A few years ago, I visited an Ivy League school to learn about recent discoveries in the fields of science and medicine. The most striking thing I heard wasn't about cutting-edge research, but about the state of mental health among students on campus: one in four took anti-depressants in order to function at school.
Even more troubling: if your son or daughter is in college in the United States, the chances are one in 10 that he or she will seriously consider suicide.
As I considered what a stumbling block emotional turmoil can be in the life of a promising young student, I realized we all know someone -- a family member, a friend, even ourselves -- who faces emotional challenges and needs help.
It's not always easy to find effective help. Part of the reason is that some of us look for a quick fix from the largely unregulated "get happy" industry. We are inundated by self-help books, films, shows, infomercials, seminars, and mega-events promising happiness in just three easy steps.
We are told to get in touch with our inner core, embrace a few "truths" and we'll be free of ills and insecurities. Think positive thoughts. Lose weight. Make money. Save money. Find love. Get married. Act young. Lose weight, again.
Research shows that no more than five percent of what's offered by the $10 billion-a-year for-profit self-help industry will work.
The good news, I learned in producing This Emotional Life, a three-part series that aired on PBS this week, is that effective, proven, help is out there. Science and research can put us on a more informed path to emotional health and well-being.
For two years we explored where our happiness comes from, what we can do to find more of it and how we can better cope with emotional issues.
The real-life stories in the series are powerful, honest and complex: Can an adopted child who spent years in an orphanage learn to form healthy attachments with others? Can newlyweds survive when "happily ever after" quickly turns to infidelity? How does a woman stricken with cancer, a young man confined to a wheelchair, or a prisoner of war find courage, fulfillment and a positive and complete emotional life?
Those compelling stories are combined with the latest scientific information in psychology and neuroscience and anecdotes from well-known musicians, actors and others. (If John McEnroe isn't an expert on anger, who is?)
In addition to the documentary, the project includes a website with broad and substantive content about emotional health and related issues. There are blogs by a variety of experts, including writers, researchers and mental health professionals. There is a list of more than 2,500 resources with information from trusted sources such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. You can also find other people in your area who are interested in getting together to talk about emotional health.
And if you missed the series during broadcast, you can watch full episodes at the website until January 20.
Through producing this project we learned that companionship is a basic need for human beings. Beyond the necessities of food, water, and shelter, a key to maintaining emotional and physical well-being -- from our first to our last breath -- resides in our ability to positively connect with people. The nature of our earliest relationships and experiences actually affects the way our brains grow.
One question scientists still hope to answer is whether there's a period of time where children must receive a certain kind of emotional input for their brains -- and, by extension, their social lives -- to develop normally. Regardless of the answer, parents and caregivers must recognize the long-term importance of forming a positive social and emotional environment for infants and children.
We also learned a great deal about fear, anxiety, anger and grief. These emotions can threaten relationships and cause us physical harm. Stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.
Scientists are learning a great deal about the importance of individual resiliency in managing difficult situations and experiences. Recent studies of soldiers returning from war have been particularly enlightening as to the importance of this human quality to emotional health.
There are about 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan military veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. And up to 20 percent of those still in combat will return to their families with combat-related stress disorders, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The challenges facing military families and parents of infants are the two areas that I feel are most in need of deeper attention. Outreach programs have been launched and if you need help you can get information on the website.
In the last decade, researchers have learned about the mysteries of emotions and the forces that shape them. There are no magic fixes. But there is hope and help for those who take a thoughtful approach to a balanced emotional life. Looking for important answers is the first step. This Emotional Life tries to find those answers in the right places, which is the best step.
Philanthropist Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is the founder and chairman of Vulcan Productions, Inc., an independent film production company. This Emotional Life aired this week on PBS stations nationwide.
We’re basically your best friend… with better taste. Learn more