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Vince Mercuri: Help for kids at risk

| Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
Vince Mercuri
Vince Mercuri

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association as a letter to the editor revealed an alarming trend in suicide, self-harm and depression among teen and pre-teen girls. The report shows a nearly 20 percent increase in these mental-health issues since 2009.

The 2015 Pennsylvania Youth Survey, conducted every two years throughout the commonwealth's schools, reveals that 37 percent of all eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders surveyed reported depressive symptoms. These alarming rates show a pattern of risk for the next generation that needs to be explored so that interventions can be implemented to reduce the risk and increase protective factors.

Adolescent development with its related behaviors generally is a time of turmoil, turbulence, stress and storm. It is the second-most-active period of physical development next to the first year of life. These physical changes coupled with emotional and behavioral issues present a time of development that is challenging for youth as well as for parents.

There are, traditionally, three main tasks that need to be addressed and resolved during pubescence: the child letting go of childhood dependence on parents; establishing a new identification with peers; and, most importantly, finding a sense of self and establishing his or her own identity that is carried into adulthood. It is in finding a sense of self where internal conflict and confusion arise.

Many factors influence the development of our identity: family, religious beliefs, school, peers, community, social media, technology trends and culture. In today's society, traditional areas that define standards of acceptable/unacceptable conduct are gray and unclear, which hastens the confusion, doubt and uncertainty of “who am I.”

We all need clarity as to the limits and boundaries of our behavior. Individuals naturally act out, testing what is acceptable conduct. This is especially true for youth finding their place in the world; without external structure, standards and boundaries, adolescents who do not successfully navigate this period of development tend to head toward two unhealthy paths — externalized aggression or internalized depression.

The cultural belief and drumbeat that life with no rules is liberating is a fallacy. Such a mindset promotes a society that is adrift without a moral compass, and our adolescents are displaying the signs and symptoms of such a flawed philosophy.

The issue of depression, self-harm and suicide among today's female teens and pre-teens is a complex and frightening matter that needs a systematic approach.

There is a spectrum of prevention that is recognized nationally and is a model to reduce risk and increase protective factors for vulnerable adolescents. This framework is an interrelated plan with six levels: strengthening individual knowledge and skills; promoting community education; educating providers; fostering coalitions and networks; changing organizational practices; and influencing policy and legislation.

While this is a proven framework for community action and change, it alone cannot solve adolescents' destructive trends. Adults need to embrace a philosophy that provides structure and guidance while being sensitive to cultural and lifestyle differences in an atmosphere of open dialogue.

The goal is to promote healthful life choices that enable an adolescent to be more stable, secure and confident with increased hope for the future.

Vince Mercuri, executive director of the Open Door Alcohol/Drug Treatment Center and Crisis Intervention Program in Indiana, Pa., is a member of the Valley News Dispatch Editorial Board.

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