Social media can spell social nightmares for lonely teens

Students at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park play a game of rock, paper, scissors as a team building exercise as part of a program designed to build the connections that help prevent suicide, bullying and substance abuse among young people. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

by Moira Cullings
moira.cullings@theleaven.org

OVERLAND PARK — Don’t let the upbeat energy radiating from the photo above fool you.

Students at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park were gathered to combat the second-leading cause of death among kids 14 years old to college age — suicide.

Aquinas academic principal Brian Schenck has seen a rise in the number of challenges to student health even since he’s started there.

“We’re trying to get the kids to understand what resilience is about,” explained Schenck, “and to understand the strengths that are present in their life to get through tough situations so they don’t feel overwhelmed.”

With that goal in mind, some 70 students and nine staff members took part in training for the evidence-based, student-led program Sources of Strength, which encourages students to draw from various areas in their lives for strength during difficult times.

The program is designed to prevent suicide, bullying and substance abuse among young people.

During the training held on Oct. 28 and 29, students and staff members participated in community building games and a group discussion. They will continue, now, to meet monthly to brainstorm ideas that get the entire school involved in campaigns designed to connect the students.

Its implementation at Aquinas couldn’t be timelier for a generation that’s constantly connected but admits to feeling lonelier and more isolated than ever.

“I think it’s ironic how we post every single thing we do in our entire life on social media yet, when something’s wrong with us, we’re too scared to say it even to our best friends,” said senior Mike Zingg.

“I think it’s a really important thing that kids are comfortable sharing what’s going on with people they trust and being able to help themselves through talking their problems out,” he added.

Social media often gets in the way of young people talking in person and sharing how they’re really feeling, said junior Sarah Chastain.

“You’re posting pictures, you’re seeing people have fun even though they’re not really,” she said. “It’s all for what people think.

“Even though you might not have a good time, you post a picture so it seems like you’re having a good time. It’s a disguise of pretending everything’s fine and you’re thriving and doing great even though you might not be.”

Scrolling through social media can be particularly tough when a teenager is already feeling anxious or depressed.

“On your worst day, even though [it’s] people I don’t really care about, I’ll see them doing fun things and being happy and it brings you down even more,” said Zingg.

And although deleting the social apps might seem like the best option, Zingg explained it’s a tricky situation.

“I hate Snapchat,” he said, “but I don’t think I could operate my friend groups without it.”

Portraying and maintaining an image online has complicated the lives of young people and confused their teachers, too. 

“It always surprises me when I have a student show up in my office who, by all outward appearances, seems very popular and is surrounded by students, is well respected and thought of,” said Laura Cline, a guidance counselor at Aquinas.

“And they will still tell me, ‘I’m lonely. I don’t have friends,’” she added.

The staff at Aquinas never wants a student to feel alone or isolated, said Schenck.

“There’s so many negative things that happen once you feel isolated,” he explained. “I think kids [more easily] find themselves isolated lately, which raises anxiety and all that.”

The Aquinas staff hopes Sources of Strength will connect the students and enhance the suicide prevention efforts already in place at the school.

Student leaders like Chastain also look forward to the impact the program will have on the Aquinas community.

“I think the program should help start the conversation so it’s not something people are afraid to talk about and be vulnerable about,” she said.

“I’m hoping it helps students recognize that there’s help when they need it,” she concluded. “They don’t have to reach rock bottom before they go ask for help.”

St. James Academy in Lenexa will also begin implementing Sources of Strength this year. For more information, visit the website at: sourcesofstrength.org.

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