Feature: Teen Depression and Suicide on Chicago’s North Shore

The Bad Old Days

History Shows that Teen Depression May Be Deadly

By Scott Holleran

There’s a moment in Robert Redford’s 1980 movie about the disintegration of a Lake Forest family, Ordinary People. It’s a short scene, barely memorable, really, and it occurs early in the picture. Conrad Jarrett, played by Timothy Hutton, is sitting in a car with other kids on their way to high school. The car is stopped at a gate waiting for the Chicago & North Western train to pass. We hear the bell, see the flashing lights, and, as the train roars by, we see Conrad—repressed, suicidal and trying to take charge of his life—squirming in the backseat, disturbed by something internal we don’t yet know about.

To me, then and now, the scene hints at certain facts of life on the North Shore, capturing at once the keeping of secrets, the trying to please others and the shame that can boil to an anxiety attack. In a wealthy suburban subculture that reeks of guilt and evokes envy everywhere, tending to suppress expression of emotion, the scene depicts that, even for the young, life is hard—it takes effort—and tension is a part of the deal.

We’ve had painful reminders of those facts with a recent rash of teen suicides in Lake Forest, where Judith Guest set the 1976 novel on which the film is based. There was a teen suicide trend when I lived on the North Shore, too. Back in the 1980s, it was estimated that we had 33 teenage suicides in an 18-month period. Many teens had stepped in front of trains. I knew some of them. I knew others who did, too. So, I’d always imagined that Conrad in the forementioned scene might be thinking about doing that, too. On mornings during high school when I’d hear the train whistle blow near my home, I wondered who wouldn’t show up for school that day.

Why suicide? We had everything growing up on the North Shore, or so we were told: the best schools and neighborhoods, the most progressive values. Much as I love what I love about those communities, I think not. Though the advantages of living in Glencoe or Wilmette are well-known, they have also been oversold. I am of course biased; my North Shore experience was mixed. Much of it was bad. But bad enough to drive a privileged child toward suicide?

Yes, according to psychologist John Duffy, who grew up in Park Ridge and treated area teens. “Many North Shore teens and parents have a problem with the idea of being wealthy,” he recently told me. “Upper middle class kids feel lost—like they’re not entitled to feel what they feel because there’s a lot of money involved. And there’s this societal jealousy [of wealth]. It’s as though you’re not really entitled to have problems.”

Dr. Duffy, who has relatives with kids at Lake Forest High, observes that North Shore parents often confuse achievement with impressing others. “To the teenager, there’s this pressure to get on stage or on the field or study for exams, so there’s a sense that parents don’t have time for you to get depressed and have a bad day.” Duffy, author of The Available Parent: Radical Optimism For Raising Teens and Tweens, says the remedy begins with empathy. Parents, he suggests, should stop being self-absorbed. “By the time the kid gets to me,” he explains, “parents can’t believe that what they’re doing isn’t working. There’s this indignant foot stomping. It’s really narcissism.”

As psychiatrist David Sack, who lived on Chicago’s north side during medical school and visited relatives on the North Shore, puts it: “Financial success doesn’t necessarily translate into being a good parent.” Dr. Sack, CEO of Promises Addiction Centers in Malibu, Calif., says his recovery programs are filled with wealthy patients whose parents buy things to compensate for a lack of attention. His parental advice: turn off the cell phones and give teens your time.

Both doctors report that structured family activity, such as bowling, movie nights or camping, strengthen bonds that may prevent or mitigate teen depression. Noting that anti-depressant medications are not as effective among teens are they are in adults, Dr. Sack adds that parents must be emotionally aware of their kids. “Be supportive when they’re distressed,” he recommends. “Teens have tremendously greater social problems—the prospect of college, parents’ divorce, peer pressure—so the level of psychological stress is higher. Empathic parenting helps.”

During the teen suicide cluster of the early 1980s, few parents, teachers or students talked openly about the reality of kids killing themselves. One former New Trier student, portfolio analyst Bill Wallace, told me that, while he valued his high school years, being able to express emotions and talk freely when a friend killed herself was difficult. “New Trier was somewhat stifling,” he told me when asked to recall those days. “For the most part, I didn’t feel like a freak, but I could easily have been lost there. I know a lot of people who felt lost.”

One of those people put herself in front of a commuter train and chose to end her life. In Ordinary People, Conrad learns to make himself better through rational thought, psychotherapy and self-interested action. Today’s North Shore teens, facing life’s extraordinary challenges, ought to have every reason to feel free to do the same.

This article was published in The North Shore Weekend in October 2012.