Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Sunday's edition of the Straits Times carried a feature on depressed teens. The writing is slightly alarmist but well-intentioned. I wish I could link it, but chances are by the time you come across this (if you ever do) the link will be broken.

Here it is anyway: Gen D: Depressed , deviant , disconnected

Probably the most important part of the article:

"... Most disconcertingly, the behavioural problems which used to beset a minority of 'youths on the fringe' or 'youths at risk' have today invaded the 'so-called moral majority' too.

Psychiatrists say a growing number of youths today suffer from one of the three Ds - depression, deviant behaviour or disconnectedness.

According to Dr Yeo, no longer are three-D sufferers predominantly from poorer or broken families without a father figure. In fact, many come from intact families with concerned, well-to-do parents.

Psychologist Felix Lim, who specialises in teen issues, says that a good number are 'rich but deprived children', the upgraded version of yesterday's latch-key kids. They return home daily to an empty bungalow, dog, chauffeur, maid and other paid employees of their parents, who are too busy earning big bucks outside.

He notes that many dual-income parents practise the 'token economy' at home: They try to buy their way into their children's good books, or incentivise good behaviour by giving them a 'cash bonus', the latest gadget or track shoes if they meet pre-set Key Performance Indicators.

'Just because it works for them at work, they think it will work at home. But the problem is a lack of consistent parenting. You need plenty of contact time to cultivate attitudes, values, beliefs in children. There is just no shortcut,' he says.

What is clear is that money, love and good intentions no longer buy immunity against a troubled adolescence. Even those who ace their studies or are school leaders are not exempt.

Mr Lim notes that achievement-focused top students become a target group for anorexia or bulimia, because they tend to displace their need for significance onto leadership roles, sports trophies or good grades.

The better they do, the poorer they tend to be at handling the 'loss of face' of failure when it happens. 'After all, this is a place where a person's worth is measured by his grades, the house he lives in or the cellphone he uses. Upkeeping standards is a very real pressure,' says Ms Chew.

And teen society today is an unforgivingly class-conscious one, as the recent hoo-ha over a Raffles Girls' School girl dating a neighbourhood school boy shows.

It does not help that many Singaporean parents are so protective that their children acquire a 'learnt helplessness' and fail to develop their own coping resources or a healthy adversity quotient, says Mr Lim.

That is one of the reasons why teen suicide rates are spiralling today, especially among young females aged 15 to 24 here.

According to psychiatrist and suicidologist Chia Boon Hock, youths take their own lives because of a combination of relationship problems and family, financial, social and school stresses.

Depression is also becoming as commonplace a malady as the common cold, notes Ms Chew. Having done profiling exercises on hundreds of secondary school students, she says a disturbing picture of Singapore's youth has emerged.

'Many are highly emotional, extroverted, open to trying anything new, hence very vulnerable. Despite being very high in anger, they have low focus, low motivation and a low sense of achievement. This combination is very scary, because if anything snaps, they cut or kill themselves,' she notes with a shudder.

According to Mr Lim, this outward expression of aggression, angst and apathy is symptomatic of an adolescent's emotionally fraught and highly distracted world. He has patients who come to his clinic declaring 'I hate my parents' or 'My mother is a bitch'.

But such defiant bravado, says Dr Yeo, is just a 'brittle front'. 'Deep down, they still desire parental approval but feel that they cannot be seen to need it. And family size being so small these days, they have no siblings to turn to,' he says.

So many 'cope' by hurting themselves through self-mutilation, starving, multiple suicide attempts and numbing themselves with drugs and alcohol.

Others, who crave emotional fulfilment in this mechanical age, desperately seek connections in sexual escapades or gangs.

Even among the 'good kids', school counsellors note a growing disconnectedness and disenchantment.

'For many of them, all that innate fire and spirit has been snuffed out in power struggles with overbearing adults. They end up disillusioned,' says Mr Lim.

These days, he and other psychologists are seeing more cases of dysthymia, a chronic low-mood disorder that persists for two years or more. Despite not having suffered any major depressive episodes, these youths appear listless, down and out, have low self-esteem and difficulty making decisions, and function below the base line.

Right into their 30s, they find it hard to hold on to jobs or relationships.

Mr Lim is candid that such stunted self-image and distorted self-identity problems take years of medication and therapy to fix. It is not easy to go back in time to get them re-attuned to society and in tune with themselves.

So he does not buy the cavalier theories that the three Ds are 'just a phase' which most teenagers will 'eventually grow out' of.

With more permanent scars and the high stakes of today's adolescent minefield, his question is: 'Will they grow out of all these well-adjusted, or mal-adaptive?'"

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