The lost tribe of 21st century youth
The ‘Murder Machine' is still killing our young people. The schools system has failed. Is it any wonder there is an explosion of binge-drinking, drug-taking, depression, and suicide among our children? And what are we going to do about it, ask Aine Tubridy and Michael Corry
‘I just want my children to be happy,' goes the parental mantra. So why are so many of our children unhappy, depressed and lost? And this at a time when parents on the whole are working harder than ever at being child-focused, and meeting their needs to a high standard.
There is a crisis of unprecedented proportions among our young people. Daily we are bombarded by statistics on drinking, drugs, school dropout rates, illiteracy, unwanted pregnancy, violent and homicidal behaviour, depression, self-mutilation, obsessive dieting, and suicide. Many feel empty, disenchanted with the world around them and disconnected from themselves. These are a lost tribe and their numbers are increasing.
Given that every child starts life with a sense of wonder, curiosity, awe, spontaneity, vitality, and the joy of being human, it's obvious that in many cases, such creative seedlings have failed to land on fertile ground. How does this inherent potential become stifled by the time they become teenagers? Are the qualities of playfulness, creativity and wonder being dampened along the way?
Well-meaning parents, with only the children's good at heart, entrust them for 13 years to our school system, an educational process which is failing many.The blame for its failure, when they buckle under the stress, when they turn to drugs, or when they become depressed, is being put on the child.
Here are some examples, based on our experience with school students who have come to our clinics.
How Lucy found her way
Lucy, an 18-year-old in her final year of secondary school, by the end of October was already struggling, and wondering how she would cope with the increasing workload. Not sleeping well, she was waking early in a tearful state, dreading the day ahead. Each class seemed endless, and she found the teachers were all pushing their own subject as if it were the only one. A conscientious girl, she was keen to make the best of the year and get the necessary points to go to art college. She couldn't identify with many of the subjects she was doing, in particular Irish, Maths and History, and her lack of enthusiasm for them made it difficult to concentrate, which brought admonishment from her teachers.
Everyone around her was finding the going hard, but felt they could do nothing about it, and like her, were just putting their head down to study but little else. She would get home exhausted, and after dinner, would still have to study for three hours or more to get the homework done.
"What's the point of all these irrelevant subjects? I'm not going to need Irish, Maths and History for art college," she would complain to her parents. They were supportive, but felt as trapped as she did, knowing she had to get the necessary points. Her only solace was her art work and listening to music at the weekends, which she did alone, not having the energy to meet her friends.
As November came she was finding it increasingly difficult to get out of bed, and started to suffer severe headaches. With no appetite she lost weight, which alarmed her parents enough to bring her to the family doctor, who started her on an anti-depressant — Seroxat. Within a few days she started to feel nauseous, dizzy, sweaty, and more anxious. She found her dreams disturbing, and noticed that she had constant tremors in her hands. Her doctor advised her to persist, telling her that the symptoms would decrease in three to four weeks time. She became confused and found it hard to retain information. Withdrawing further from her friends, Lucy was spending more time alone and brooding.
Her form teacher phoned her parents, concerned that she was not herself, and told them that this had been noticed by other teachers, who felt that she was unusually tense, fidgety and non-communicative. Her mother, worried now, searched Lucy's room thinking that she might be taking illegal drugs. Instead she found a stockpile of Panadol. Alarmed, she challenged Lucy, who admitted that she had been feeling like killing herself for the last two weeks.
Her parents stopped her medication, which they felt had obviously made her worse, and since school was the source of Lucy's problems, called a meeting with the principal. They made it clear that her health was the priority and not the points, negotiating a scaling down of her subjects, an exemption from homework and the end of term tests, and a substitution of an evening yoga class in lieu of sports, which she had never liked. A package holiday was booked for a week in the sun with her mother. Buoyed up by the support of her parents and the flexibility of the school, she returned to her old self, now that the pressure was off. She sat her exams, got the points she needed, and undertook a portfolio course for a year to prepare her for art college.
School was a square hole for Jack
Jack, aged 16, had always found school boring: he got bad reports, daydreamed during class — for which he got detentions — and had ongoing rows with his parents about his lack of application and refusal to study. He took weekly guitar lessons, at which he excels, as he does in all areas of sport, as well as socially. The only subjects he enjoys are English, Spanish and classical studies, and the rest he has no interest in. His fantasy is to play for Manchester United, and spends all his spare time training with and playing for his local team, and going to summer soccer camps.
When his parents found out that he and his friends were missing classes and spending the time in the nearby park kicking ball and smoking, they grounded him and took away all his privileges, including watching TV and listening to his MP3 player on weekdays. Private grinds were arranged in his weak subjects, and a tight roster of homework put in place. He started to see home as no different from school — it had become a prison — and became aloof and non-participative, spending more and more time in his friends' houses at the weekends. In school he became rebellious, and as his form of protest he dropped out of all involvement in sport, refusing to play on any of the school teams. The coach of the local soccer team contacted his father as to why Jack was not turning up for training, saying he had missed a number of club games.
Jack began sleeping later and later on the weekends, often not rising until mid-afternoon. Rows continued, this time over staying out too late, and his general ‘don't care' attitude at home. Matters reached a head when his parents were called to the local Garda station at one in the morning, to be informed that Jack and his friends had been found drinking and smoking hash in the local park. When they searched him they found some tablets of ecstasy. He was allowed home into the custody of his parents with a warning.
At the same time, a stalemate had been reached with the school, which felt that it had exercised maximum tolerance and flexibility already and that Jack no longer fitted into the school's ethos. Expulsion was on the cards in view of his history of truancy and the latest drugs episode.
In short, he was now a bad example. His parents realised that events had reached a critical turning point, and that they risked losing the confidence of their son and had inadvertantly accelerated him into the drink and drug culture as yet one more misunderstood teenager.
Family brainstorming sessions followed. Some things were obvious. Unlike his older sisters, and some of his friends who liked school, school wasn't meeting Jack's needs. His strengths were not reflected in the school curriculum. ‘Grind' schools would mean more of the same. All agreed that a solution would be an apprenticeship in sound technology under the supervision of his godfather Larry, who was a director of a successful music production company.
How Alice filled her emptiness
Alice, a 25-year-old business studies graduate, had been working for two years in a large accountancy practice. Finding herself miserable and unfulfilled she became depressed, and took extended sick leave. Rather than take medication she decided to go to the west of Ireland, rest, read books and try to get some perspective on her situation.
Alice had always enjoyed school, finding learning a stimulating process. While the academic side was satisfying, she found the social aspects of school less smooth — the pressure to be extrovert, popular, one of the in crowd, to have a boyfriend, to be having sex, to drink and smoke, and to be going to concerts, music festivals and raves. This was not the kind of girl that Alice was, being quiet by nature, preferring to play music with her few friends at home in her room, and to read and go to the movies in her spare time.
After school, having got her points, and not sure what to do, she took the advice of her father that "you can't go wrong with a business degree" and went to Trinity College.
The same scenario played itself out there, except that this time Alice tried to be more adventurous. She had a number of boyfriends, with whom she was sexually active. Alice participated in many of the frequent weekend parties; she tried cannabis but did not like the spaced out feeling it gave her. At a couple of concerts she took ecstasy and although she enjoyed the heightened response to the music and the open heart feeling it gave her, she felt it was somehow ‘artificial' and left her feeling exhausted for a number of days afterwards. Unlike at school, she found her new studies unstimulating and too ‘left-brained', but continued with them nonetheless.
When she started working she was disillusioned to find that looking at figures all day was harder to do than she thought. Additionally, she found that she was surrounded by people very unlike her, who worked and played hard. Each weekend her colleagues went on ‘blow-outs', meeting up in a pub in Temple Bar, where they drank until closing time, and then going on to a club until the early hours, consuming a cocktail of different drugs and sleeping all the next day. Sex, when it happened, was casual. The partying was repeated on Saturday night, with Sunday spent in bed and Monday and Tuesday spent in a haze, the group only coming round fully on Wednesday.
The blow-out cycle was picked up again each Friday as typified in the movie Human Traffic. After trying a few of such weekends, Alice decided it wasn't for her, but was at a loss to know what to replace it with. "How come it suits everyone else? What the hell is the matter with me?"
Alice knew something wasn't clicking — she wasn't fitting into the career, party, hard-drinking stereotype of the young Celtic Tigers, yet had no urge to join many of her school friends who were marrying, settling down, and having babies, a life choice she found equally unappealing.
For the first time in her life, she felt completely alone, with many of her school and college friends now abroad. In order to distract herself she bought an apartment and tried to focus on decorating and furnishing it, but it was short-lived. Her days became a humdrum cycle of work-home-work-home , ad infinitum, and she spent most of her weekends alone, analysing why she couldn't fit in and get on with things like other people. Her sense of alienation increased and she began to examine every aspect of her personal life. All she could see was negativity. She started to loathe herself. Her inner voice berated her day and night.
"Perhaps the reason I'm not happy is my weird personality — after all something must have made me so out of step even back in secondary school? Do I not like my work because I don't have the staying power that the others all seem to have in bucketfuls? It's just as well I don't want to have children. A child deserves an outgoing sociable mother, not a reserved and quiet one like me". Her sense of desperation overwhelmed her, and she wondered when was the last time she had ever felt happy and contented. It hit her immediately: summers spent in her grandparents' house in the Burren hills in Clare. That night she rang her granny and headed west.
It was May, and she spent her days walking the hills, recognising alpine flowers that her granny had pointed out to her as a child. She swam daily, enjoyed the sunsets over the Aran Islands and slowly began to feel reconnected to something she'd lost, as the emptiness inside dissolved. Still on sick leave, she booked in to the Burren Yoga centre for a week-long course run by a visiting yoga master. As the week went on, she felt fully alive and in her body as she never had since she was a child. Her mind stopped buzzing, and she felt a growing sense of calm.
On her return to work, she continued her yoga classes, and signed up for an two-year part-time teacher training course in yoga. Although she could not afford to leave her job just yet, having her plan to teach yoga in place gave her enough of a sense of life purpose to continue until then.
Doing time: untapped potential
Schools don't always embody the true meaning of ‘education', which comes from the Latin educare meaning ‘to lead forth potential'. Parents frequently find themselves in the impossible position of having to send their children to schools teaching a curriculum into which they have no input, subjects being taught which children find irrelevant, hours of homework at the end of long days, the stress of the points system with its emphasis on competition, and teachers who are — still — allowed to use fear and intimidation.
Our children are interfacing with an expanded world which now requires new skills. They find the presentation of school material outmoded and often meaningless to them. Unlike in their parents' day, the information of this technological age is delivered in high speed soundbites, in contrast to the slower delivery through the written page and the blackboard. Young people now are adept at mobile phones, texting, satellite TV, computers, internet facilities, MP3 players, digital cameras, games consoles, and so forth.
In addition, the orientation of this generation is towards the present and the future, not the past. Some of our ways of looking at life, to their young eyes, have long passed their sell-by date. Who killed who in 1916 holds no interest for them. (Although they would be impressed to hear that Padraig Pearse, a revolutionary leader at that time, referred to the school system as ‘The Murder Machine') Nor does it matter to them if this country was occupied by an alien power for 800 years. "Doh! They've gone now, so can you stop going on about it?"
Educators as a whole are not embracing this new reality, and have little understanding as to the enormous novelty children are experiencing. And so, in our ignorance, we thrust on them the familiar structures which have worked for us in the past; methods such as rote learning, over-reliance on textbooks, poetry beyond or outside their life experience, and the meaninglessness of hours devoted to the compulsory learning of a language that most will never speak. For 99%, subjects such as geometry and algebra will never be needed for daily living, yet the whole class must struggle with it.
This tribe of young people is feeling confused and alienated. Many have lost faith in the education system and have withdrawn their energy from it, enduring it as a prison sentence, merely marking time until it's over, ducking and diving and ‘getting out of their heads' on the weekend. With their imagination on hold, their interest deadened, they drag themselves from classroom to classroom wishing they were somewhere else.
It takes an enormous investment of energy to keep engaging with a process which has no relevance to you. They suffer it, and for the most part do it in silence, convinced that their parents are not understanding or supporting them. Numerous angry flashpoints in the home centre on school issues — lack of motivation, truancy, homework not done, as in Jack's case. Parents feel as distressed as their children at the stress the points system generates, particularly if they are right-brained and mismatched with our left-brained school system, as in Lucy's case. Finally, at the end of their schooling, standing on the launch pad preparing for the rite of passage into adulthood, many find themselves out of step with their chosen career as Alice did, and more lost than ever. The ever-increasing dropout rates at third level colleges are testimony to this.
Domestication or freedom?
The education experience is not neutral. It can dampen down the spirit, will and creativity of a child through testing, labelling, and regimented curriculums, in a constant atmosphere of judgement and comparison.
Or it can open the doors to the discovery of talents, strengths, resources and a sense of purpose and direction. Under the present system this latter is happening only for a few. For the many, potential goes untapped and, tragically, zest for life also. Helpless to change their situation, and overwhelmed by the demands on them, they experience fear, panic, disillusionment and a deadness inside. Diagnoses of depression, attention deficit disorder, and social anxiety follow. It seems quite incredible to prescribe anti-depressants and amphetamines (such as Ritalin) for children, rather than examine the shortfalls in the school system.
The theory of multiple intelligence was developed in 1983 by Dr Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University. He suggested that intelligence did not reside in the head alone, but was distributed throughout the person. He identified nine separate forms of intellectual abilities which, if fostered, could be the basis for a multiplicity of careers and lifestyles.
Bodily-Kinaesthetic Intelligence: the ability to control one's bodily movements, to handle objects skilfully and prioritise personal health care — suitable careers would be in sports, manual labour, dance, acting, yoga, cookery, dietetics, massage, acupuncture, physiotherapy.
Emotional Intelligence: can empathise with the moods and feelings of others, negotiate to have their needs met and deal effectively with conflict — careers in the health care professions, child care, service industries, human resources, politics, business.
Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence: the skills of listening, speaking, writing, foreign languages — careers in journalism, writing, teaching, languages, law, politics.
Musical Intelligence: appreciating rhythm and pitch, singing, playing instruments, composing music — careers as a musician, disc jockey, sound engineer, singer.
Visual-Spatial Intelligence: thinking in images, pictures, and form — careers in design, art, engineering, architecture, photography, mechanics.
Intra-personal Intelligence: capacity for self-awareness, intuition and flexibility of thoughts and beliefs — careers in research, psychology, literature.
Naturalist Intelligence: a connection to plants, animals, and nature — careers in horticulture, agriculture, landscape architecture, farming, animal care, environmental science, sustainability.
Existential Intelligence: a sensitivity and capacity to tackle deep questions about the meaning of human existence and the purpose of life — careers in philosophy, poetry, theology, science, psychotherapy.
Mathematical-Logical Intelligence: the skills of number-reasoning, abstract thinking, and problem-solving — careers in science, engineering, accountancy, maths.
An educational renaissance is long overdue. It would ensure that if young people had been made aware that each of them had a range of rewarding talents, in a combination unique and different from their peers, they would have ways and means in which to engage with life. As things stand if they don't speak the language of the left brain, the last on our list above — interpretation, analysis, number-crunching, rote-memory — they are set for a rocky ride through a competition-orientated system intent on measuring such qualities without relating to their many others.
There is something fundamentally wrong when children are forced to engage in the compulsory learning of subjects they hate. Irish is the classic example: the force-feeding of thousands of hours over a 13-year period borders on abuse, as it becomes more about will-breaking than true learning.
By contrast, in a curriculum based on the knowledge that multiple forms of intelligence exist, every child would have their potential awakened, developed and seen as a platform for life in terms of earning capacity, personal fulfilment, and a satisfying role in society.
What child wouldn't thrive if they proved to be good at something? What young person wouldn't like to feel equipped to work, travel and live anywhere they want? To know that they'll never be out of their depth, to have a confidence in their linguistic, personal and life skills which will open up the world to them? And in a world of increasing stress to have a strong emotional intelligence, and the skills to engage with and successfully negotiate the wide range of situations thrown up as part of living in life's soup, with all its many complex ingredients.
If the skills to maintain one's personal health were taught in the pre-adult years, then much physical and mental breakdown could be prevented later on. A knowledge of how their own body works is a blind spot in the youth of today. They are unaware of the optimum conditions it requires to be healthy, what factors cause disease and useful practices to prevent them — proper diet, yoga, meditation and exercise.
Mental and emotional distress and the symptoms it generates are misread. They are seen as ‘diseases' requiring psychiatric medication, and not as the confusion and disarray of those out of their depth, many of them interfacing with an unfriendly, even hostile, fossilised school system. If the principles of emotional health maintenance were taught in school, an understanding of states such as depression, anxiety, and panic would be in their repertoire, ending the culture of secrecy, stigma and isolation.
Surely, suicide rates would drop in such a climate.
The hideous state of our health services, whether it's treating physical, mental or emotional suffering, is testament that it has failed. Its present obsessional orientation towards symptom eradication is at the cost of immeasurable human suffering and billions of euros. Where has preventative medicine gone? A meltdown is imminent unless radical and rational thinking is engaged in by those ultimately responsible, namely the Ministers of Health and Education.
You can't see clearly if your imagination is out of focus
— Mark Twain
Light at the end of the tunnel
It is an extremely healthy sign that Irish secondary school children are finally insisting on having their voice heard, through the Union of Secondary Students and through the setting up of the website www.ratemyteachers.ie. Despite criticisms, the latter has to be seen as an attempt to redress the imbalance of power, where the teacher is seen by students as holding all the cards.
Of course, although they get the blame, teachers are mere puppets in a Punch and Judy show, manipulated by the strings held firmly by the misguided supporters of the ruling, outmoded Flat Earth theory of education. Those listening to the winds of change, the Round Earthers, realise that for successful daily living remembering the dates of battles lost by kings and generals, knowing Pythagoras' theory, the exact location of the source of the Nile, or what W B Yeats was trying to convey in his poem Sailing to Byzantium, are not the most essential wisdom chips.
This dinosaur of an education system is one of ‘banking' — where data is deposited into a child's mind for the sole purpose of it being withdrawn later, on the day of an exam, to be paid interest in points. On what account do they draw when faced with an emotional dilemma such as a broken heart, a sexual disorientation, bullying, an unwanted pregnancy, or the break-up of their parent's marriage?
The phenomenon of the mid-life crisis is well-known. By then decades have been spent striving to better oneself, to move upward, as if climbing a ladder, arriving on each rung only to find one more beckoning. And then, one day — oh joy! — to reach the top, only to look back and realise that all along your ladder has been leaning against the wrong wall. Wretched, you are flooded with feelings of despair, entrapment and cynicism. What now for the future? Most, like beached whales, will never be able to return to the ocean of possibilities, and can only look forward to a future of frantic distraction, backed up by Prozac and the like.
The youth of today are different. The more creative among them, the pathfinders, don't need to spend decades finding out about which ladders or walls suit them. Intuitively, many take a reading early, and recognise incompatibility instantly, refusing to engage with even the bottom rung. They give their preference to quality of life over the treadmill of their parents and older siblings, a path strewn with casualties which, wisely, they avoid. These evolved young people are to be found travelling, exploring and working their way around the globe, acquiring new skills on a need-to-know basis, be it a new language or a new qualification. Within them burns a clear sense of their ultimate destination, not a particular place or career, but an inner connection with their purpose in life — creativity, financial independence, integrity, happiness, an inner contentment and a sense of being part of a bigger picture.
Jack and Lucy, initially unaware of what was troubling them, nonetheless had a sense of what was toxic for them but, within the limited manoeuvrability available to young people, attempted to deal with it in their own way. In both their cases, their talents were not being drawn forth, not in the spirit of educare. Jack decided early to take the only action open to him, to withdraw his energy from something he did not believe in, and took on the role of rebel in order to survive. Lucy's response was to try to kill herself with the help of Panadol, egged on by the disinhibiting ‘green' light of Seroxat, rather than go on suffering.
Alice, suffering what could be called a ‘quarter life' crisis, came to the realisation that deep down there was a mismatch between her way of being and the life she had drifted into. She ultimately found her path in yoga, which connected her to something deeper in herself besides the social hypnosis of her conditioning. It made her feel alive and aware of an aspect of herself which had not found a voice before — a sense of spirit and her place in ‘the family of things' echoed in Mary Oliver's poem The Wild Geese:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.