It’s a phenomenon all Swarthmore students are aware of, but that has never been properly studied. The startlingly high incidence of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse among supposedly “low risk” youth – the children of upper-middle-class families – was the focus of last Wednesday’s talk by Suniya S. Luthar, Ph. D.
Luthar, currently chair of the Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, had two reasons for wanting to undertake this study, an in-depth look at the possible causes for above-average levels of various problems among affluent youth. One was to show that this demographic group – the children of predominantly white, affluent, suburban families – was not as “low risk” as they are considered by the psychological field. Another was to try to combat the correlating stereotype, that the children of poor families are more at risk of showing high levels of depression or substance abuse due to bad parenting. As it turns out, according to Luthar, affluent suburban populations showed higher incidences of anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and other problem behaviors, both in comparison to national norms and to poorer inner-city families.
The main question of Luthar’s talk was, in short, “What are kids so stressed out about?” Although a first opinion was that perceived pressures – to get good grades, live up to parental expectations, to fulfill the “American dream” – caused such stress that children were attempting to self-medicate, Luthar’s interviews with 6th and 7th grade students revealed that these were not the only factors in determining risk. Peer pressure and the perceived lack of familial closeness, Luthar found, also contribute to the stress that can lead children to depression and substance abuse.
Luthar structered her lecture around feedback from the audience, which was happy to participate in a lively exchange of opinions as to why “rich kids” were prone to such problems. From the comments of audience members, which included both students and community members (there were several women whose remarks identified them as mothers of teenagers), it was clear that these are relevant, and even familiar topics for many Swatties.