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Understanding Youth Suffering

Categorizing suffering makes it “understandable” but dulls us to people's pain.

Key points

  • Mental health statistics testify to the widespread pain and struggles of young people.
  • When categorized, however, the texture and uniqueness of personal lives disappears, and so too the sufferers' pain and perspective.
  • Efforts to “end the silence” can sometimes be a form of not listening.
  • We need to resist defining young people’s struggles and make room for their experiences.

I have been collecting mental health statistics for a project I am working on called the “troubles of youth.” Among the more alarming ones are these from studies conducted before the pandemic:

  • National data from 2019 shows prevalence rates of a past-year major depressive episode at 10.5 percent among 12-13 year olds, 16.4 percent among 14-15 year olds, and 20.1 percent among 16-17 year olds.1
  • According to data from the National Survey of Children’s Health, 10.5% of youth ages 12-17 had a current diagnosis of anxiety in 2016.2
  • “During 2019, approximately one in five (18.8%) youths [grades 9-12] had seriously considered attempting suicide, one in six (15.7%) had made a suicide plan, one in 11 (8.9%) had made an attempt, and one in 40 (2.5%) had made a suicide attempt requiring medical treatment.”3

Since problems like these are hard to define, they are hard to count. But at least in a rough way, the numbers testify to the widespread pain and struggles of young people. They suggest that something is profoundly awry, and I am trying to find answers by exploring the larger predicament that both high-school and college-age youths find themselves caught up in.

When we look at the numbers, we do not encounter the individuals themselves—the kids who have sunk into depression, been overwhelmed by anxiety, or considered taking their own life. We encounter “data,” instances of a general phenomenon.

There is a deep irony here. The numbers are intended not only to measure the scale of such problems but to move us to action. Articles analyzing the data sets and presenting the numbers—mostly found in the medical and psychological literature—are usually explicit: We need to tackle these problems and get people the help they need. But this concern never moves beyond the most abstract and generalized formulation addressing a class of nameless sufferers, the texture and uniqueness of whose lives disappear. And so too their pain, which cannot touch us or teach us anything about the way we live now.

Mental health statistics can be valuable. But precisely because they are numbers, the sufferings they quantify must be forced into behavioral categories and the individual sufferers sorted accordingly—the depressed, the anxious, the “suicide ideators.” With some exceptions, each discrete type is then reported separately, in its own specialized research literature, and with no necessary reference to any other issue. So named and categorized, suffering and sufferer become legible, understandable, and, at least in principle, manageable by institutional intervention and professional treatment. We “know” the problem.

This abstract way of “knowing” problems came home to me a few years ago at a one-day “Crisis on Campus” symposium sponsored by the American College Health Association. To address the “rising mental health demands of our nation’s students,” the event sessions featured college presidents, policy experts, counseling center personnel, and researchers analyzing trends in the mental health assessment data. The sessions documented with numbers the “epidemic” of mental health problems, like depression and anxiety, and the “exponential” growth in student demand for services. The presenters called, of course, for more data.

By contrast, a mid-day panel with college students was billed as “We are the many faces of mental health.” In the earlier sessions, the moderators had indicated that at this lunch panel we would “hear from the students.” I was looking forward to that session. From discussions and interviews with students over the years, I knew that young people have a lot to say about their world and the challenges they encounter. In the morning session, the university officials who spoke were dumbfounded by the problem and the dramatic expansion of their psychological services. And the afternoon would bring the research-types, who would predictably come bearing statistics and familiar “wellness” ideas. The students, I expected, would shed some first-person light on what’s going wrong for them.

They didn’t. While both student participants had seemingly dealt with mental health struggles of their own, neither was asked about any such experience. Both were active in their campus chapter of Active Minds, a national group that promotes student mental health advocacy. Both spoke as para-professionals, answering questions from the moderator about various outreach efforts to students, efforts that were directed at identifying and bringing struggling students under administrative surveillance (including by other students) and, as necessary, into contact with campus professionals and their bureaucratic structure of care and concern.

The student panelists emphasized their goal of getting students to speak up. Although laudable, I couldn’t help thinking that such efforts often end up being an exercise in not listening. Getting students to share their struggles under a kind of supervision can be a way of subtly conferring on them an identity as sufferers of a particular type—as comprehensible subjects for institutional purposes. We listen but with an aim to hear the speaker’s “problem” or "condition," which, when exposed and named, can be circumscribed by an official “understanding.” The speaker’s unique stories or perspectives disappear, as they did in that panel. Not hearing, we remain insulated from their pain and deaf to its sources in the actual challenges that our institutions help create. The “problem” is being tackled, yet the students remain unknown.

Listening to youth and their stories of struggle requires us to resist defining them. The meaning of their suffering is not in thing-like medical or institutional categories but in their irreducible experience. We, their parents, friends, or supporters, need to attend to and make room for that experience and allow it to speak to us about the worlds in which they live.


1. National Institute of Mental Health. 2021. “Major Depression,”

2. Ghandour, Reem M., et al. 2019. “Prevalence and Treatment of Depression, Anxiety, and Conduct Problems in US Children.” Journal of Pediatrics 206:256-67.

3. Ivey-Stephenson, Asha Z., et al. 2020. “Suicidal Ideation and Behaviors Among High School Students—Youth Risk Behavior Survey, United States, 2019.” MMWR Suppl. 69 (No. 1): 47-55.