There was a suicide prevention conference a couple weekends ago, with flyers given to all high school students to take home. Parents and students and teachers listened to teen representatives share their stories, with the intention of learning more about the signs of a depressed or suicidal young person and, more importantly, what to do to prevent another tragedy.
The night before the conference, my mom asked me why I think there has been such a spike in teen suicide in recent years, particularly in our fairly quiet and clean small town. I told her that’s exactly it.
Before moving to Orange County, I had no idea what it was like to live somewhere beautiful. And how much of an impact that beauty would have on my overall mental health. I grew up in the Inland Empire, a place I can only compare to the lint and dust and dirt that vacuums suck up from the carpet of a very nice home. It’s an area that wants to be a destination, but is just an end point. Lots of adults end up in Redlands, Fontana, Rialto. And their children spend most of their lives trying to get out.
“Well okay,” my mom replied, “I grew up in Moreno Valley — a place that’s even more lifeless than Redlands. We had one traffic light and there was nothing to do…” Her voice trailed off as she slowly realized the difference between now and then.
As always, the answer comes back to the Internet. Don’t get me wrong, I love the power of the web and I celebrate its benefits but I definitely recognize its toxicity. Whereas my mom grew up in a boring, claustrophobic city and that’s all she knew, today, we millennials are growing up with constant reminders of what we don’t have being shoved in our faces. And that can do some major damage on a person’s ability to be happy.
When you spend the majority of your teenage and early adult years going online and seeing the remarkable fame that your contemporaries have risen to, thanks to YouTube and Tumblr and Vine, and you see them allocating all of the money and products and friends that you want but don’t think you can ever have — that disintegrates self-esteem. Especially for a generation who grew up through the recession — a period in which those who had little lived with even less and those with lots ended up losing so much of it — we have become complacent with the concept of immobility.
No, you can’t go to movies because tickets are $15 and Mom needs gas money to go to work. We can only eat burritos this week because beans were on sale. Braces are too expensive, your teeth are fine the way they are.
These are distinct memories I have, making me hyper-aware of what I had, didn’t have and used to have growing up in a lower middle class, suburban neighborhood. But the whole time, I was even more aware of what I could have.
I think this is the aspect of social media that we have not properly discussed in the chaotic conversation about its impact on mental health. Yes, it can open doors for anonymous bullying and petty insults thrown without consequence; it can offer a negative comfort in isolation; it can provide potentially harmful information in regards to violence and destruction.
But in the glitz and the glamour, in the countless vlogs posted of girls with lots of money to spend on make up and be considered attractive, in its broadcasting of grotesque celebrity culture as the pinnacle lifestyle, the most unattainable but most desired — this is where I see a serious problem.
And I don’t see a solution. But it can start in the language older generations use to refer to millennials. I’m sure all of my peers can recall a time when they read a headline or heard on the news or in their real lives some adult disparaging the millennial generation. The generation that is the most brainwashed, most dumbed-down — the generation that will do nothing to help social progress. THAT is damaging. Because for an already fragile self-esteem, that plants the idea that we are worthless. The poisonous thought that if we disappear, nothing would change.
It’s this belief that can lead to another teenager pulling the trigger.
Savannah Peykani is a third-year literary journalism, film and media studies double-major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.