A Different Kind of MARCH MADNESS
Joan Goodman, LCSW-C, BCD , Founder ASIF Foundation
Every year sports fans eagerly await “March Madness,” when 65 college basketball teams compete to determine one national champion. Meanwhile, another phenomenon is simultaneously occurring in the world of adolescents. In springtime, the rates of adolescent depression, self-injury, and suicide reach their peak.
The term ‘March Madness’ seems to capture the overwhelming sense of desperation that many adolescents feel each spring. Many feel ill-equipped to cope with the accumulating stresses in their life as they also face the mounting academic pressures that come with the remaining quarter of the school year. This rising crescendo culminates in a state of crisis, causing many adolescents to attempt to take matters into their own hands by acting impulsively and often in a self-destructive manner. This emotional tidal wave recedes with the ending of the academic year in June.
It is generally believed that the holiday season is the time of year when the rates of depression and suicide are at its highest. This tends to be true for adults, but less so for the population of adolescents and young adults. The multimillion dollar question then becomes, “Why spring?” There is no single answer to this disturbing and perplexing question.
Isn’t spring supposed to be the season of rebirth and rejuvenation, as well as the time when love and romance are in the air? After struggling through the darkness of winter, the budding daffodils begin peeking up through the frozen ground; the barren trees come back to life before our eyes. With this magnificent metamorphous surrounding us, aren’t we all reminded that a new life should be coming, and with it a sense of hope?
What if the adolescent’s hopes of changing, of feeling better, and of falling in love are unfulfilled? Rejections and dashed hopes could trigger those who have been just holding on by their fingertips to lose their grasp and to fall. Since many adolescents and young adults mistakenly compare their own inner feelings to how their peers appear to be feeling, depressed youth could then feel alienated and alone in their pain as they look around and assume that everyone else is happy while they are not. Being unable to cope, and desperately wanting their pain to go away, thoughts of self-injury or suicide can become their solution.
Statistics reveal that approximately 2000 teenagers and young adults complete suicide each year. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in this age group.
Data from 1999 indicate that 19.3% of high school students had seriously considered attempting suicide, 14.5% had made plans to attempt suicide, and 8.3% had made a suicide attempt during the year preceding the survey. Each year, 1100 college students commit suicide, while a college student contemplates suicide in the US, on average, once every 10 seconds. There are no exact numbers for the hidden problem of self-injury, but anonymous surveys among college students indicate that 17% of them have self injured, and experts suggest that self-injury is practiced by 15% of the adolescent population.
Of worldwide school shootings since 1996, 29 out of the 52 episodes occurred between the dates of February 1st- June 30th. It was April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado when 17 year old Dylan Klebold and 18 year old Eric Harris, after plotting for a year to blow up their school, shot and killed 12 students, one teacher, and wounded 23 others in an hour long rampage before they then shot themselves. And more recently, on April 16, 2007 in Blacksburg, Virginia at Virginia Tech, 23 year old student Cho Seung-Hui’s shooting rampage and his culminating suicide killed 33 people and wounded 15, making it the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
Those of us working with young people know that we need to prepare for the onslaught of emotional distress that takes over their lives each spring. We need to raise the larger society’s awareness of March Madness, just as we are aware of yearly changes in the weather.