IS HIGH SCHOOL BAD FOR TEENS' MENTAL HEALTH?

Maggie Gallagher

Every two hours, a teenager in America takes his or her own life. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among youth, and the rate of teen suicide has roughly tripled since 1960, the year I was born.

The heightened risk of suicide among gay teens has recently pulled the issue into the national spotlight, especially the "It Gets Better" campaign initiated by Dan Savage, but the rates for all teens are astonishingly high.

What is behind our high rates of youngsters taking their own lives?

Scientists have identified many contributing factors: Discrimination, the number of sexual partners, substance abuse, being dumped by a romantic partner, parental divorce, child physical and sexual abuse, bullying, and even excessive video-gaming play a role.

Scholars at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center have offered a novel contributing factor to teen suicide: high school.

In a careful and persuasive paper released last fall called "Back to School Blues: Seasonality of Youth Suicide and the Academic Calendar," Benjamin Hansen and Matthew Lang point out that suicides for 14- to 18-year-olds drop abruptly during June, July and August.

"The decrease in suicides for 14- to 18-year-olds during the summer months is stark, while the 19- to 25-year-olds see a slight rise in suicide rates during the summer," the authors point out.

"The fact that 15- to 18-year-old suicide rates decrease in the summer, but the 19-year-old suicide does not, suggests that the high school calendar is playing a prominent role in youth suicide," they conclude.

Suicide is not the only violent act teens are more likely to commit while school is in session. A 2003 National Bureau of Economic Research paper, "Are Idle Hands the Devil's Workshop? Incapacitation, Concentration and Juvenile Crime," by Brian Jacob and Lars Lefgren, used the natural variation produced by teacher in-service days to estimate whether school increased or decreased juvenile crime.

The answer? School attendance appeared to increase violent juvenile crime by almost 30 percent.

How could more time in school lead to more violence and suicide?

Hansen and Lang point to the "stress" created by the high school environment, but they also point out: "Although research has shown that alcohol consumption, poor self-esteem and sexual activity (are) related to youth suicide, there is little discussion about the fact that these risky behaviors tend to originate at school."

Jacob and Lefgren call it a "concentration" effect. Schools are places where the teens massively outnumber the adults, and the peer-driven social interactions increase the risk of violence.

"Lord of the Flies," in other words.

Adolescents torture each other, they fear for their place in social heirarchies of their own making, tempt one another to abuse drugs and alcohol and to engage in short-term sexual activity that results in anger, jealousy and (when dumped) depression.

We group children into large schools primarily for bureaucratic convenience. But teens do better when they spend more time with adults, who are civilized, and less time interacting in cultures created by peers, who are not yet.

On the whole, it makes you wonder why anyone ever objects to home-schooling.

(Maggie Gallagher is the founder of the National Organization for Marriage and has been a syndicated columnist for 15 years.)


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