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U.S. youth crisis goes way beyond Instagram | Will Bunch Newsletter

Plus, the return of TV’s best show

Have I been too obsessed with my bucket list lately? Last week I told you about crossing off a Top 5 entry in finally seeing the Rolling Stones. Probably the top item is, unfortunately, out of my control: Living long enough to see the U.S. men’s soccer team reach a World Cup final. Unfortunately, the current American crew can’t even defeat lowly Panama. I guess I’ll always have Mick Jagger and “Gimme Shelter.” What tops your bucket list?

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Instagram and the campus suicide crisis show how we push our youth to the edge

Samantha Linn still remembers arriving on the University of Pennsylvania campus four years ago from her hometown in the Chicago suburbs, and feeling the contrast between the real-world anxiety of a first-year college student and the cheery images from her friends when she logged onto sites like Instagram or Facebook.

“At the beginning of college, everybody is posting these happy pictures — ‘It’s so great!’ — and that’s not the reality at all,” said Linn, now a 21-year-old senior and a student leader of Cogwell @ Penn— one of several mental-health awareness groups that have sprouted up on the Penn campus after a stunning 14 students died by suicide between 2013 and 2017. She told me on Monday that the happiness facade on sites like Instagram only compounded what she called “the internal pressure” facing teens who are told that success or failure at age 18 may determine the rest of their lives.

It became front-page news this month when courageous Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed that (among other things) the Silicon Valley social-media giant knew from internal research that impossible pressure to live up to the glamorous images posted on Instagram is harming the mental health of teenage girls — yet buried the data rather than do anything about it.

But the truth is that America’s young people — the larger cohort of adolescents, teens, and young adults in their early 20s — have been dealing with a much larger mental health crisis in recent years, including an alarming spike in the youth suicide rate, and we should be ashamed that this wasn’t the lead story years earlier.

Today, the great unmooring caused by more than a year of COVID-19 disruptions is making matters even worse for a generation that’s already grown up under pressure from a ridiculously young age — whether in leafy suburbs where adolescents race to overbooked activities and SAT prep to get into “the right college,” or on potholed city streets where gunfire is too routine, or small towns in the Rust Belt where kids lacking access to higher ed are pegged as losers in a rigged, fake “meritocracy.”

On Tuesday, as this newsletter goes out, the sprawling University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill has cancelled all classes for a “Wellness Day” after one student died by suicide and another attempted to take their own life, rattling the nearly 30,000 students on campus to the core. A worker for their student mental-health network, Peer2Peer, told NBC News “[w]e almost have a second pandemic on our hands with mental health and suicide.”

But it’s important for Americans to understand that this second pandemic didn’t start with the coronavirus, or even with the spiking popularity of Instagram and its high-fashion, high-living “influencers” during the 2010s. In fact, from 2007 through 2018, suicide — just one barometer of mental health, but a critical one — rose at the astronomical rate of nearly 60% for Americans in this critical 10-24 age bracket. It’s now their second-leading cause of death.

With a wider lens, think how much coming of age in America has changed in the last century. In a bygone era when a majority of teens didn’t even finish high school, let alone attend college, the bonds of community, family and religion created conformity but also a kind of stability. Conversely, the rapid changes of extended adolescence since World War II have offered individuality and free choice to America’s youth, but youthful freedom is defined more and more by pressure — to look cool in an increasingly online culture, or to gamble tens of thousands in student loans on a Hail Mary pass to find a job in a winner-take-all “knowledge economy.”

» READ MORE: Can we stop mass shootings if we won’t talk about the crisis of America’s young men? | Will Bunch

America’s youth mental-health breakdown spares no group. In a recent Inquirer op-ed, leaders of the American Psychiatric Association punctured the myth that youth suicide and mental-health crises are a white suburban problem, pointing to a growing number of Black girls taking their own lives and high suicide rates among younger Indigenous people. Last year, the Princeton economists who popularized the phrase “deaths of despair” from suicide and drug and alcohol abuse reported a rising toll of such fatalities among 20-somethings who didn’t attend college.

And yet even getting into an elite college is hardly a panacea. That’s been driven home here in Philadelphia on the Penn campus, where just last week two top researchers — with a $14 million grant from the National Institutes of Health — launched the Penn Innovation in Suicide Prevention Implementation Research (INSPIRE) Center, hoping to study and hone that best practices that might reverse this epidemic. It’s the latest and most high-profile response to the mid-2010s’ cluster of student suicides that made national headlines, especially in 2019 when the university’s director of psychological services also died by suicide, linked to the stress of his job.

Inside Penn’s ivy-covered dormitories, many students can’t wait for academic research to find ways to cope with the pressures of entering adulthood. Thus, the surge in popularity for student organizations like Cogwell, which conducts training sessions with campus groups (most recently on Zoom, of course) aimed at making them better listeners when their peers complain about the stresses of modern college life. Cogwell is hoping to train as many as 400 to 500 Penn students this year, a steep rise from about 50 when Linn was a first-year student.

“We aim to provide them with the skills to be a better listener,” said Linn, so that when a classmate goes through a difficult breakup or is struggling with academic pressures, fellow students can not only offer emotional support but, if necessary, steer them towards additional outside aid to help them cope. In the spirit of Tuesday’s “Wellness Day” at UNC, the first step in addressing America’s youth mental health crisis is simply to acknowledge the problem, to tell these teens and young adults that it’s OK to be not OK, and that we’re listening.

But I would also argue for a bold national re-thinking of the seriously flawed ways that America transitions our most valuable asset — our youth — into adulthood. That would mean making at least community college and hopefully state universities into a taxpayer-funded “public good” aimed at ending the student-debt crisis; a new paradigm — ranging from free trade school to simply more respect — for the half of our children who won’t attend traditional college; and an 18-year-old “gap year” of universal national service, that would bring together youth from sharply different backgrounds for community projects, in a spirit of American purpose. Getting the United States back on track is going to start with our amazing kids.

If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Yo, do this

  1. Nothing has sparked more pop-culture agita during the long COVID-19 pandemic than the unwanted gap in TV’s best show of the turn of the decade, HBO’s Succession — stuck in limbo between Season 2 and 3, with ne’er-do-well son (well, one of them) Kendell Roy, played by Jeremy Strong declaring war on his Rupert Murdoch-esque media-mogul dad, the dyspeptic and imperious Logan Roy, played by Brian Cox. It’s one giant leap for normalcy when Season 3 finally launches Sunday night on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern, and streaming ever after. Prediction: Cousin Greg, played by Nicholas Braun, will steal the show — he always does.

  2. If you’re the kind of person who’s painted the sequence “41-33″ on the roof of your Jersey Shore house, tattooed it on your rear end or flown it on a banner from your small private plane, you’re going want to watch Thursday night when Tom Brady — of the “33″ in that iconic Super Bowl LII score, back when he quarterbacked the Patriots — comes to the Linc with the Tampa Bay Bucs in what one assumes will be a futile effort to exact revenge for that 2018 loss on our Philadelphia Eagles. I’m betting (not literally ... betting is stupid) on Jalen Hurts to channel his inner Nick Foles. It all kicks off 8:20 p.m. on Fox.

Ask me anything

Question: Thoughts on Eric Clapton? — Via Skip @Skiptnm4567 on Twitter

Answer: Eric Clapton hasn’t done anything good since 1971 — and I’m not just talking about his music. (Although I am also talking about his music, since early flashes of genius — “Badge,” “Layla” — quickly faded.) In the famous verbal construction of Maya Angelou, Clapton showed us who he was the first time in 1976, with a stunningly racist (”Keep Britain white!”), slur-laden anti-immigrant rant at a concert in Birmingham, England, in which he praised extreme right-winger Enoch Powell. Now people are Casablanca-casino shocked that this same Clapton isn’t just an anti-vaxxer but actively funding the movement. For too many lost baby boomers, “freedom” is just another word for spouting ancient white-supremacist claptrap.


On Wednesday, Pennsylvania’s attorney general, Josh Shapiro, will announce that he’s running to become the commonwealth’s next governor, and, in doing so, he will be all but anointed the winner of May’s Democratic primary (late, unlikely rumors of a progressive challenge notwithstanding). Given the wackadoodle race to the Trump-covered bottom on the GOP side, he’s also the tentative favorite to replace Gov. Wolf in next year’s general election, which would mark the first time since the 1970s that either party has had back-to-back chief executives. I’m OK with the rise of Shapiro, even though I’m also the guy who warned last year that his history on criminal justice — including ties to the Philadelphia FOP, which donated $25,000 to his 2020 AG campaign — is troubling.

» READ MORE: Will AG Shapiro’s ties to FOP sink his hopes of becoming governor? | Will Bunch Newsletter

What changed? January 6 happened, and that upended everything. If the Republicans follow the historical patterns — both of alternating the governorship but also sweeping midterm elections when a Democrat is in the White House — then democracy in the state that gave you the Declaration of Independence is in deep, deep trouble. Any GOP governor from 2022′s motley crew would work in tandem with the Legislature to sharply curtail voting rights, such as mail-in balloting, appoint a secretary of state who likely believes in Trump’s Big Lie, and probably sign a law that would enable lawmakers or other Republicans to send a pro-Trump slate of Electors on January 6, 2025 — regardless of who gets the most votes. Shapiro is the Democrat who’s already shown he can win big statewide, in the Trump year of 2016 and again in 2020. For progressives, Shapiro may be covered in political warts, but when the fate of democracy is on the ballot, he looks like a handsome prince.

Inquirer reading list

  1. The nationwide Kellogg’s cereal strike doesn’t just mean you might miss your Rice Krispies, but it could be a turning point as America looks toward a likely “strike wave” of the kind that hasn’t been seen in decades, with possibly tens of thousands to walk the picket lines. In my Sunday column, I looked at why U.S. workers are mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it any more, and what that could mean for a middle class that has seen its prospects shrink in tandem with declining union power.

  2. The somewhat surprising news that two crusading journalists — Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia — have won the Nobel Peace Prize was in many ways a banner day for press freedom. But over the weekend I wrote that it could also be seen as a warning to other media who aren’t up to the challenge of defending democracy. Unfortunately, this has been particularly true in the United States, where the elite Beltway media seems wed to lame “both sides” journalism and oblivious to Donald Trump’s slow-rolling coup that is happening in plain sight.

  3. Regular newsletter readers know I’ve been obsessed with the crisis of higher education — my book on college and the American political divide is due to be published on August 9, 2022 — and fortunately so is The Inquirer, which has one of the best beat writers in the business in Pulitzer Prize winner Susan Snyder. She’s been all over the downward spiral of Pennsylvania’s state university system, which on Monday announced the biggest one-year drop in enrollment in its history. This is yet another blow to what should have been a crown jewel for advancing the middle class. Without coverage like that in The Inquirer, our public institutions could fade into irrelevance. Please support what we do by subscribing.