OK. I hear you. Having more money makes life easier. Yes, I agree. However, just like everything in life, you must consider the other side of the coin. There is always dark and light side to everything. Think Star Wars. (Whenever I get confused about something, I boil it down to a Star Wars metaphor. It helps. Ha!)
I have been seeing a lot of depression amongst affluent teens lately. Whenever I start to notice a trend, I have to ask what is the deeper meaning or what needs attention. Why are teens that seemingly have everything they could ever want and need, depressed? Seems strange doesn’t it? A starving child in Africa would freak out at the chance to trade places even for a day. Clean water, indoor plumbing, air conditioning, food, money, fancy clothes, electronics, a loving family, jewelry, maybe even a car to drive, and, I cannot stress this one enough, indoor plumbing! Unless you are really willing to look deeper, it is hard not to judge these teens as, well, “spoiled.”
I started thinking when I was investigating the addiction studies on mice and how a highly enriched environment wildly reduces the rats desire to drink the heroin laced water. I thought to myself, well, these teens certainly have an enriched environment, right? Why are they then self medicating or depressed? I looked deeper at the rat utopia. It had everything a rat needed to thrive. Then I reflected on my spiritual studies and my own life. I asked the question, “What do teens need to thrive? Maybe the affluent environment is missing something important these teens need.”
Interestingly, once you get past clean water, shelter, food, and family, the other things fell into a category of “nice to have but not necessary.” I like my fancy purse, but I would be just fine with a less expensive one. My state of inner contentment is not a reflection of my purse.
So, obviously, there is something missing in the affluent teen environment that is necessary for internal well being. I then looked to my little daughter who has special needs. She is most happy when she is helping other people. We know this and offer her special jobs around the house and the school gives her special responsibilities. The focus is on making sure she feels like she is contributing and is important and valued.
Being a valued member of society is critical from an evolutionary perspective. Our tribal ancestors did not appreciate a free loader. So, evolution saw fit for us to “need to be needed.” When we feel like we are not contributing or not a valuable member of society, we feel bad. Typically, that should drive us to work to find a way to contribute and be valuable to alleviate the bad feeling (depression, cough).
Soooo, I started looking at the depressed teens around me and realized they all had something in common. They had little opportunity to feel valuable in life. Too much was done for them. They don’t need to help the family business or help raise siblings like pre WWI families. They don’t need to help on the farm. They have to go to school but that really isn’t making anyone else’s life better. There are volunteer opportunities in school but if you have social anxiety that can be difficult to step into. Many of these depressed, affluent teens also have some sort of anxiety.
Given we work so hard to help special needs children to feel like they are productive members of our society, I have to wonder why we miss the boat on any other child. We know that a sense of self worth is critical to the human psyche, why do we miss this so often when it comes to depressed children (especially affluent ones)? I see these teens spend a lot of time working on coping strategies if they are in some sort of program. This is well and good but if you are not addressing the underlying problem, then you are really going to have to cope a lot.
Just like my daughter who is happiest when she feels like she is helping, our depressed teens need a sense of purpose. I think this is a call to think outside the box when working with depression. Maybe they can teach piano lessons or art to special needs children? Maybe they can volunteer with the help of a coach until they are comfortable. I noticed that my chronically ill son who really does not do much around the house due to physical limitations, loves it when I tell him he is responsible for keeping his sister on task with homework (she likes to go on research tangents which is interesting but does not get work done).
I also noticed that my oldest daughter who is extremely bright and bored felt lit up inside when she was helping in the first grade classroom. Little children love her and she responds in kind.
I, personally, can become very grumpy when I am not working. Every now and then my children’s needs prevent me from taking on clients, or there is just a client lull. In those moments, I really find it hard to value my contributions. (Unfortunately, writing blog posts and books affords little in the way of feedback. It can feel futile in moments. And being a mom, well, no one values that very much – something desperately needs to change there.) When I am working to help people, I feel great! I can handle anything. Interesting.
Back to our depressed teens who seem to have it all. Recognize they may not have it all. They may be missing one of the most important aspects of being human: feeling needed. Allow your teens to contribute to society in ways that they deem meaningful. They will be repaid tenfold in a sense of self worth. The depression may even lessen. It is worth trying. Depression can have its organic origins and sometimes requires medication. However, medication is often not the only solution required. So, if you are working with depression, you must consider if the core needs of the human are being met because if they are not, then depression can be a naturally occurring byproduct.