03/29/2012 11:13 am ET Updated May 29, 2012

Happiness Lost: When Kids Take Their Lives

I visit a lot of schools and communities with a documentary I produced called Project Happiness. The idea is to remind people of the happiness that we were born with and how to re-access it, no matter what the external circumstances. I am grateful for the profound appreciation coming from audiences; yet the reason troubles me to the core. Why in so many cities, across the country, am I hearing again and again of kids taking their lives?

What is the feeling of utter hopelessness and isolation that prompts such an action? If you would ask most parents across the globe what they want most for their children, it is to be happy. And most people want to live a meaningful life. How did we get from there to here?

The statistics are down right shocking.

  • In a survey of high school students, the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center found that almost one in five teens had thought about suicide, about one in six teens had made plans for suicide, and more than one in 12 teens had attempted suicide.
  • According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each day there are approximately 12 youth suicides. Every two hours and 11 minutes, a person under the age of 25 commits suicide.
  • According to the American College Health Association (ACHA) suicide is currently the second most common cause of death among college-age students.
  • An ACHA study in 2002 reported that one in 12 college students has actually made a suicide plan at some point and 1.5 out of every 100 have actually attempted it.
  • Suicide clusters are not uncommon. Six students committed suicide at Cornell University between September 2009 and March 2010, including two in the same week.

I say that when even one person chooses to end it all, because they feel they have no hope, no inner resources, no options, it an immeasurable loss to all of us.

National Epidemic

The thing is, this is not going away -- it's accelerating, and no community is immune. This is happening from coast to coast. In 2008, a Nantucket, Mass. high school with a population of 400 students lost three students to suicide in less than a year. In Wellesley, Mass. a year earlier, another three students committed suicide before their spring's graduation. In the spring of 2009 in Palo Alto, Calif., there were five suicides in one high school in one year. Lake Forest, Ill. just experienced two students committing suicide at the local train tracks. Lady Gaga has called attention to all GLBT teens suffering from bullying, with a call for action after Jamey Rodemeyer's suicide. Sadly, he is one of many. And yet, it is not necessarily those who appear depressed who commit suicide. In February 2012 in Glendale, Calif., a junior varsity football player jumped from a three-story building in the school courtyard during lunch. I learned about this suicide just a few days after it happened when a teen in the audience spoke out at a screening of the film. You could have heard a pin drop.

All these young people are sending a message that is a national wake-up call. For many it has cost their lives. What does it take for us to open our eyes to the issues?

Awareness of the situation is key. The World Health Organization predicts that depression will be the second most debilitating disease behind heart disease by 2020. This is across all countries, genders and ages. You only have to open any magazine or watch TV to see all the ads for antidepressants. This can be effective and works in some cases, but I propose that we look deeper.

Preventative wellness is about learning proven practices that can improve our outlook, wellbeing and feelings of engagement with all that life has to offer. I recall the phrase "Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem." This is 100 percent true.

The point is we need to teach our youth the skills to create a happier life from within, and the sooner the better. Everyone, including those who suffer from stress and depression, can benefit from certain practices that actually positively influence our neural pathways and brain functioning. There are ways "to sidestep the mental habits that lead to despair, including rumination and self-blame, so one can face life's challenges with greater resilience."

We have more control than we think

Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky's research states that our genetics influence 50 percent of our happiness, the life circumstances influence 10 percent, but a full 40 percent of our happiness can be influenced by the practices and habits of thought that we can cultivate. Some of these simple practices include:

  • Expressing gratitude -- keeping a gratitude journal
  • Minding your mindset -- developing a "growth" rather than a "fixed" mindset
  • Getting enough sleep, exercise and energizing food
  • Realizing that there are many more options (vs. "I don't know what I'll do if I don't get into that college." It's much more important to find a good fit, discover and build on your strengths, and explore what makes you come alive, what brings you into a "flow" state.
  • Savoring positive experiences
  • Helping others, which often helps us more
  • Connecting with friends and family in caring and meaningful relationships. It's not a weakness to reach out when things get tough -- it's really a sign that you are taking charge of your life.

Programs That Help

It is fascinating that one of Harvard's most popular classes is "The Science of Happiness." The question now is why is this mostly available for college-aged students in a few elite schools? The Project Happiness curriculum and others including mindfulness and SEL: Social and Emotional Learning have been designed to address the emotional well-being of our youth and also teach them skills to interact with the world in positive, empathetic and meaningful ways. With what is going on today, every elementary, middle and high school -- not just the progressive or affluent schools -- needs to have access to these preventative wellness resources. This is not an extra layer in education; on the contrary, it is at the core. It's no longer enough to just teach math, English and history. Self-awareness, self-mastery, and resilience are skill sets that make or break the college experience and determine long-term success in every arena of life. This is critical. If we fail to offer these life skills to this generation, (aka, our future leaders), we are leaving them disadvantaged, ill-equipped, and for some in a precarious position, as they try to find their way in this increasingly high-stress world.

The price of denial is far too high; let's work together to make this a priority, rather than a mop-up strategy after the tragedies have struck. How many more lives do we have to lose?

For more by Randy Taran, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

Next blog will be on warning signs and what to do...
In the meantime, some resources: 1.800.SUICIDE (1.800.784.2433), The Trevor Lifeline 1.866.488.7386

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.