During my years as director of a university counseling center, I have had nagging suspicions about the psychological fads and fetishes that sweep through our educational institutions at regular intervals. And I am beginning to believe that the increasing numbers of young people suffering from them are, in part, the result of media hype.
Toward the end of the 1970’s, teachers, counselors, and students alike were groping through the darkness of burnout. It was a spinoff from, or, perhaps more accurately, the ultimate fate of, our preoccupation with the evils of stress. Every professional gathering in those gloomy days had its share of lectures and workshops on the prevention and cure of burnout.
The early 1980’s saw an incredible new awareness of anorexia nervosa and bulimia, terms that had formerly been buried away in medical and psychiatric textbooks. Tremendous numbers of students suddenly seemed to surface, gaunt-faced and pale from not eating, and for the next few years, educators were deluged with literature and conferences on eating disorders.
Currently, our attention has turned to student suicide as we read distressing accounts of high schools and colleges in which several students have killed themselves during some brief period. Counseling personnel are indeed reporting an increased incidence of suicidal thoughts and attempts in their clients, and school personnel are now being trained in the warning signals and emergency procedures associated with potential suicide victims.
Part of what has made me so uncomfortable about these disturbing phenomena is that they seem to be extensions of whatever is currently thought to be “newsworthy.” For the popular media know that nothing interests their audience more than the quirks of the human personality: the surprising and sometimes frightening propensities that we have been led to believe are lurking just beneath our surface. And then, when Karen Carpenter dies from complications due to anorexia or a local teen-ager is found hanging in his bedroom, there are great opportunities for sober commentaries, intense analyses of social problems, and editorial pontificating.
Of course, those of us in academia should be willing to admit our own penchant for tapping some new campus phenomenon for a journal article or two, or a presentation at some national convention.
The scary and unfortunate thing here, is what the sociologist David Phillips has termed the ''Werther” or imitative effect. He, and other researchers have found that when suicides receive wide publicity, there is an attendant increase in the suicide rate among the public.
All of us know of those individuals who have become rundown or exhausted by overwork, but never ''burned out.” I have also known people who have considered killing themselves during the rougher moments in their lives, and then moved on. Who hasn’t? And recently, I met a woman in her 60’s who was intrigued by what to her was a new term--bulimia. She admitted to having used food-purging emetics for a while in her youth, but had never been given an unhealthy or problematic context within which to view her actions and, therefore, had never worried that bulimia was any sort of disorder over which she had little or no control.
Schools are particularly susceptible to the special problems generated by exaggerations in the media. By its very nature, adolescence is a time of insecurity. And those of us who work with students often find them, as a group, very observable, highly “studiable.” Locked into our Westernized and empiricized perceptual molds of human nature, there is that tendency to label and classify, to reduce things mechanistically until we achieve our illusion of prediction and control. We also get nervous about the liability issues that might face our institutions if we fail to spot and deal with potential problems. And, therefore, we keep searching for the salves and salvations that will wipe away each new scourge that comes along. We establish our experts to explain it, control it, and ferret out the sufferers so that they may be saved from themselves.
It is no wonder then, when we pause to consider the scenario thoughtfully, that a kind of mass hypochondria begins to form. When we add to this picture the fact that most human beings are extremely receptive to suggestion, and a good share of us can even get obsessional, it is not surprising that the Werther effect can begin to take hold. We have all conspired to ripen the conditions for a few students to find some new syndrome through which they may now express the unhappiness and insecurity already existing in their lives.
I am not suggesting that we agree to some gag rule for journalists or academics who are looking for the newest mental-health trend to publicize. Nor do I suggest that we ignore these very real problems that can become rife in our schools or the special strategies that can help us deal with them. They lead us to troubled and tragic people who deserve our attention and help. What I am proposing is that we use our good sense and careful judgment to prevent the kind of overreaction that can inflate and perpetuate an unhealthy and exaggerated focus on phenomena that are, in fact, relatively rare.
We must also face the fact that there will always be, as there have always been, people who become worn down by their inner conflicts and their difficulties in coping with life’s traumas; who deny themselves sustenance because of some warped sense of how their bodies should look; and who will find life so profoundly painful that they would rather not live at all. Whatever the collection of symptoms that are eventually manifested, a minute portion of any school’s student body will be troubled and disturbed. Whether caused by a childhood of precarious stability and affection, genetic or biochemical predisposition, a dearth of spiritual nourishment, or some other combination of life’s mysterious twists and turns, their troubles will bring most of these individuals to our attention one way or another. They will find their ways to our various offices.
It is when they reach us that the hype issue becomes particularly crucial. We must be cautious not to shove them into handy cubbyholes or stick neatly printed labels and diagnoses on their foreheads. We must see beyond the fads that we have helped create, and focus on the individual human being who confronts us each time. Usually, there are ways of helping them to develop and change, to learn at best how to overcome their problem and find new joy in living, or at least how to cope with troublesome symptoms and manage a lifestyle that includes a modicum of peace and productivity.
We sometimes need to accept, too, that there will be those few whose self-destructive streak is so strong or whose need for love and support so profound that they will not be reached by us. However, these truly are the few, and they will latch on to burnout, anorexia, suicide, or any other symptom that happens to fit at any given time in their lives, sometimes hopelessly so. And let us be cautious not to be overly anxious to exaggerate the symptoms of the few into school phenomena that will become easy paths for those who are lost to follow.
A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 1987 edition of Education Week