It started off as a normal Sunday. I went for yoga in the morning and then made some home cooked food for my daughter to take to school. She goes to college at Ohio State University and had come home for the weekend. She left around 6:30 pm that evening and it usually takes her about an hour and a half to drive back. She knows to always text me a simple “reached” to let me know she made it back safely. When she called a little while later, I was a little surprised. My “mom” antenna rose when she began speaking. There was a deep sadness in her voice, and she told me how she just found out that someone she knew had committed suicide. She burst into tears. My heart sank; another young, precious life gone too early. I wanted to reach out through the phone and console her, but I just listened to her cry and say, “It’s not fair mom. I feel so sad for her family, her mom, and her grandma.” Here I was, worried about the effect this news had on my daughter and finally realizing what the family of that child is going through! Loss of a young life has a devastating effect not only on the immediate family and close friends, but it also ripples onto the outer circle of friends and the entire community.
This tragic death brings me back to the question that has been haunting me for quite some time now. Why are millennials not happy? Death from drugs, alcohol, and suicide has risen in every age group in the last decade, but that increase is especially pronounced amongst young adults. This increasing phenomenon has even been given an equally morbid name: “Deaths of despair.” This trend isn’t normal, and we cannot accept it as the new norm. Generations are usually shaped by the surrounding society (socioeconomics) and life within the home (parenting). The technology boom that this generation saw was unprecedented and seemingly no one was prepared for it including parents and schools. The rise of the internet along with the popularity of social media have brought the whole world right outside our doors. These kids are unable to constrict the circle of those whose suffering they take seriously. They see negative heartbreaking news every day, leaving them emotionally exhausted.
Millennials have been raised by the generation of “helicopter” parenting. These parents did not grow up with the internet and social media. As a result, we are seeing a widening gap in shared, common experiences between parents and their children. It is common for our generation to blame millennials for being so involved with their cell phones all the time. But this is the world we brought them into. They are not responsible for these problems…they are the victims! Instead of experiencing the joy and satisfaction that comes with investing your time in a single task, they live in a world of instant gratification, receiving feedback after every small thing they tweet, post, share, etc. The “rewards” are quick and not long-lasting. These kids have probably never experienced boredom (those long days of having nothing to do) because there is always a cell phone or laptop to fall back on.
We, as a society, have failed to provide a safe and stress-free world for our kids, which was our responsibility. We have failed to provide hope and excitement for the future. In some parts of the world, children are being “brain-washed” and radicalized in the name of religion. In other parts of the world, kids are being shot at, manipulated, attacked and raped. Sometimes, when comparing these situations, we think today’s Millennials don’t experience true pressures. We don’t understand that they do, in fact, have a lot of unique stress. They are trying to create their own world within this real world to escape. All of this is escapism – escaping into social media, escaping into drugs and alcohol, escaping from life by committing suicide. We have failed miserably in providing them with an innocent, fun, and carefree environment. Our society has eroded childhood by opening the media door to them. The discovery of unlocking their own wonders is taken away from them…they already know too much.
This is “burnout” due to mental fatigue. Traditionally, we talk about workplace burnout. According to Oxford, the definition of burnout is, “the reduction of a fuel or substance to nothing through use or combustion.” When our physical, mental, and emotional fuel is on reserve, we are forced to try to function on “low battery” which eventually leads to exhaustion. The antidote is not this new form of escapism or detachment. The antidote to burnout is human connection. We need to connect with the next generation. We cannot give the now-common excuse, “They are on their phone all the time.” It’s our responsibility to try harder. Find some common ground to talk about or just listen, and not just with your ears, but with your heart. We need to stop getting irritated over their work ethics and values. We need to take ownership of improving the world around them. This is a wakeup call for our generation and our society.
It is a call for action!
Sangeeta Agrawal, MD, is an Academic Gastroenterologist and Professor Of Medicine at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. She enjoys yoga, singing, traveling and reading.