Is there a link between teen suicide, school shootings, & social media?

Mass shootings—especially at schools—have gotten a lot of attention, but there’s another type of violence that kills far more teens. Suicide.

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© Dave DuBay

I was talking with a middle school principal the other day. He said teen suicide is increasing at an alarming rate. The Centers for Disease Control agree. The CDC says teen suicide peaked in the early 1990s and declined thereafter only to steadily increase after 2007.

In 2015 the teen suicide rate was 14.2 per 100,000 for boys and 5.1 per 100,000 for girls. The media focuses particularly on girls because the teen girl suicide rate doubled between 2007 and 2015 compared to a one-third increase for teen boys.

But what if there’s a link between boys who are at risk for suicide and boys who are more likely to commit a mass shooting? Dr. Kelly Posner of Columbia University’s suicide prevention program claims that over 90 percent of mass shooters have had serious suicidal thoughts, and almost a third say suicide is a motive for committing a mass shooting.

Taking the needs of boys and men seriously seems to be a big missing puzzle piece. Dr. Warren Farrell and Dr. John Gray recently published a book about The Boy Crisis. They claim fatherlessness is the leading cause of boys’ problems. In an interview with Bettina Arndt, however, Farrell was clear to point out that suicide and murder occur only in a very small minority of boys—most boys raised by single mothers turn out just fine.

Still, almost two-thirds of teens who commit suicide come from fatherless homes. And Farrell and Gray state the perpetrator grew up without a father or with little father involvement in 26 of 27 American mass shooting where at least 8 people died. Some dispute this figure, however, citing difficulties with identifying and measuring father involvement.

What is clear, though, is that troubled boys are far more likely to kill themselves than they are to kill other people. But we only seem concerned when a boy or a man harms another person, at which point we blame “toxic masculinity” and prescribe redefining masculinity along feminist lines as the solution. Instead we should be asking how best to reach out to troubled boys.

And we should be asking how best to reach out to girls. A doubling in teen girls’ suicide rate is alarming. As we were talking, the principal’s wife added that the “mean girls” phenomenon needs to be addressed more directly. Males are more violent, but females engage in “relational aggression” more frequently than boys. And this increases risk for suicidal ideation.

Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Ditta M. Oliker describes “female aggressive behavior” as:

Excluding, ignoring, teasing, gossiping, secrets, backstabbing, rumor spreading and hostile body language (i.e., eye-rolling and smirking). Most damaging is turning the victim into a social “undesirable”. The behavior and associated anger is hidden, often wrapped in a package seen as somewhat harmless or just a “girl thing”. The covert nature of the aggression leaves the victim with no forum to refute the accusations and, in fact, attempts to defend oneself leads to an escalation of the aggression.

The power of social media to instantly reach hundreds or thousands of people with rumor spreading, shaming, and explicit calls for social exclusion is unprecedented. Social exclusion and public shaming is difficult for anyone, but even more so for adolescents. Dr. Jean Twenge claims that social media makes children more depressed and anxious, dubbing people born after 1995 “iGen”—a cohort with a profoundly different adolescent social experience compared to people born before 1995.

The link between social media and increased teen suicide—not to mention school shootings—has yet to be proved. But it seems undeniable. The principal said the ubiquity of social media is a huge factor in rising teen suicide rates. He said that in years past kids might make fun of a peer in front of a half dozen other kids. But today something posted on social media is seen by hundreds or even thousands of people.

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Who’s the most Stoic Star Trek character?

Mr. Spock is often seen as the ultimate stoic. Yet, Stoic philosopher Epictetus says not to be like a stone statue.

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Can you be emotional and stoic at the same time? No—that’s a contradiction in terms. But can you be emotional and Stoic at the same time? Yes—Stoicism has a nuanced perspective on emotion.

Whether the “s” is capitalized or not matters.

Kolinahr—the final purging of all emotion—is the ultimate Vulcan goal.  Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek TV series, said he didn’t play Spock as emotionless but rather as someone who was suppressing his emotions. This fits the dictionary definition of stoic: “not showing or not feeling any emotion, esp. in a situation in which the expression of emotion is expected.”

Characters without emotions are not compelling, though. Ultimately, Spock ends up rejecting Kolinahr.

Captain Picard from the next generation of Star Trek is similar to Spock in some ways. Picard values reason, and he’s particularly concerned with ethical resolutions to conflict.

But Picard is also a very emotional man. He’s compassionate, and he gets angry often. It’s rare, though, for Picard to let his anger overwhelm him to the point where doing the right thing is no longer important.

Roman Emperor Nero’s tutor was a Stoic who wrote a book On Anger. Living a good life is Stoicism’s ultimate goal, but intense emotions can cause us to act unethically. Seneca notes that passion can override reason, and that’s a problem. And anger is one of the most destructive emotions.

But what about anger in the face of evil? Gandhi could have been angry but wasn’t. Hitler shouldn’t have been angry, but was. Seneca asks us to imagine a ship in a storm. One sailor becomes angry at the sea, the wind, the ship, and his fellow sailors. Another sailor calmly but resolutely grabs a bucket and starts bailing water. Which sailor is going to save lives?

Seneca says that emotions start as an impression, and often this happens without us even noticing it. The first sign is often physical: tense muscles, churning stomach. Then our thoughts kick in, and this is where we need to cut things off at the pass. Once our imagination gets away from us we start to believe that other people really are malicious and deserve punishment. We need to pause, take a step back, think it through, and keep our focus on an ethical solution.

That’s more nuanced than simply suppression our emotions. Absent super-human self-control, it would be much hard to be consistently ethical using Mr. Spock’s approach to emotions compared to Captain Picard.

Blaming Trump is part of the problem

The Atlantic tells us that “Trump is making everyone a little like him.”

I disagree. Notice the headline’s passive voice. President Donald Trump isn’t making us do anything. Instead, we choose to act in certain ways.

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Lemon tree in Phoenix, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

American culture has become coarser in the past half century. Trump didn’t start this trend—not even on Twitter—but he is the logical conclusion of it.

The Atlantic notes former FBI director James Comey’s many insults of Trump in his new book, and Comey’s denials that he’s mocking Trump. Social justice activists are also well known for their abusive online rhetoric. Meanwhile, right-wing ideologues fill online comment sections with all sorts of insults of women and minorities.

This phenomenon is no more left-wing than it is right-wing, though the right has the most globally visible practitioner of it.

Trolling and online insults proliferate because so many people think it’s only wrong when someone else does it. But when I do it, the reasoning goes, I’m speaking out against someone who has hurt others and who needs to be exposed so they can no longer harm others.

Conservatives who say liberalism is a mental disorder are legitimately warning others of liberalism’s threat to civilization as we know it—at least in their own minds. And social justice activists call anyone who isn’t as far left as them a bigot in a justified attempt to fight oppression—or so they say.

But saying that Trump is making us do this evades responsibility for our choices. And it makes the problem worse because it blames the phenomenon on one segment of society, ignoring the fact that really it’s all of us.

No one person is likely to shift the tide, but each individual can play a small part by refusing to play along.

I can choose not to troll online or in person. I can choose not to use insults and instead to focus on why I disagree with someone. And if insulted, I can choose not to retaliate.

Marcus Aurelius wrote that the best revenge is not to be like your enemy. Ever seen a situation where someone remains calm and respectful even when being viciously insulted? In contrast to the exaggerated facial expressions, shrill tone of voice, and over the top statements of the attacker, the other person’s relaxed face and thoughtful response makes it look like a conversation between a child and an adult.

Besides, while factual items can be corrected simply by stating the facts (which may or may not be believed), character judgments are opinion and can’t be refuted in the same way. So redirecting from the personalities to the issue at hand can save us from the rabbit hole of “I know you are but what am I.”

Stoicism & Western Buddhism

The similarity of Buddhism and Stoicism is not a new observation. But Patrick Ussher in Stoicism & Western Buddhism offers a more nuanced perspective. The similarities apply more to Western Buddhism and modern Stoicism than to the ancient versions of either.

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© Dave DuBay

In both cases, Ussher argues, modern Westerners have revised ancient philosophies to fit current cultural sensibilities. Buddhism has a long history of adapting itself to new cultures. That’s why there’s so much diversity from Zen to Tibetan to Theravada Buddhism. Western Buddhism likewise departs from ancient Buddhism in several key respects: it detraditionalizes, demythologizes, and psychologizes traditional Buddhist beliefs.

The similarities between modern Stoicism and Western Buddhism, then, start from ancient seeds but have been nurtured by modern Western soil. One ancient seed is harmony as an ideal. Buddhism teaches that suffering is an inevitable part of life. Dukkha literally means “bad wheel.” Similarly, virtue is Stoicism’s goal, which is said to result in Eurhoia, or “good flow.” In both cases, wishing things were different results in emotional disturbance.

And while the Buddhist belief that all is mind can be interpreted variously, the Stoic belief that our thoughts are opinions—interpretations of the world—but not reality itself, is also possible in Buddhism.

That we are social beings with social responsibilities is central to Stoic ethics. Marcus Aurelius writes that people must work together like parts of the body work together. Because we are all connected, harming one harms all. This gels with Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of interbeing.

There are important differences, however. Mindfulness is one example. Stoic mindfulness, Ussher writes, pays continual attention to the nature of judgments and actions. But Buddhist mindfulness is more expansive. It focuses on greater self-awareness, not only of one’s thoughts but also of one’s body. The Stoic goal is to live according to nature while Buddhism seeks the cessation of suffering.

Further, Stoicism has no tradition of sitting or breathing meditation like Buddhism does. And Stoics have no equivalent of Zen simplicity. Further, while Buddhism has a strong focus on compassion, Stoic virtues center on justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom.

Ussher also points out that modern Buddhist works by Jack Kornfield, Stephen Batchelor, and Thich Nhat Hanh are far more popular in North America and Europe than ancient Buddhist texts are. In contrast, Roman Stoic texts by Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca are very popular among modern Stoics. However, there are significant themes in these texts that many Stoics today ignore—particularly Epictetus’s strong emphasis on God.

Ussher concludes that modern Stoicism and Western Buddhism could benefit from borrowing from each other. Buddhism’s meditation techniques and perspective on compassion can be beneficial even to non-Buddhists. And the same is true for Stoic ethics and practical approach to reframing our thoughts.

“A Sage wants nothing but needs many things; a fool wants everything.”

At first I found Seneca’s words from his ninth letter to Lucilius confusing.

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Superstition Mountains, Apache Junction, AZ © Dave DuBay

Seneca opens his letter explaining a common misconception: “Lack of feeling” in Stoicism means “a soul which rejects any sensation of evil,” not lack of emotion. That is, Sages “feel their troubles but overcome them.”

A Sage has friends but also is self-sufficient. “If he loses a hand…he’ll be satisfied with what is left. …But while he doesn’t pine for these parts…he prefers not to lose them.”

Seneca goes on to clarify that friendship prevents our nobler qualities from lying dormant.

But his disagreement with Epicurus, ancient Stoicism’s opponent, is that friendship isn’t about having someone by your side in a time of need. That’s a fair weather friend who won’t actually show up.

“Hence, prosperous men are blockaded by troops of friends”—but “a friend because it pays will cease when that pays.” Instead, the value Stoicism places on human connection means that friendship is about you being there in your friend’s time of need.

One who seeks friendship for favorable occasions strips it of all nobility.

This frames the Stoic view of self-sufficiency.

A Sage is self-sufficient when it comes to eudaimonia. Too often translated as “happiness,” Seneca defines it as “an upright soul.”

But a Sage still needs many things for mere existence. Sages are not gods.

It’s here that Seneca quotes Chrysippus, the third leader of Stoicism, whose writing are mostly lost to history:

The wise man is in want of nothing, and yet needs many things. “On the other hand,” he says, “nothing is needed by the fool, for he does not understand how to use anything, but he is in want of everything.”

Desire stems from dependency, but the Sage understands that “the supreme good…arises entirely within itself. If the good seeks any portion of itself from without it begins to be subject to the play of Fortune.”

If what is truly good comes from within then the removal of external objects of desire—the ploy of conquerors—has no power. That’s how the conquered conquers the conqueror.

In other words, the Sage “deems nothing that might be taken to be good.” A Sage practices non-attachment much like a Buddhist monk.

In the end, Seneca is distinguishing needs and wants. Not that he, or I, or you are Sages. It’s an ideal aspired to if rarely attained.