A Task Force for Harried Teens

Social media pressure, academic stress, depression, and drug use are on the rise

On many counts, young people’s lives seem to be improving. Nationwide statistics show that drinking, smoking, and overall drug use are down, and teen pregnancies are at the lowest rate in nearly half a century. Yet it has been reported that anxiety and depression in high school kids have been on the rise since 2012, with growing evidence that teenagers are in the grip of a mental health crisis. It is as if, rather than acting out, young people today are turning in on themselves.

Hence the formation of an East Hampton Town-funded Adolescent Mental Health and Substance Use Task Force, made up of school officials from East Hampton, Montauk, Amagansett, Springs, and Sag Harbor, as well as clergy and representatives of police departments. It will be overseen by Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, who organized the task force, together with Adam Fine, the East Hampton High School principal.

The problem of teenage mental health is not anecdotal. In 2015, about three million high schoolers in America had suffered at least one major depressive episode in the past year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. More than two million report experiencing depression that impairs them daily. According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, 6.3 million teens have had an anxiety disorder.

In East Hampton, Aubrey Peterson, a social worker at the high school, echoed these statistics. “I have seen an uptick in recent years of students reporting stress, anxiety, and feelings of depression,” he said. “Our youth are under an enormous amount of pressure, both academically and socially. Social media often contributes to feelings of isolation and is a breeding ground for conflict. Unfortunately, contemplation of suicide has become part of teens’ battery of choices as to how to cope with many of these feelings.”

The goal of the task force, as stated in the resolution, which the town board adopted on Jan. 18, is for “increased awareness and understanding among our parents, young people, and other community members of adolescent mental health and substance use-related issues and behaviors.”

“We have had two high school deaths by suicide since 2013,” said Mr. Fine, who has been the school’s principal since 2010. “I knew we had to all come together to do something.”

Sitting in his office on Friday, flanked by Ms. Burke-Gonzalez and Officer Ken Alversa, the town police liaison to the high school and its resource officer, Mr. Fine spoke openly about the school, which, like almost any other across the country, is struggling to stay ahead of the cornucopia of unconventional drugs available to students, the pervasiveness of social media, and unprecedented levels of academic and social pressures facing teens today. But in Suffolk County, there’s another element that looms large: an opioid epidemic, with the county dentified as New York State’s epicenter.

Mr. Fine has four young boys who attend schools near his Center Moriches home, while the councilwoman has a daughter at East Hampton High School and a son in college. They spoke passionately and hurriedly about their goals for the newly formed task force, often making it difficult to separate the group’s actual functions from any responsible parent’s wish list.

Of the tangibles, the group will hold monthly meetings at East Hampton Town Hall and regular parent forums at the high school. The task force will work in conjunction with Sources of Strength, a youth-led initiative with a chapter at the high school that aims to change unhealthy norms and culture with the goal of preventing suicide, bullying, and substance abuse. The group facilitated the training of 17 high schoolers to administer Narcan, the medication used to block the effects of opioids in the case of an overdose. Officer Alversa said there were seven Narcan saves in East Hampton in 2017.

In addition, through a grant received from the Anna Lytton Foundation, the school has added yoga and meditation classes to the curriculum to help students relax and practice mindfulness.

Looking ahead, the task force hopes to televise meetings or informational segments for parents and community members unable to attend discussions. 

On Feb. 28, a Wednesday, a drug forum will be held at the high school from 8:30 to 10 a.m. Scheduled to speak is Becky Savage, an Indiana mother whose two sons died on the same night in 2015 from an accidental overdose of oxycodone and alcohol. Ms. Savage started the 525 Foundation as part of her mission to talk about the dangers of opioid abuse to anyone who will listen.

The task force trio also acknowledged that they must ask hard questions about why children feel so at odds with a world that ought, after all, to be all about them and their future. A recent New York Times article portrayed today’s American teenagers as beset by rigorous high school demands and pressure to get into certain colleges and land prestigious jobs. All of this, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez believes, leaves teenagers especially vulnerable to self-medication with drugs and alcohol.

Bettina Volz, a clinical psychologist in Amagansett who works mainly with children and adolescents, agreed. “Not only do I see an increase in anxiety disorders, I have also seen an increased and related level of depression in adolescents during the last 10 years,” she said. “These issues are multisourced: The high speed of often anxiety-producing global news, the competitiveness social media can fuel, as well as the personal and economic pressures to attain a college education are making it extremely difficult for teenagers to imagine their own place in the world.”

Perhaps South Fork students can follow the lead of a public high school in a seaside Massachusetts town, where crying jags over test scores were common, and the sleep-deprived student body reported that earning Bs was seen as dashing college dreams. Last year, small rocks began appearing in common spaces around Lexington High School, The New York Times reported. Collected from nearby beaches, the rocks were painted with such messages as “I am more than my GPA and SAT score,” “You are not stuck,” and “Don’t let them get to you.” 

The idea for these maxim-laden stones started with a small group of students who were worried about rising anxiety and depression among their peers. This was their way to spread calm, they said, in a turbocharged suburban school.

Only 180 miles down the coastline, the East Hampton landscape is alarmingly similar. Kristin Guarino, a licensed social worker with mostly teenage clients, inadvertently captured the scene in a hurried email she wrote to The Star in response to a request for her opinion on the subject: “I am so sorry for the late reply. Since last night I have been fielding one emergency after another: suicidal thoughts, extreme eating disorders, suspensions. I am working till 9 tonight.”