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The danger of blind pessimism among teenagers

Vivien sweet

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A couple of days ago, my younger sister’s friend, Abby, who has a sister in ninth grade at Stuyvesant, came over for a play-date. Although I’m terrible at talking to giggling 11 year-olds, I managed to catch Abby’s attention by asking her, “How is Hannah (Abby’s older sister) doing?”
“Oh. She wants to kill herself,” Abby said matter-of-factly, and returned to her Monopoly game without batting an eye.
Two years ago, I’ve would’ve been shocked and horrified by such a nonchalant reply. I would’ve run upstairs, told my mother to call Hannah’s mother concerning this suicidal comment, and then called Hannah myself to make sure everything was alright.
However, I’m embarrassed to say that I did nothing of the sort. Instead, I mumbled something along the lines of “I hope she feels better,” and dashed back upstairs to the comfort of my room, where I half-heartedly texted Hannah, “What’s up?” just to be sure that something wasn’t seriously wrong. She responded, “I’m doing great actually, I just have a lot of homework tonight haha.”
I was a little concerned about Hannah’s actual mental health, but in this day and age, the widely-used phrase “I want to kill myself” has become synonymous with “I am unhappy with my current situation.” As horrible as it sounds to any reasonable adult, responses like this one have become a common coping mechanism for sarcastic teenagers. I admit that I know Hannah’s personality quite well, and I have talked to her previously about the harms of using phrases with suicidal tendencies such as “I want to kill myself.” Clearly, our talks have little impact, as Abby seems to have adopted her sister’s pessimistic mannerisms.
I obviously don’t believe that having a lot of homework ever justifies such a strong declaration, so why did Hannah say that? Is some part of her considering self-harm? Or has that just become her automatic response to stress?
This recent trend is confusing: where do we draw the blurry line between “edgy” jokes and repressed cries for help? Statements relating to suicide as a joke aren’t to be taken lightly, and I personally suggest that you confront whoever casually says, “I want to kill myself,” and ask them why. Although these phrases have become increasingly common in our culture today, that doesn’t justify the behavior. Because of this, I strongly suggest that you take the time to explain to your peers who make these jokes why it is so problematic. These offhand remarks are also extremely harmful to the developing, emotional teenage brain, and I’m not even talking about the damaging impacts these “jokes” have on the communities actually affected by depression and other mental illnesses.
So where does this infectious negativity come from? When we hear about tragic news stories (shark attacks, forest fires, rampage shootings, etc.) our first reaction is always, “What harm does this pose to my life?” Evolution has programmed us to hone in on threats; it’s human nature to constantly be on the lookout for potential danger. No one wants to read about how fewer buildings burned down this year than the last. But we will watch a report of a house fire and worry about the chance of that happening to our homes.
In this technological era in which we have more access to information than ever, we are constantly processing negative news with little good news to balance it out. When the only stories making headlines are about death, violence, and destruction, it’s no wonder that so many teenagers are becoming pessimistic and casually joke about suicide. Yet we’re told it’s up to our generation to fix this doomsday-like world.
It’s extremely hard for us to believe that the world is getting better. But if you look at the raw statistics, the awful events of the past year that the media dwells on are relatively minor compared to the positive upward trend in society. According to Bill Gates in an article for Time, in 1990, over a third of the global population lived in extreme poverty; today, only about a tenth do. The number of children who die before they turn five years old has been cut in half since 1990; 122 million children have been saved in the last 28 years. In 2016, Time found that 89% of the global population was covered by eight key vaccines; an all time high, saving two to three million lives every year. Only 9% of people live below the poverty line, due to rapid economic growth in developing countries and an influx of resources available to the lower and middle classes. And more than 90% of all children attend elementary school. Although the media rarely shows us these incredible numbers that steadily increase every year, if we zoom out our scope to a wider time frame, and put the recent bad events in context, we can see that our world is indeed improving. Slowly, but surely.
This should not minimize the tragedies of the past year. Our hearts weep for those killed in devastating mass shootings, bloody civil wars in Syria and Yemen, victims of hurricanes in the Caribbean to name a few. With devastating news flooding our newspapers and social media feeds, it’s easy for our generation to immediately assume that the world is awful, so why bother trying to change it?
However, if we base our judgement of the world not just on bleeding headlines and gory images but also on uplifting stories and pure statistics of human prosperity, maybe our generation will snap out of its pessimistic state long enough to create positive change. It’s happened before, and I believe it can happen again.
I’m all for staying woke, believe me. But awareness is double sided; we must be well-informed of the world’s injustices and cruelties, and simultaneously the motivational movements and optimists. When our generation finds that happy medium of receiving good and bad news, then, as a society, we truly can be “woke.”
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Although our situation may seem bad now, it will get better. Just look at the statistics for proof. So my hope for our school community is that we don’t become blind pessimists, but aware activists to inspire generations to come.

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The danger of blind pessimism among teenagers