Youth Suicide and Buddhism as a Healing Source
By Tue Man (Tram Nguyen, Ph. D.)
Saigon, July 7, 2018
Youth suicide is disturbingly rising. Ashley Welch, in her article “What’s behind the rise in youth suicides?” (2017), gave some insights into the trend. The author mentioned potential causes for this trauma and notably pointed to “the correlation between the rising popularity of smartphones and increased rates of suicide and depression among young people” (para. 17). Although Welch did not offer a clear reason for the correlation, this point raises an awareness of an irony. We, as readers, may wonder, “How can such a wonderful entertaining device cause that terrible thing?” In this paper, I will discuss the roots of this pain, and then suggest Buddhism as a healing source.
In my view, there is an irony. Even though smartphone is a device that helps people connect with each other, this connection is in fact not authentic. In my definition, an authentic connection is a complete connection in that it is both internal and external. In this sense, people are expected to turn inwards to connect with themselves and simultaneously turn outwards to connect with the world, with love, deep understanding and compassion. Authentic connections are synonymous with healthy connections because they can help people grow in all aspects. These connections also bring genuine joy and happiness. Buddhist teacher Trungpa (1984) gave a similar point when he said that the world is basically good and we can experience its goodness. For example, we can enjoy “the brilliance of the bright blue sky, the freshness of green fields, and the beauty of the trees and mountains” (p. 13) as long as “[w]e have an actual connection to reality that can wake us up and make us feel basically, fundamentally good” (p. 14). Thanks to these real connections, we realize that we are good and the world is also good. This experience is desirable because it facilitates personal and spiritual growth.
Unfortunately, authentic connections are not what a smartphone promises. While achieving virtual or shallow connections, users end up suffering a harmful separation. In contrast to authentic connections, which help people grow, harmful separation jeopardises their lives. Yet, less rational smartphone users, most of whom are adolescents, are unlikely to be aware of this danger. Just with a tap on a small device in their hand, users can meet and chat with their relatives, friends, and other people all over the world. Therefore, users tend to believe that they have really made global connections and the whole world now is just in the palm of their hand, so there is nothing better. However, this is never true. Indeed, it is ironic that smartphone users spend many hours making friends with other people globally or gathering information about the world while they may know nothing about their neighbors. Worse, smartphone users, especially smartphone addicts, seldom talk and listen to their family members because they are busy chatting or working with the world out there and hence forget the people right here. So it is clear that smartphone creates a kind of connection at the expense of others. Put differently, these users lack real connections with themselves and with others, which makes a negative impact on their lives. Indeed, many studies revealed that smartphone addiction seriously damage users’ physical and mental health. Remarkably, a group of researchers recently found that smartphone overuse “may lead to withdrawal, depression, and destroy social relationships” (Aljomaa, Al.Qudah, Albursan, Bakhiet, & Abduljabbar, 2016, p. 156). Sadly, many young users ignore these consequences. Due to ignorance, they keep grasping the misbelief that smartphone is the only means of connection and therefore would get distressed without it. It is found that “smartphone addicts tend to be completely upset when deprived of their smartphones for sometime regardless of the reason for this deprivation, and that switching off the smartphone results in worry, depression, anger and an inability to sleep” (p. 157). The researchers also revealed that in a study conducted in the US, “65% of the participants [adolescent smartphone users] reported that they could not live without smartphones” (p. 156). Although these researchers did not directly mentioned the linkage between excessive use of smartphones and suicide, we cannot deny the fact that depression or any other mental problem, as one of many consequences of smartphone overuse, puts smartphone addicts in danger of taking their own lives.
From a Buddhist perspective, I would say that smartphone overuse is a form of ignorance. The users or addicts have an illusion that this device would help enlarge them and thus bring happiness to them by connecting them with others. However, the reality is completely different. These devices imprison their users and hence bring sufferings to them by separating the users from themselves and from their own communities as well as the real world. As for the former, the separation occurs when users are not mindful of their health while using the devices. Stories of young people having a stroke or a sudden death while playing games or chatting online are not uncommon. Being unmindful of one’s health is obviously a form of separating from oneself because the person then does not listen to his or her body to know what it really wants. As for the latter, researchers have found that while being attached to the smartphone, users isolate themselves from the rest of the world. In truth, a study revealed that “pathological use of the new technologies reduces the individual’s social implication in the real world and, as a consequence, his or her psychological well-being, because it produces the kind of isolation, loneliness and depression the individual wants to ease by connecting to the Internet” (Bian & Leung, 2015, p. 33).
Given the harmful effects of smartphone overuse and the pains young addicts wittingly or unwittingly experience, I suggest Buddhism as a desirable healing source. As discussed earlier, the roots of this pain lie in the absence of authentic connections. This kind of connection is encompassing and particularly contains compassion and love. This is a healthy connection and it is what all people need although they are aware or unaware of this. For that reason, to reach their full growth potential, instead of devoting their time to establishing virtual and false connections by means of smartphones, young people should make authentic connections with themselves and the real world. In this regard, Buddhism is very helpful through Buddha Dharma and particularly through meditation practices, central to which is the practice of mindfulness. With mediation and particularly mindfulness, practitioners learn to connect with themselves and gradually realize the nature of their selfhood. They begin to experience that all of the constituents of their selfhood are interdependent and, at the same time, interdependent with other beings. Deeper practices help open their minds and hearts, and genuine compassion will arise. They will have not only compassion for others but also compassion for themselves. Self-compassion is not selfishness. Rather, in my experience, it is a kind of love and openness for yourself which is exactly what you have for others because you begin to realize that you and others are not different.
In addition, it is advisable for young people to turn to Buddhist communities. Buddhist community refers to not just Buddhist monasteries or convents but also any community where there are meditation and mindfulness practices. In this sense, a family would also be a Buddhist community if all members have these practices. Mindfulness practices nourish care, love, and deep understanding in family, and thus any pain would be healed. In such a Buddhist community, young people have a chance to learn to connect with others healthily and compassionately. This connection may manifest itself in various forms. However, the healing process, in my opinion, should begin with mindful listening (and speaking). This sounds simple, but its effect is very powerful. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (1998) put, “if you really love someone, train yourself to be a listener. Be a therapist. You may be the best therapist for the person you love if you know how to train yourself in the art of deep compassionate listening” (p. 61). Therefore, in a Buddhist community, (young) people have a chance to share their thoughts and feelings with others, especially their parents, and have a chance to be deeply listened to. Mindful listening or deep listening helps relieve their pains, including anxiety, isolation, a sense of loss and so on. As for the correlation between deep listening and healing, Nhat Hanh (1998) affirmed:
Deep listening is at the foundation of Right Speech. If we cannot listen mindfully, we cannot practice Right Speech. No matter what we say, it will not be mindful, because we'll be speaking only our own ideas and not in response to the other person. In the Lotus Sutra, we are advised to look and listen with the eyes of compassion. Compassionate listening brings about healing. When someone listens to us this way, we feel some relief right away. A good therapist always practices deep, compassionate listening. We have to learn to do the same in order to heal the people we love and restore communication with them. (p. 61)
Unfortunately, deep listening is currently absent from many families. Nhat Hanh (1998) described:
Many of us have lost our capacity for listening and using loving speech in our families. It may be that no one is capable of listening to anyone else. So we feel very lonely even within our own families. That is why we have to go to a therapist, hoping that she is able to listen to us. (p.61)
This may explain why teenagers tend to turn to smart devices to find pleasure and happiness. Indeed, Aljomaa et al. (2016) wrote, “The psychodynamic theory conceived of smartphone addiction as a response to avoid frustrations and to achieve pleasure and forgetfulness” (p. 156).
To change this status quo, it is urgent for young people to be exposed to Buddha Dharma, to practice mindfulness and especially to engage with Buddhist communities. This way, young people would gradually experience what I called authentic connections. Over time, they would recognize that these connections are real, deep, helpful and vital to their growth, which cannot be found in smart devices.
In conclusion, staring with the perceived correlation between youth suicide and popularity of smartphones, I brought up the point that global connections created by means of smartphones are unauthentic. These connections are not sufficient for a child to be fully developed. They even become very harmful if users have an illusion that using smartphones is the only way for them to connect with others and therefore constantly seek pleasure in it. This illusion is very costly in that many smartphone addicts have to pay a huge price for it: having anxiety, depression, and social impairments, or even committing suicide. Given this issue, young people should be exposed to Buddhism, both theory and practice, and at the same time engage with Buddhist communities so that they would have an opportunity to experience authentic connections with themselves and with others. This way, all their pains would be healed and they would realize their full development potential.
Aljomaa, S. S., Al.Qudah, M. F., Albursan, I. S., Bakhiet, S. F., &
Abduljabbar, A.S. (2016). Smartphone addiction among university students in the light of some variables. Computers in Human Behavior, 61, 155-164.
Bian, M. &Leung, L. (2015). Linking loneliness, shyness,
smartphone addiction symptoms, and patterns of smartphone use to social capital. Social Science Computer Review, 33(1) 61-79.
Nhat Hanh, T. (1998). The heart of the Buddha’s teaching: Transforming suffering into
peace, joy, and liberation. New York: Broadway Books.
Trungpa, C. (1984). Shambhala: The sacred path of the warrior. Boston & London: Shambhala.
Welch, A. (2017). What’s behind the rise in youth suicides? CBS News.