A growing body of research points to what the Center for Disease Control recently called “an accelerating mental health crisis among adolescents.” The contributing factors mentioned in a recent Washington Post article included experience of prejudice, the pandemic, food insecurity, academic struggles, poor health, and abuse at home. These serious threats to young people’s mental and physical health must be addressed, but my conversations with youth suggest a deeper problem for the young today that that is far harder to recognize and treat. Today’s adolescents have come of age in a time of profound crisis that threatens to rob them of a sense of hope and purpose.
Coming-of-age in the 1960s, I know something about growing up in a time of crisis. For my generation, the imminent threat of a nuclear holocaust was Covid and our Climate Change, and we had zero confidence in the “duck and cover drills” that were supposed to inoculate us against incineration and prevent what we knew would be the end of life on earth. Then there were the nightly news casts showing peaceful civil rights protesters being beaten and gassed. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, with the fiery conflagrations that followed in dozens of cities, were our George Floyd moments. Finally came the Vietnam War. Fierce debates in families, communities, and congress, increasingly violent street protests, and the deaths of innocent college students at Kent State resulted in a country as torn apart as it is today.
Writing a memoir recently gave me an opportunity to reflect on what I most needed at this time in my life. The three things that I sought out are the same as what our adolescents most need today: a sense of Community, some Choice in what I learned, and opportunities to give Voice to my fears, hopes, and dreams.
Community. First, I needed to be able to talk with others who could help me make sense of what was going on around me and who shared my ideals for a more just and peaceful society. Lacking adults in my life willing to listen, I sought community by joining a student civil rights group—much in the way that many young people today are joining the Black Lives Matter movement or groups that protest climate change or gun control. Parents and teachers must encourage young people to talk about what they are seeing and feeling and reassure them that they are not alone in their fears and aspirations.
Choice in what students learn. How did the Cold War start? Why was there segregation and prejudice? And was it true that the Vietnam War represented a necessary stand against communist aggression? These were the all-consuming questions of my generation, and what we were asked to learn in school felt irrelevant. The result was that many of us simply dropped out of college or even high school—I among them—and sought alternative schools where we could explore the questions that mattered most to us. Parents and teachers today need to provide time for youth to explore the burning issues of our era. With coaching, young people who do this will, as I did, learn how to ask the right questions and hone critical thinking skills.
Voice. Such learning must be expressed to be fully integrated and made coherent. Students need opportunities to write about their feelings, reason out their points of view, see how others respond, and then revise their work. Our generation invented “teach-ins”—places where we could test our ideas and hear other points of view. We also invented alternative newspapers and magazines where we could hone our writing skills. I published my first essays at the age of 21 in several such outlets. Seeing my thinking on a printed page was a validation of my reasoning and a profound motivation to continue to develop my writing skills. Students today need the same opportunities, and sympathetic adults can encourage students to write about what they feel and think and help them find outlets for their voice in school newspapers and on the web.
Community, Choice in learning, and Voice are tools that enable young people to begin to make meaning and find purpose in a world seemingly gone mad. All three can be powerfully enabled by caring adults who listen empathetically and support what our young people most want and need today.
Tony Wagner is the author of seven books. His memoir, Learning by Heart, was recently published by Viking Press.