Time To Rescue Our Young Adults?

The crisis afflicting young adults in America today is a well-documented phenomenon that statistics sometimes seem inadequate to document.  Rising rates of drug and alcohol use, STD’s, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and suicidal thought and action cannot in and of themselves adequately describe the desperate state of those who should now be living the most exciting years of their lives—not gulping pizza and Prozac while blearily staring at their phones.

Many commentaries have been written to attempt to explain this generational problem that affects many—but certainly not all—young American adults.  Explanations run the course from poor parenting that is (depending on the writer) either neglectful or overly involved, prevalent racism, rampant sexism, toxic masculinity, violence, intrusive technology, or even Donald Trump.  Although young adults can be negatively affected by these factors and many more too numerous to count, the systemic problems seem to suggest a more global explanation is needed.

How broad based are the problems affecting those who are just starting their life journey—and often crashing and burning?  According to a 2017 Pentagon study, only 29% percent of young adults who are eligible to join the military actually qualify; the other 71% are disqualified because they are obese, have no high school diploma, or already have compiled a criminal record. The American Psychological Associations Journal of Abnormal Psychology reports that in the past 10 to 12 years, the number of 18-25 year olds reporting symptoms indicative of major depression increased 63%, and serious psychological distress and suicide-related thoughts or actions rose by 70%.  A 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Labor found that Millennials, who today are 18 to 34 years old, make 43 percent less than what Gen Xers made in 1995 when they were under 35 years old.  “Don’t be a fool, stay in school”?  The average young adult now accrues over $33,000 in student loan debt, and roughly 4 of 10 will never actually complete the degree they seek.

When all is said and done, maybe firing up a doobie and binge watching Game of Thrones with a bag of Cheetos isn’t such a bad idea, but the question now is what can we do get our troubled young people back on track.  I have three proposals:

Stop medicating our young instead of helping them

The rise in the number children who are growing up with the handy help of a doctor’s prescription pad is startling—in the extreme. Data from the IQVia Total Patient Tracker Database for 2017 shows that well over 15 million children and adolescents were receiving psychiatric medication for diagnoses ranging from ADHD to anxiety during just that year alone.  Given that these are powerful mind and mood altering drugs being pumped into immature and developing brains—and researchers have long been aware of the unpredictable (and largely unstudied) dangers posed to young minds by these drugs—our extraordinary reliance on substituting pills for patient and consistent adult protection and guidance is simply beyond belief.  

Pharmaceutical companies have misused the inherent trust of the public for the medical profession to convince tens of millions of parents to turn their children into guinea pigs for the most amazing uncontrolled experiment with mind-altering drugs in the history of humanity.  The long term consequences for the children unwillingly enrolled in this stupendously lucrative drug trial are unknown, but it does not take much imagination to guess at the catastrophic—and perhaps permanent—effects powerful psychoactive drugs can have on the fragile chemistry of young minds as they develop into young adulthood.

It might be just a little more difficult to grow up healthy and happy after a childhood and adolescence spent as a lab rat for Big Pharma.  Are we, sad to say, sending chemically damaged brains careening into the many challenges of young adulthood—and do we need to immediately stop doing this?

Accept the fact—finally—that our current system of public education is beyond repair

John Wayne is often erroneously credited with stating the obvious: “Life is tough, but it’s tougher when you’re stupid.”  The academic outcomes of our K-12 public education system, the deficiencies of which have been chronicled with mind numbing regularity for many decades, have been impervious to reform because our schools are paycheck, contract, and pension machines—and lots of people are making buck on mediocrity.  Ensconced behind an impervious wall of legislation and regulation designed to ensure that the adults are well served, public schools provide daycare, food, recreation, and places for students, staff, and faculty to charge their cell phones.  We should expect much, much more.  

Although some students certainly still succeed and pockets of educational excellence still exist in our public schools, the students who most need their schools to provide a hand up—those who are poor, those who are minority, and those who have difficult lives—are often ruthlessly shoved down after being shunted into Special Education or remedial classes where their chances of catching up with their peers academically are vanishingly small.  A typical arc after receiving a worthless high school diploma is an unsuccessful semester or two at college followed by a lifetime that is severely circumscribed by the academic deficiencies that were never addressed.  To fail so many students is a national scandal, and to continue to blame students and their families for these failures is nothing other than sublime cruelty.

As part of a commentary posted on December 13 of 2015 on my blog (andrewmwilk.com), I wrote the following concerning what I thought would be the most effective way to improve Illinois’ public schools:

“I believe our best course of action is to actively explore ways to convert our states entire education system to school vouchers and thereby allow parents and students to choose any school—public, private, or religious—anywhere they want to attend. Student funding would, as is currently allowed to some degree in half the states in our nation, follow the student instead of being handed to local school districts, and the continued funding of that student in that particular school should be designed to be contingent on both their [standardized test] scores and school grades.

In other words, we would flip the responsibility for success more toward the student by making a very direct bargain the centerpiece of this reform: if you like the school you are attending and want to remain there as a student, you had better pay attention in class and do your homework.”

I still believe it is the best course of action for Illinois—and I believe the same is true for every school in our nation—but I am not counting on it happening any time soon.  As long as the National Education Association has a single dollar left in its bank account to use to bribe legislators (in the form of campaign contributions), we will continue on just as we have for decades regarding education reform—all talk and little or no action.

Refocus our attention

There are plenty of engaging and urgent concerns affecting every square inch of our planets flora and fauna, but perhaps we need to lift our eyes and focus more of our outrage and concern on a much broader canvas of human behavior and human pain.  To continue to note the struggles experienced by many young adults but not make addressing them a top national priority seems a short-sighted and self-destructive course of action that will harm individuals and families, weaken our economy, place our national security at risk, and destroy the fabric of our democracy and civic life.

It is astounding that so many Americans are more likely to respond to the struggles of a distressed tree or injured dog than those of a overwhelmed young mother or traumatized young man, but perhaps it is simple human nature to prefer issues that avoid human messiness or contradictions and so seem more easily managed and solved.  The task of rescuing our troubled young adults is an enormous undertaking.  Even the most cursory examination and discussion of the catastrophe afflicting so many of them reveals that the problems are both complex and multi-faceted.  

However, with all due respect to the problems experienced by whales, wild flowers, and wildebeests, it might be time to concentrate our energies on assisting a huge segment of our own human population that is in deep distress right now and in need of our help and understandingbefore it is too late.

Advertisements

Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out

To give the 1960’s countercultural guru and drug enthusiast Dr. Timothy Leary his due, he claimed his most famous saying—from which this commentary takes its title—was not meant to advocate a life of addled indolence. There is, however, little doubt that some variation of his advice has taken hold in a great many corners of American society, and even Cheech and Chong would be shocked at where we are today.

A recent article in the Washington Post contained these terrifying statistics about America’s current disastrous epidemic of drug abuse:

“In 2015, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures, heroin deaths alone surpassed gun homicides for the first time. More than 33,000 people died of opioid overdose, with another 20,000 dying from other drugs. A recent federal study found that prescription painkillers are now more widely used than tobacco.”

The article goes on to note that prescription overdose deaths have been rising since 2000 despite state and federal efforts to crack down on the abuse of these drugs.

It would, of course, be impossible to not point a finger at the pharmaceutical industry. Their aggressive marketing of all manner of drugs to cure every side effect of living our normal daily lives has been disingenuous at best—and outright quackery at worst. Although improvements in medications have made many diseases and maladies more bearable and even provided cures for some which were previously a death sentence, we have also been sold the notion that annoying or inconvenient variations in human behavior or function are now problems worthy of a visit to the doctor—and more and more of our lives are now wrapped up in gulping pills to cure more and more newly discovered “illnesses”.

Is your child is too rambunctious? We’ve got a pill for that! Are you shy around strangers? We’ve got a medication to cure you! Need to pep up? We’ve got you covered! Need to wind down? We’ve got something for that too! Sweaty? Yep! Not sweaty enough? Sure thing! Too hairy? You betcha! Not hairy enough? Step right up!

The predations of the pharmaceutical industry—now free to advertise their wares to a credulous and yearning public—are successful because they take advantage of two signal human weaknesses: our attraction to easy solutions and our desire—born of our insecurities—to “perfect” ourselves and our lives.

Just as we have a fantasy belief that eating fat-free foods will make us thin without the bother of exercise or that purchasing an expensive new laptop computer for our academically struggling child will guarantee future admission to an Ivy League college, so do we easily delude ourselves into believing that health, happiness, and success is available if we can find the right pill to swallow. The shamans of the tribal past would find the pill-sized hopes hidden inside our medicine cabinets, gym bags, bedside tables, and purses to be entirely unsurprising.

Of course, our routine use—and shocking abuse—of powerful and highly addictive opioid painkillers is another step beyond. If we knew how many of our friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues are gulping Norco, Percocet, and OxyContin—or perhaps even shooting heroin or snorting cocaine—in daily dosages sufficient to stun a cow, we would likely be shaken to the core. This is obviously an issue that puts all manner of medical practitioners on the front lines of any solution, but it also speaks to something deeper, darker, and more disturbing happening in towns and cities across America where the desire for the numbing escape these drugs provide for many has nothing to do with a physical pain.

It would be foolish to deny that many people like to get high, but most somehow manage to get through their freshman year of college only slightly worse for the wear, a few brain cells short yet ready for the productive lives lying ahead. There have, of course, always been a few who never really grow beyond their partying phase of life, and these men and women have always spent their lives dealing with the chaos and health problems that have resulted.

However, we need to ask what has so changed within ourselves that we are now landing in emergency rooms, rehab centers, or the morgue in such astonishing numbers—lives ruined, families destroyed, and communities devastated.

Many are wondering why Americans are now so often using these potent painkillers, but I ask a different question: Given the grim and aimless lives so many are now forced to live, why would you not turn to narcotics for relief from the emotional and spiritual hurts that somehow must be endured—day after day after day. If you look back over the span of human existence during the past several thousand years, we have counted on three facets of our lives for the purpose and pleasure that helps us deal with the daily rigors and challenges we all must face: our families, our faiths, and our work. Unfortunately, all three are under siege by societal, economic, and political forces that are eroding the foundations of much of American life.

Soaring divorce rates, single parent households, out-of-wedlock births, and lonely latchkey kids: All of this and more is grinding down families across our nation. Organized religion—now often derided as the last refuge of the ignorant and bigoted by the intelligentsia—is in full retreat from the onslaught of our ever more permissive society. Work that offers dignity and pride of craft has been often replaced by “McJobs” that offer little beyond a meager paycheck, and more workers are daily told that their livelihoods are being shipped abroad—or being replaced by a robot or piece of computer software. Taken individually, these trends are profoundly disturbing; all three together are an assault upon everything that many of us hold dear.

Those who wonder why so many voters are revolting against the status quo fail to understand that many Americans blame our national leaders for their blithe lack of concern with the agony that so many feel today. We don’t want another pointless regulatory commission, another ossified agency, or another clock-watching bureaucrat explaining just how wonderful the latest round of new and improved government policies will make our lives—long after our bones have already been picked clean. Until our elected and appointed officials get it through their thick skulls that our country and its people expect leadership that supports families, respects faith, and empowers American workers, they can expect little beyond our cold contempt and volcanic rage.

Until this happens, don’t be surprised if many Americans turn to a narcotic haze to provide some respite from the empty charade that so many of our lives have become. This might not be a great long term plan, and it certainly carries along its own measure of misery. However, for many who are desperately lonely, spiritually bereft, and physically exhausted, a little drug-induced escape makes more sense than not.