The serious risks affluent teens face

Dr. Suniya Luthar. — Arizona State University photo

Dr. Suniya Luthar. — Arizona State University photo

Anxiety, depression and substance abuse among affluent teenagers will be the focus of Dr. Suniya Luthar’s Privileged and Pressured: The Risks of Growing Up in an Affluent Community presentation in the Wilton High School Little Theater on Friday, Oct. 21.

Luthar — a nationally acclaimed researcher, foundation professor of psychology at Arizona State University, professor emerita of Columbia University’s Teachers College, and mother of two grown children — said she has been studying these trends among youth for almost two-and-a-half decades.

She said she got into this field of research by accident while at Yale University.

“I was looking for a comparison group with which to contrast my findings on inner city kids, which is the population I had been studying up until that point,” said Luthar.

“I got students from more white collar, professional families as my comparison group and discovered for the first time higher rates of alcohol, drug use, anxiety and depression among these suburban kids as compared to the inner city kids.”

Luthar found that teenagers from upper-middle class communities have “much higher” rates of depression, anxiety and substance than national average — and “even higher than inner city kids living in poverty,” she said.

Although the exact problems differ from place-to-place, Luthar said, in all the upper-middle class communities she studied — including Westport — she “found the same elevated levels.”

“In some cases, there’s more substances use and in other cases, there’s more depression and anxiety,” said Luthar, “but in all the communities we’ve been to, there have been distinct and clear elevations of problems in one or more areas.”

In the late-1990s, Luthar published her first scientific paper findings on “problems among upper-middle class youth.” After that, she said, schools across the country started reaching out to her for help over the years.

“Schools get in touch with me and say, ‘We’re concerned about the student body’s mental health’ — usually after an event involving the sale of drugs or in some very, very tragic cases suicide,” said Luthar.

“I will go evaluated the student body and come back with my findings, a profile of the student body, and suggestions [of] what can be done to address it.”

Luthar said she takes a “very collaborative” approach in working with schools.

“Not only do I study the kids,” she said, “but I come back to work with the communities on issues that really need to be addressed and help find a way that we can best address them together.”

Wilton High School talk

Although she will not be studying the student body when she comes to Wilton High School, Luthar said she will present data on Northeast communities that are very similar to Wilton.

During her talk, Luthar will share highlights of her research on vulnerability in affluent teens, educate parents and school staff on skills and strategies to foster resilience, and touch on her more recent research on motherhood and the challenges facing mothers of adolescents today.

From her presentation, Luthar said, she hopes people leave with an understanding that “there is a cost of living by the credo ‘I can, therefore I must’” — with an implicit “do more and more and more” at the end.

“We all want our children to achieve and accomplish. We want ourselves to achieve and accomplish,” said Luthar.

“But when it starts coming at the cost of one’s mental health — when children start feeling depleted and exhausted and turning to drugs and alcohol to try and relieve the sense of enormous pressure they’re under — that’s the point at which parents and educators should stop, take a step back and say, ‘Is this really worth it?’”

Luthar said it’s also important for parents to not be cavalier when it comes to children’s substance use.

“There is a tendency for kids to say, ‘Mom, everybody does it’ — and it’s true that the rates of drug and alcohol use are higher among the upper-middle class students,” said Luthar, “but parents need to know it’s not OK to be sanguine about this.”

Luthar said children whose parents take substance use lightly and chalk it up to “kids being kids” are often the ones doing “much more drugs and alcohol as teenagers.”

“Early use of drugs and alcohol when you’re a teenage or even a preteen spells trouble for long-term abuse,” said Luthar.

Privileged and Pressured: The Risks of Growing Up in an Affluent Community will begin at 10 a.m. and is free and open to the public.

The talk is sponsored by the Wilton Youth Council, Wilton Youth Services, Silver Hill Hospital, Weston Youth Services, Westport Positive Youth Development, Wilton Presbyterian Church, Wilton Public Schools, Mountainside Treatment Center, and Wiltons school PTAs and PTSA.

Call Wilton Youth Services for more information: 203-834-6241.

To learn more about Luthar and her research, visit suniyaluthar.org.

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