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What is the modern adolescent experience? Such a broad question has many answers, but more and more of them tie into the issues and stigmas surrounding mental health. Mental health has become more and more of a topic for discussion in the last decade, especially for teens, and one could assume it’s becoming a more prevalent issue among youth. It would seem that as of late, teens are becoming more and more susceptible to a slew of problems. Things like anxiety and depression are taking hold of a larger portion of teenagers now than they ever have, and it’s concerning to say the least. Books like Speak help raise awareness and display how mental health can affect youth, and how one’s (particularly a teen’s) mental state could be affected by different circumstances. In this research paper I’ll be exploring things such as media expectations, trauma and other contributing factors to the rise in anxiety and depression in teens and covering how Speak represents them.
First, let’s go over some statistics. Has mental health really become more of an issue in recent years, or are people just becoming more aware of it? That conversation has been had for a while now, and by now enough research has been done to have an answer. Based on a study performed by the Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) Health Index, the rate of diagnosed depression and anxiety has risen 63% in youth aged 12-17 since 2013. 47% for boys and 65% for girls. Clearly mental disorders are plaguing more and more of adolescents, that much is true. However, things like this don’t just occur without a reason. Something within recent years must be at least partially responsible. This leads us to our first factor among youth, that being the expectation set upon young people by the media.
As much as some of us wouldn’t like to admit it, we are all at least somewhat affected by how things are portrayed in the media, for better or worse. In this case, it is quite clearly for worse, as more and more young people are simply unable to keep up with the constant rising standard for what they should and shouldn’t be. Speak illustrates this concept throughout the story, as Melinda, the protagonist, faces all sorts of negative behavior from her classmates due to her not fitting in. This elusive standard of what it means to fit in has caused a lot of distress among young people today, and the book serves to demonstrate that very clearly. This is shown by the following quote from the novel Speak, on page 4, “I have entered high school with the wrong hair, the wrong clothes, the wrong attitude. And I don’t have anyone to sit with. I am Outcast.” Melinda does not fit the standard that teens are held to today, and that is very much made apparent within the first few pages, and immediately is shunned for it. A lot of the modern adolescent experience can be summed up by that quote, as the struggle to fit in with what is deemed correct or good along with the social punishments for not doing so are both captured clearly in this scene.
Another major factor in mental illness in teens, particularly young women, that Speak covers is traumatic events, especially things like sexual assault. A staggering 82% of victims to attempted rape, rape and sexual assault who are under the age of 18 are women. Young women, particularly those aged 16-19, are unfortunately four times more likely to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. As a result of these early onset trauma, victims of childhood sexual abuse are three times more likely to experience major depressive episodes, and are four times more likely to develop PTSD than the average person, as stated by a statistical report from the U.S. Department of Justice. Melinda, from Speak, consistently displays symptoms of PTSD due to her rape, as well as symptoms of depressive episodes, as shown by the following quote, “I open up a paper clip and scratch it across the inside of my left wrist. Pitiful. If a suicide attempt is a cry for help, then what is this? A whimper, a peep? I draw little windowcracks of blood, etching line after line until it stops hurting.” Clearly as Melinda has not spoken about the incident, she bottles it up and cannot cope with it. Without good outlets and coping mechanisms, she turns to self-harm, a symptom of depressive episodes. Situations like these aren’t few and far between among young people, unfortunately, and the feeling of being unable to talk to anyone about anything really does play a large role in the modern adolescent experience.
Throughout the novel, Melinda is shown to have a strong aversion to men in general, especially Andy Evans, her rapist. Her distrust of men can be attributed to her possible PTSD due to her rape. At one point in the story, she is invited over to a friend’s house, but doesn’t trust him and hints strongly at the idea that she thinks he would have harmed her had she have gone, which is shown from the following quote, “David: ‘Come on, Mel. You gotta come with us! My dad told me to bring anyone I wanted. We can give you a ride home after if you want. It’ll be fun. You do remember fun, don’t you?’ Nope. I don’t do parties… Melinda One: ‘Get a life. It was just pizza. He wasn’t going to try anything. His parents were going to be there!’… Melinda Two: ‘The world is a dangerous place. You don’t know what would have happened. What if he was just saying his parents were going to be there? He could have been lying… Now hurry up and get us home. I don’t like it out here. It’s too dark.’” This distress or fear at the notion of being around men is something that is very common among sexual assault victims. As many as 70% of victims of sexual assault or rape have reported moderate to severe distress, which is disproportionately larger of a percentage than any other violent crime, as stated by RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network). Things like PTSD can greatly warp the modern adolescent experience, and many people end up flying under the radar and going undiagnosed with their trauma, which only makes the adolescent experience tougher. As a result, many teens who do end up experiencing trauma bottle it up and avoid speaking about it to others, instead choosing to avoid the issue, which can lead to many more issues down the line.
In summary, the modern adolescent experience in terms of mental health is an incredibly complex and ever-changing concept. With an often non-sympathetic society, shifting social pressures and possible childhood trauma, teenagers often have a lot on their plate, all of which largely contribute to the rise in anxiety and depression among youth. The novel Speak portrays a lot of these issues and pressures wonderfully, and gives a greatly detailed look into what the modern adolescent experience might look like when one’s mental health is thrown into the mix.
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