Sixth-grader Elise crouched down.
It was a lockdown. Squished against a classroom wall with 30 of her classmates last spring, she thought back to something she’d written a week earlier: her will. A declaration of her wishes after her death.
Elise wrote the will when a woman suspected of making threats to schools in Colorado triggered hundreds of schools to close. A student shot and killed a classmate at a school in Highlands Ranch several weeks later. It was a scary time for Elise and many other students. So the lockdown -- students aren’t told if they’re real or a drill -- reminded her of her will.
At a panel last spring on gun violence, Elise read some of the will aloud: “If I die, my best friend Abby gets all my clothes. Eli gets my Michael Scott ‘That’s what she said’ poster.”
Adults in the room looked down in silence. Asked later if she generally felt safe at school, Elise, now in 7th grade, replied matter-of-factly: “Not really.”
One-third of Colorado teens are sad or hopeless - and uncertainty about the future is one factor that our reporting shows plays into that statistic.
Adults tend to roll their eyes and say, “Come on, every generation had it bad.” But the people who work with teens every day notice something different.
“I think our students now are experiencing almost a generational existential crisis,” says Kathryn Brown, counselor at Colorado's Finest High School of Choice in Englewood. “I think as youth it's just normal to wonder about your purpose and who you are and all of that. Our students are still doing that, but they also have this added weight of the biggest threat to human existence that arguably has ever, we've ever experienced -- climate change. They also have gun violence that they've been experiencing throughout their life.”
It’s no wonder many teens are anxious and depressed.
“We could all wake up tomorrow and Putin could have gotten crazy and we could all be dead in a nuclear wasteland,” says 15-year-old Dane. “We just think that everything around us is ridiculous and easily preventable, but we're kind of letting the world fall to ruin. A lot of us have kind of just given up hope.”
If you are in crisis or are looking for mental health services for you or someone you know, call the Colorado Crisis Services hotline. Call 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255 to speak with a trained counselor or professional. Counselors are also available at walk-in locations or online to chat between 4 p.m. and 12 a.m.
Even if they aren’t nihilistic, many teens have feelings like that.
“Yeah, there's something wrong in kind of the general existential universe,” says 18-year-old Cassidy.
Even at their young ages, Cassidy and 19-year-old Zoe have dealt with things past generations never imagined that sometimes causes anxiety and sadness. Teen worries about the future can loosely be divided into three main buckets: worry about not coming home from school, worry about their personal future, and worry about the planet.
Looking for exits and hiding places in schools is second nature to this generation.
“Like walk-in cabinets and you're like, ‘Yep, I could hide in that cabinet,’” says Cassidy, who had her first nightmare about a school shooting in sixth or seventh grade.
“Oh, that’s the closet. Like, that’s where we’d be. That’s where we hide,” adds Zoe.
Although school shootings are rare and their numbers are not increasing, a majority of American teens say they are worried or somewhat worried about the possibility of a shooting happening at their school. Cassidy and Zoe can relate. For Cassidy, it was the Aurora theater shootings that first left a big impression.
“I really internalized it and thought about it for a really long time. It was one of the first shootings that I saw happen close to home and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that's something that could happen to me’ -- I go to the movies [and] every time I'm there I’m like, ‘exit sign, exit, sign.’”
They know that teachers would do whatever they could to protect their students, but that only goes so far.
“Is there really much they can do?” asks Cassidy. “Can you really protect against an active shooter that’s one of your own students?”
Teens live with that knowledge every day they go to school -- Denver teen Lily Wilshire wrote in an editorial, “To say that gun violence has consumed and ravaged the education experience in America is an understatement.”
The advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety and the nation’s largest teachers’ unions released a report in February in which they do not recommend that schools do lockdown drills. They point to emerging evidence these drills may cause trauma, anxiety or depression.
“It’s distressing when you go into lockdown you don't know what it's about,” Cassidy says. “It’s almost kind of a blessing to have your phone because can look at it and you can look it up and you can text your parents and the ability to be able to communicate and to figure out what's going on is so reassuring. And then you tend to know like, okay, this is probably a drill, but it's doesn't change the fact that it's, you know, traumatizing.
“It's very scary.”
Teens don’t know what’s awaiting them on the other side of college — neither do economists.
Past generations -- unlike today’s teens -- knew that if they worked hard enough there’d likely be a job for them when they reached adulthood.
But today it’s hard to predict what new jobs there will be, or how to prepare for them. Some economists predict that by 2030, 40 percent of today’s jobs will be automated. Couple that with the fact that an average 4-year college education in Colorado costs more than $100,000 dollars.
“The problem with that is that there's not a lot of space for trial and error,” Zoe says.
So Zoe says a lot of high school kids are stressed about figuring out what they want to do for the rest of their lives by the time they’re 18.
“And it's just getting harder and harder to kind of find a job that'll pay off your student loans, that'll pay your rent, that'll pay your mortgage, that'll pay for groceries, all of that. And then also that you'll enjoy and that you'll feel like you're where you're supposed to be.”
Stanford University professor William Damon has studied purpose in adolescents for decades. He says the classic routes to finding purpose -- stable careers, marriage, families, community -- are more elusive now. Damon argues in an issue of School Administrator magazine that today’s young need larger doses of initiative and creativity to fashion their purpose. As teenager Kai says, many teens have a hard time conceptualizing the future.
“They are at the time of their lives are kind of looking towards the future and say, hey, where can I go after this? They're not seeing a future for themselves. They're not really like saying, ‘Hey, I could make a place for myself here.’ They’re just not seeing a place where they can go, generally, they don't feel they have merit to bring.”
But one of the biggest worries on teens’ minds is what shape the planet itself will be in when they’re in their prime.
Kids aren’t dumb. They are acutely aware of the rising temperatures, more intense weather and fires that a warming planet is likely to cause and the drastic effects that could have on society, from wars to disease and displacement. That, and the accompanying inaction by political leaders, weighs on them psychologically in heavy ways. A recent survey shows nearly 60 percent of teens are frightened by climate change. About half said it made them feel angry, higher rates than adults report.
In 2017, the American Psychological Association and two environmental organizations issued a report on the impact of climate change on mental health. It said the additional source of daily stress from climate change “may be tolerable for someone with many sources of support” but can serve as a “tipping point for those who have fewer resources or already experiencing stressors.”
Also, “Climate-related stress is likely to lead to increases in stress-related problems, such as substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and depression.”
Teens in past generations have felt trepidation about the future like nuclear attack or getting drafted to fight in Vietnam.
But imagine what it’s like to enter the world when humanity’s impact on the Earth is so profound ..one report declared that we could have as little as twelve years to prevent a rise in world temperatures or -- civilization won’t be sustainable by century’s end.
“Becoming an adult in this time going through your teenage years is like being drafted into adulthood,” says Zoe. “We're kind of taking on a world that has so many issues, so many problems, so many things that kind of feel untouchable. Like we can't do anything about them.”
Every teen I came into contact with during the time of the fires burning in the Amazon talked about it -- panicked, overwhelmed and sad. As if pimples, unrequited love, and clashes with parents weren’t enough, young people are struggling to be hopeful in the face of a disappearing planet.
Teens like Zoe and Cassidy are angry with adults over climate change. School counselors agree, this generation has very little faith in adults.
It’s like we’re the frog in water and the water is starting to boil and adults aren’t moving to turn off the heat. We’re pretending like nothing is happening. To be young now and watch that inaction -- is terrifying. One young person said to an older reporter, “You’ve lived most of your life. We haven’t so you can’t understand what this feels like for us.”
“It's frustrating because it's reached a point where it really needs to be addressed and it feels like there's a lack of willingness to address it,” Cassidy says, “especially in people who are in places of power and so that feeling of powerlessness is really a struggle and that feeling of kind of like existential dread. It’s very much a looming problem and you are constantly thinking about it.”
Sometimes, says Cassidy, the overload of problems — and the media amplifying them — is just too much.
“I know a lot of people who have turned off the news notifications,” she says. “I find it difficult at times to get on a news website or you know, listen to the news on the radio and continue to absorb it. It's very, very tough because you know, it's just really sad most of the time.”
Zoe says it can be hard for teens to talk about the world around them and the media doesn’t help. She’d like to see more solutions-based journalism.
“It’s really disheartening to see media that's just pointing out all the problems but not offering any solutions. I think that, especially our generation, we are very solution-oriented for the most part.”
Zoe says it’s important to stay connected but not feel overwhelmed so turning off news for a while is OK.
Sometimes she takes breaks from the internet and social media. “I'm going to take a day and just kind of absorb like kind of my life instead of the world around me,” she says.
In between learning about and working on the world’s problems, perhaps the biggest coping mechanisms for this generation are memes (like Coping Mechanism Bingo) and jokes with dark humor.
“We have this way of using memes to say, ‘This is my experience and this is how it's similar to yours,’” says Cassidy. “Or ‘I experienced this too, even though we've never met each other.’ Like we now know we have some solidarity.”
Zoe and Cassidy aren’t alone. One in four American teens have participated in a walkout, written to a public official or attended a rally on climate change.
“As hard as it can be to think about these problems that we didn't necessarily cause and have kind of laid on us to fix, we’re very creative, Zoe says. “I feel like a lot of people in our generation are creative and we're willing and we're ready and we're hungry for change.”
The teens say there are many young people who are optimistic and ready to take change into their own hands, “to become the new political system, become the people who are running the country, taking on all of the issues that have been kind of pushed to the side or put on the back burner because we're so aware now,” says Zoe.
No other generation has been as aware of what is happening on so many different issues as they’re happening, they say. “There’s a greater awareness and greater frustration and movement towards trying to make change,” Cassidy says.
In the weeks ahead, CPR will feature stories of students who are taking on the challenges of the world and we’ll present tips for parents who struggle with how to talk about climate change to their children in a way that empowers them.