Halfway through 2018, our nation is deep in thought: What is happening—or not happening—in our schools and communities that causes our teenagers to take their own lives or cut short the lives of others?
There is ample cause for concern: Suicide rates are climbing steadily. Earlier this month, the news of the deaths of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain shook us. And last month’s high school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas,—where a 17-year-old planned to commit suicide after he took the lives of 10 people—is a reminder that suicidal thoughts can also lead teenagers to hurt or kill other people.
Suicide rates increased in 49 states and the District of Columbia from 1999 to 2016—including by more than 30 percent in 25 states, according to a report released this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Nevada is the sole outlier.) For teenagers ages 15-19, the numbers are also alarming: After a decrease starting in the mid-1990s, suicides doubled between 2007 and 2015 for girls and rose 30 percent for boys, according to 2017 CDC data.
Untreated mental-health conditions are a leading cause of the uptick. Experts point to multiple reasons why more young people are struggling with mental health and depression, including bullying, economic and family troubles, violence, and social-media use.
In reaction, schools are scrambling to hire more psychologists, train teachers to recognize warning signs of suicide, and develop emotional intervention plans. Medical treatment for mental-health issues, morning meetings with students, peer mediation, and restorative circles are all steps in the right direction. But more strategies are necessary.
Decades ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. synthesized one of life’s most urgent questions: “What are you doing for others?” Our country in general—and education, in particular—seem to be shifting away from an emphasis on the common good and toward the needs of the self. This trend correlates with the increasing individualization of our economy since the 1960s—a shift from mass production to personalization of products and services. Whether it was the focus on self-esteem in the 1970s or the current attention on grit and growth mindset, the emphasis has long been on “me” rather than “we.”
Educators must help children explore their larger purpose by making altruism a natural, joyous habit."
Could it be that the escalating instances of teen violence are, in part, an unintended consequence of ensuring that the world around each child is tailored just to him or her? Could such an insular approach to raising and educating children be part of the problem? One proactive solution to teens lashing inward with suicide or lashing outward with violence is to inspire students to attend to the needs of others.
This all gets to one of the root causes of teen suicides: Many disaffected youths see no purpose in living. Currently, we invest in teens’ well-being by boosting their confidence, determination, and work ethic—all with an emphasis on self-improvement. Consequently, children define success by their grades, garb, and gadgets. Later, it’s all about the job they will hold, the salary they will earn, and the things they will buy.
Yet, how often do we expect our children to intentionally give back or pay forward?
Understanding of the self is vital to every person’s development, but without meaningful self-application, it’s harder to feel fulfilled. Educators must help children explore their larger purpose by making altruism a natural, joyous habit. Only then will children feel like an integral part of something greater than themselves.
One way to do so is by helping students develop a benefit mindset, an idea developed by Australian researcher Ash Buchanan that the two of us employ in our own work with young people in the classroom. The benefit mindset, according to Buchanan, is a “purpose-driven mindset that is redefining success from being the best in the world, to being the best for the world.” Instead of using individual gain as motivation, students can find value in being helpful to themselves, to others, to nature, and to the future.
Many educators already teach character development, service learning, and leadership skills in an effort to inspire students to consider the needs of others (and to beef up their college applications). What makes the benefit mindset different is that its redefinition of success moves the concept of mutual advantage to the forefront of learning. We know student engagement increases achievement, but engagement inspired by altruism increases purpose-driven and practical learning opportunities.
As concerned educators and citizens, we call on the federal and state departments of education to include meaningful application of knowledge in standards, curricula, and assessments. We call on district administrators to take an honest look at which achievements receive the most attention at their schools. We call on educators to reassess what they praise in their students and to incorporate the benefit mindset into their existing lessons. We call on communities and organizations to enlist the help of teens for service initiatives. We call on parents to model purposeful living and end each day with the question, “What was one thing you did for others today?”
When we begin to value process, progress, and philanthropy just as much as product and performance, we will nurture teens and future adults who cherish life, overcome personal challenges, and give back in meaningful ways.
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2018 edition of Education Week as Could Altruism Curb Teen Suicide?