I was just around twelve years of age when I first got a taste of depression. I knew something was different with one of my friends. He seemed to be experiencing some unusual distress, and not the kind that comes from school. Once he really began to act differently and opened up about it, I felt locked up in a mental prison. What was I to do? I did not feel suited to better my friend’s situation, or even understand it. The fact of the matter is that twelve year olds are not equipped to handle some of life’s most pressing issues. Looking back on the situation, I never fully processed or came to terms with it. It was not until I was much older that the extent of my fear truly manifested. We talked about the past, and he briefly mentioned his early thoughts of suicide. I was shaken, and my mind immediately went into a spiral. I thought of our friendship and all the memories we had already created. I thought of his accomplishments; his indestructible determination and unwillingness to take orders from anyone that had not rightfully earned his respect came to mind. His are the qualities that every man envies and strives to emulate. All of these things I erased from my mind in the blink of an eye. That simple, quick deletion of memories is what suicide means to me, and how I define it.
Once I was able to truly comprehend and reflect upon the situation, I realized that I could no longer be a spectator. I could no longer hear another story similar to my friend’s, with the only difference being a much more grave ending. After doing some research, I found that my community, Silicon Valley, has a history with depression. As a result, I decided that it would be fitting to focus my Catalyst Conference on depression in teens living in Silicon Valley. My goal is to combat three main problems that come along with depression: a lack of awareness for those living with depression, an insufficient system of support, and an inadequate answer to the question of why depression is so prevalent in a community that has every resource imaginable.
What even is depression?
You may be wondering what depression even is, and that is okay. Depression is a mental state in which an individual experiences many different symptoms, ranging from loss of appetite to suicidal thoughts, and it exists on a spectrum. Bev Cobain, author of When Nothing Matters Anymore, describes depression as “fall[ing] into a deep, dark hole with no way to climb out.”
There are many factors that contribute to the development of depression in an individual. Some factors that work together to create distress include brain chemistry, genetics, distorted thinking, and social environment.
How is it relevant to Silicon Valley?
Silicon Valley is a family of communities on the south side of the Bay Area, in California. It is the location of many tech-giants’ headquarters, such as Facebook and Instagram. The median sale price of a home in Silicon Valley is $1.05 million. To be frank, Silicon Valley is not a “normal” community due to the vast amounts of wealth. Yet, living in such a resourced and coveted community can actually be quite detrimental to the mental health of teens. We can look at statistics for proof of this. In Santa Clara County, 20 children and young adults killed themselves each year, on average, between 2010 and 2014. In Palo Alto, a town within Santa Clara County, the teen suicide rate is four to five times higher than the national average. Fully 12 percent of surveyed high school students from the 2013-2014 school year in Palo Alto revealed that they had “seriously considered suicide,” according to Newsweek. Alarmingly, through March of the next school year at Gunn High School, over 40 students were “hospitalized or treated for ‘significant suicide ideation’” (Newsweek).
Why is depression so prevalent in Silicon Valley?
After speaking with mental health leaders at my school, I learned that much of our distress is rooted in our expectations. When teens are surrounded by billionaires and financial success stories, the wealth becomes normalized. Teens develop the notion that their success is defined by their financial accomplishments. The mental health leaders also explained to me that depression can come from, specifically in Silicon Valley, isolation and spending our free time in areas of little importance. I personally believe that depression invariably comes from a feeling of a lack of choices, whether it is known to the depressed individual or not. I pursued this idea in an interview with a friend who has suffered from depression.
*Please note that due to some obscene language, portions of this video are censored*
*Also please note that the volume on the video is low, so wearing headphones is advised*
*Finally, if you go to my school, PLEASE do not solicit information about the interviewee. If you think you know who it is, PLEASE keep it to yourself.
The same mental health leaders that I spoke to also told me that depression in our area is rooted in our perception of ourselves. We see our own worth tied up in our accomplishments. We then see ourselves as valuable only if we succeed in the areas of our lives like school or standardized tests.
This survey is an exercise that was introduced to me by a faculty member at my school. While it is quite a simple exercise, the results can be powerful.
If you were honest with yourself while taking the survey, you may have found that the time you spend during your day does not reflect the things you most value. For me, I found that while I value my family above everything, I still decided to work on some homework as opposed to watching a movie with my parents this weekend. Not surprisingly, small decisions we make that drive us away from our connections with others can contribute to our distress. Take a look at this survey conducted at my school by Sources of Strength (system of support at my school) and Challenge Success. From it, we can see that our students are not set up to be stress-free; many of us prioritize our work, so much so that we miss out on time to replenish our energy by spending time with our loved ones.
CHALLENGE SUCCESS SURVEY 2015
Prep Student Feedback
64% said there is too much homework
21% are stressed by extracurricular activities
43% said that athletics are the most stressful
46% said they had from 0 – 40 minutes of free time on a typical weekday
54% feel that teachers care about them
81% said they had a trusted adult
Sleep: adolescents need between 9.25 and 9.5 hours of sleep. The average student here reports getting 6.5 hours.
60% go to bed after 11:00 pm
84% feel stressed by schoolwork
75% said schoolwork often or always kept them from time with family and friends
75% said schoolwork often or always kept them from getting enough sleep
60% dropped an activity because of schoolwork
46% said stress of emotional problems caused them to miss more than one day of school
60% said stress or emotional problems caused them to miss a social, extracurricular, or recreational activity more than once in the last month
42% experienced exhaustion, headaches, and difficulty sleeping in the past month
I also went to SafeSpace, a local organization that supports teens struggling with depression, for some answers. Dr. Leslie Martin, the managing director of SafeSpace, revealed to me that there is no magic answer to question of why depression is so prevalent in Silicon Valley. In other words, the answer is in my own brain and the brains of those in my community, and it does not require too much thought to find it. After some reflection, I realized that much of my own distress comes from comparing myself to others. I feel that my community has a culture that tells people that we are in constant competition with each other. This idea goes beyond financial success; it causes us to feel that we must be the best looking, the most athletic, the most academically successful, and so on and so forth. Because we compare ourselves to others and focus on our own success, we lose our connection to others, according to a mental health leader at my school. Humans were made to depend on each other.
My own Call To Action
After meeting with some mental health leaders and experts in my community, I found that while Silicon Valley is plagued by depression, much is being done to support those fighting the disorder. For instance, at my high school, two teachers have launched a pilot program that allows students to get some exercise, meditate, or even do yoga or tai chi after school. One of the teachers who launched the afterschool program has told me that spreading the word about the program would be helpful. On top of that, I have applied to become a Mental Health Ambassador at my school, where I want it to be known that I will always be willing to talk about mental health. Having conversations about depression is the starting point for destigmatizing mental health.
Go to your school, and advocate for stronger support systems. See if anybody is doing any work on mental health, and what programs exist for students. I recommend doing exactly what teachers at my school did, and try to launch an after school program. Start a club! See if you can arrange for posters that promote healthy habits to be put up around your school.
Some tips for those struggling with depression
In his book When Nothing Matters Anymore, Bev Cobain highlights a couple of “survival tips” for those battling depression:
*Please note that “ “ indicates that I pulled exact wording from the above source.
- Exercising is extremely beneficial. While physical activity may sound like the last thing you want to do, it will help to boost your mood and motivation. Cobain explains that the University of Texas at Austin found that “30 minutes of brisk walking could temporarily boost the mood of depressed people.” Exercise does not have to be dull and arduous. Cobain even suggests turning on some music and dancing!
- Taking a break can help to ease your mind. Try to do some small activities that do not require much thinking. Examples may include having a conversation with your parents/friends, staring out the window, watching some funny videos, or shooting a basketball.
- Having fun will take your mind away from pain. Find things that you are passionate about, and pursue those passions. Plan a fun trip for the weekend, like a hiking adventure. Skiing or surfing could be fun as well. You make your own decisions! Just stay positive and plan things that you can look forward to doing.
- Eating tasty food will replenish your energy. However, keep in mind that eating the right food is necessary. Healthy food can be tasty, you just have to experiment. Work yourself up to eating five meals a day; enjoy at least three hearty meals and possibly two snack breaks. Healthy meals include “fresh fruits and raw veggies, dried fruits, high-protein foods, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, [and] unsaturated fats in the form of plant oils.”
- Talking about your experiences/pain will alleviate your suffering. Think about therapy and how simply talking about your feelings can be life-changing. While it may feel easiest to hold all of your emotions inside of you, this will only exacerbate the issue. Remember that change begins with self. You have to find your inner strength to be an advocate for yourself, and you will see immediate progress and relief. I recommend keeping a notebook of your thoughts and feelings. Maybe you would benefit from reflecting alone first, and then progress towards talking to a trusted adult or friend. You may even express your pain to your parents, and tell them you would like to see a therapist. That is the best option in front of you, but there is no rush to get there. Start with small steps and gradually work your way up to healing. Although some people may benefit from starting slowly, it is really up to you. You may very well feel comfortable enough to talk to a trusted adult or friend on the first day of noticing distress/mental discomfort. *Again, remember that your goal is to feel comfortable enough to meet with a therapist. If you feel nervous or hesitant, remember that therapists are empathetic, trained individuals who see your well-being as their own goal.
- Creating a plan that works for you and adhering to it is necessary to relieve yourself of your depression or distress. If you read for twenty minutes a day and it is working for you, don’t quit! If you are taking medication or are talking to a therapist, the same rule applies. So many people who have struggled with their mental health have fallen victim to ending treatment prematurely. Make sure that you are getting professional advice, and do not quit your plan until you and your therapist feel that the time has come.
- Cutting yourself slack is as necessary as any other step. Do not blame yourself for your suffering. Realize that you are a strong individual that will learn a tremendous amount from your experience with depression or distress. Cutting yourself slack can mean many different things. For example, it could mean refraining from being upset with yourself. It could also mean giving yourself time away from the hectic world we live in. Feed your creative side by expressing your emotions through painting, creating music, or anything that appeals to you. Try meditating. I personally enjoy a Buddhist meditation that allows the individual to think while meditating. You simply close your eyes and notice your thoughts. Then, you follow them and let your mind wander. Instead of trying to prevent or end random thoughts from occurring in your mind, you see them, allow the thought to continue, and watch it exit your mind. I have attached a clip of the guided meditation below…
If you would like a further explanation of the Buddhist meditation, known as Vipassana meditation, watch the entire video. If you would simply like a guided meditation, skip to 1:30, and follow along. If you dislike this meditation, refrain from letting it discourage you from trying meditation altogether. A plethora of different meditations exist, you just have to experiment to find one that you connect with.
To have a real-time conversation with me on my topic, follow my Catalyst Conference Instagram page, @catconf2018.alex.mummery. I will be hosting an Instagram-Live chat session on Saturday, April 28th at 1:00 p.m. (PST)
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