Part 2 of 2
In recent weeks, local and national health officials have sounded the alarm over rising rates of mental health issues and suicides among the nation’s younger population; Although many are pointing the finger at the pandemic and the rise in social media use, an expert from the University of South Florida says there are no easy answers.
Stanford soccer star Katie Meyer, 22, was found dead in her on-campus residence on March 1. Meyer’s parents have confirmed that the student-athlete, who led Stanford to the 2019 national championship, died by suicide. His death coincided with Self-Harm Awareness Day, and Meyer’s parents said there were no red flagsonly that she “had a lot to do”.
Meyer is hardly alone, as Mental Health Study showed that the rate of depression and anxiety among college students has doubled over the past decade. Dr. Kristopher Kaliebe, an associate professor in the College of Medicine, Psychiatry, and Behavioral Neurosciences at the University of South Florida, helped peel back some layers of a nuanced problem augmentation.
“Obviously any suicide is a tragedy, and everyone wants to find ways to limit or reduce suicide,” Kaliebe said. “We are in an uptrend.
Kaliebe, also a well-published researcher, confirmed a sharp increase in suicidal ideation and hospitalizations among teenagers and college-aged students across the country following the pandemic. Although these statistics have increased recently, Kaliebe said it was important to put the issue in context.
Kaliebe said mental health problems and suicides rose during the 1990s before dropping in the early 21st century, closely mimicking the crime rate. He said authorities started noticing an increase in teenage depression and anxiety around 2011, although people forget it was once worse.
“But yes, he has grown,” added Kaliebe. “And that’s obviously a very serious challenge for our society, our families and our individuals.”
For better or worse, Kaliebe said national culture influences the rise and fall of mental health issues and suicide rates. While the influence is clear, he said it’s harder to discern the exact effect culture plays on mental health issues. Kaliebe mentioned the drastic societal changes due to the prevalence of electronics, social media and the way the media presents news as contributing to the problem.
Kaliebe said the media also influences suicide rates — but it only explains blips in trends rather than population-wide increases, as mental health officials are now reporting. While he thinks social media has played a role in some cases, he said it doesn’t necessarily drive everyone into depression.
However, he said there is a clear correlation between increased access to social media and depression and anxiety among certain sub-segments of people. The problem is compounded by the fact that over the past two years of the pandemic, social media has often been the only means of communication for teenagers and college students.
“It’s a complex subject, and sometimes people blame it on social media,” Kaliebe said. “But it seems to be an element in some people.”
Kaliebe said Covid regulations and recommendations forcing people indoors also played a major role. He said the forced separation of young people from their “tribes”, combined with the constant thought of what they were missing, facilitated anger and depression.
Kaliebe also noted the fear of catching Covid, especially during the early stages of the pandemic when there were no established treatments and no one knew the severity of the new disease. As the pandemic progressed, the fear of getting sick and being hospitalized turned into grief for the hundreds of thousands of people who lost family members to the virus.
However, Kaliebe believes that Covid is only part of the problem, as evidenced by the increase in the number of young people with mental health issues before the pandemic began.
“The pandemic alone is not a clear explanation for this,” he said. “So we need better explanations.”
Kaliebe went on to explain the preponderance of negative messages in today’s society, despite the fact that people are living in prosperous times. He added that people now enjoy an “incredible amount” of freedom, the aforementioned crime rate is much lower, and technology has made education and information more accessible.
Although Kaliebe believes technology can contribute to a fragmented society and the loss of traditional culture, he also noted how it makes life easier during a pandemic. Without computers, cell phones and Zoom calls, education and work productivity would have fallen to near zero.
Kaliebe said everyone wants a better society, but people tend to focus on negativity rather than progress and high quality of life by historical measures. He said it’s important to find a better balance between negativity and positivity in the world, and to keep in mind that the human brain is an imperfect filter.
Just as social media, news and television can spread negativity, Kaliebe said the opposite is also true. He said when the media and literature portray people as becoming suicidal – but then receive help and treatment to overcome their problem – it seems to have a positive effect.
“We’re getting a lot smarter as a society,” Kaliebe said. “I think we’ll probably eventually figure out what went wrong with this increase in depression, anxiety and self-harm.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available anytime, day or night at 800-273-TALK (8255). The Crisis Text Line also provides confidential support for people in crisis by texting 741741.
Read part 1 here.