Narrative Environment

The narrative environment consists of the narratives that act upon us, but also the audiences we perceive and sense for the narratives that we create, both in words and by actions.

Stories gone awry: teen suicide

The Missoulian reports that Montana is the fourth worst state in terms of teenagers dying from accidents, murder or suicide. The only reasons given for this have to do with a bad economy. That let’s us off the hook, doesn’t it? After all, it’s not my fault or your fault that the economy isn’t better. We’re doing our part to get by.

It’s the fault of people in Helena or in Washington, or somewhere. And since we already had opinions about people in Helena and Washington, we don’t really need to do much, other than to add another reason to a long list of reasons that we’re disgusted with politicians.

So we turn to the next page: they’re hunting bison in Yellowstone.

It’s a sorry spectacle of a world.

In my years as a teacher and volunteer EMT, I’ve known several young people who killed themselves. All of them had problems with drugs and alcohol, but none of them were poor. And the drugs and alcohol weren’t the cause but merely one of the symptoms of a life story gone bad, gone self-destructive.

When we talk about teenagers being “at risk,” this is what we’re talking about. They’re at risk of not being able to create a life story that makes sense and gives them hope. The more mistakes they make--getting involved with drinking or skipping school or hanging out with unintelligent friends--the harder it seems to turn their lives into stories that turn out well.

Teenagers are at the age where, for the first time, they have to put together a life story that connects what they’ve experienced in the past with what they perceive in the present and what they anticipate for the future. They have to make decisions about occupations, about what to believe, about how to organize a meaningful life. They need to form what narrative psychologist Dan McAdams calls a “narrative identity.”

This isn’t easy in an age when fundamental disagreements about the most basic meanings of life are broadcast all around them. It’s hardly surprising that the kids most likely to get into trouble are those whose families are unstable and for whom adult friends are nonexistent and churches don’t exist. Teachers preoccupied with test scores are unlikely to be much help.

When they were younger, they got by with fantasies: becoming Spiderman or a pitcher for the Braves or a ballerina. They had figured out the basics of autobiography--making a narrative tale out of episodes--but didn’t yet need to incorporate the hard realities we learn while growing up--understandings about the limits of our talents, our failures to get things as simple as a pair of shoes or a smile from someone who matters to us. Most of us know how easy it is to dig ourselves into a pit--skipping this task we should have done, missing that obligation, indulging in this temptation or that. It’s not hard to reach a place where some things seem hopeless. Where none of our choices seem good.

According to the Center for Disease Control, suicide rates for teens have tripled over the past couple of decades and it is now the third leading cause of death for people aged 15-24. Teens who feel disconnected and isolated are at greatest risk.

What to do? Work on the narrative environment.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/15 at 12:39 AM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project

Montana teens in trouble

What would your response be if you were told that Montana is the fourth worst state in the nation for teens dying of accidents, murders, or suicides?

If you’re the director of Montana Kids Count, it’s that “businesses don’t want to come to a place with high dropout rates, drug and alcohol problems, and child mortality rates. We need to look at attacking those problems as part of economic development.”

Yes, we need to do something about those teen suicides. They’re hurting business.

If you are looking for better answers, you might order a copy of Hardwired to Connect, a report issued by the Commission on Children at Risk and co-sponsored by Dartmouth Medical School, the YMCA, and the Institute for American Values.

A team of 33 medical doctors and mental health and youth counselors found that that humans are biologically “hardwired” to need close connections with others. Teenagers need to be part of what researchers call “authoritative communities"--strong families and schools, religious congregations and other associations that provide belonging, clear limits, and accountability. Without these, young people suffer.

One of the most striking finds in the study is that the longer children of immigrants live in America, the more “they tend to be less healthy and to report increases in risk behaviors. By the third and later generations, rates of most of these behaviors approach or exceed those of U.S.-born white adolescents.” According to Hardwired, childhood in the United States is “at best anemic, in the sense of weak and inadequate to foster full human flourishing, and at worst toxic, inadvertantly depressing health and engendering emotional distress and mental illness.”

Things have gotten worse for teenagers because community institutions that sustain connectedness between people forging shared meanings have “deteriorated significantly in recent decades.” This is “contributing significantly to a range of childhood problems.” Young people who live in poor and troubled families have the most difficulty coping with the effects of social disconnectedness, but even children from prosperous and well-educated families often have serious trouble.

Communities that work for young people have several characteristics:

1.  they include children and youth;
2.  they treat children as ends in themselves, not means to other ends;
3.  they are warm and nurturing;
4.  they set clear standards and limits;
5.  they are led by nonspecialists;
6.  they are multigenerational;
7.  they are focused on the future;
8.  they transmit a shared vision of what it means to be a good person and live a good life
9.  they foster moral, spiritual, and religious development; and
10. they promote the ideals of equal dignity of persons and love of neighbor.

We face a serious challenge. But meeting it would be neither hard nor unpleasant, if we stopped spending so much time and money doing unnecessary things.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/13 at 11:23 PM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project

The future of tradition

The future of tradition

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/03 at 07:03 AM
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2005 Montana Heritage Project
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