What teens feel — it matters, a lot, here in Chatham

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 1/24/20

We gave the first season of “The Chatcast” a name with two meanings. “The Age of Anxiety” represented not just the time we live in ­— where there are a million things that can cause stress, from social media to world news to student debt — but also the teenage years, where a combination of brain chemistry and the sheer amount of things on their plates cause high numbers of depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation.

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What teens feel — it matters, a lot, here in Chatham

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Posted

I was interviewing Chatham Drug Free’s George Greger-Holt last year for the podcast I just released in collaboration with Our Chatham’s Adrianne Cleven when he said something that made us laugh, but had serious implications.

“These are the folks that are going to be in our community,” he said, pointing out to the Pittsboro street outside my News + Record office on Hillsboro. “They’re going to be walking up and down the street here. Hopefully they’re going to be gainfully employed and they’re going to be able to pay my social security when I get to that point.”

We laughed, but we knew it was true and was fairly serious.

We gave the first season of “The Chatcast” a name with two meanings. “The Age of Anxiety” represented not just the time we live in ­— where there are a million things that can cause stress, from social media to world news to student debt — but also the teenage years, where a combination of brain chemistry and the sheer amount of things on their plates cause high numbers of depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation.

Chatham youth reported suicidal attempts and feeling depressed at higher rates than their national and state-level peers. Some of those gaps are small, but others aren’t — Chatham teens have attempted suicide at an 11.3 percent rate, compared to 7.4 percent nationwide. For Latinx teens, the rate of suicidal attempts is double that of their white peers.

I’ve looked at those numbers so many times over the last year that it’s kind of become numb to me, but I hope and pray that it never really does settle in as normal. While mental health issues among teenagers are normal and not something to be shamed or made fun of, it’s my goal as a reporter, and someone who cares about teenagers and their mental health, to convince you that it matters and that it doesn’t have to be normal.

That’s why Adrianne and I made the podcast. That’s why I write about mental health so much. That’s why we’re hosting the next One Chatham forum and discussing teen mental health in Chatham County next Wednesday (7-8:30 p.m. in the Multipurpose Room at CCCC’s campus in Pittsboro).

These kids — I’m 27, so people aged 13-19 are starting to feel like kids to me — are dealing with things I didn’t have to deal with as severely. Just to give context on my relatively young age compared to theirs: Instagram and Snapchat were virtually non-existent until I got to college, student debt was not nearly the nationally-recognized crisis that it is now and widespread understanding of the effects of childhood trauma were also on the niche side, not discussed in school board meetings like they were last week in Chatham County.

I didn’t know that the feelings of confusion, despair and fear I felt were depression and anxiety. I didn’t know my inability to commit and make decisions was driven by a form of OCD. I didn’t know that my desires to kill myself were based in mental issues that required counseling, medication and a supportive wife who never left my side.

These things are happening to Chatham’s teenagers. These are the people who will serve as county commissioners, lawyers, teachers and social workers in the near future, whether here or elsewhere. It’s my strong, strong, strong belief that if we don’t care about them, we don’t really care about our future as a county, state, nation or world. Or simply just humankind.

And let’s not forget how it affects them now. They need support and help and cheerleaders and encouragement and challenges and people who believe in them now, while they’re dealing with making college decisions, facing temptations from substance use and wrestling with tough home lives.

I urge you to attend next week’s forum. It’s the News + Record’s and Our Chatham’s goal to not just present the problem and the issue, but also work as a community toward practical solutions and helpful steps that we all can take and all can be a part of.

Let me know if you have any questions. I want to be part of the solution, because I’ve been deep in the problem, both as a reporter and a human being. Let’s work together.

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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