NASHVILLE — Tennessee state Rep. Robin Smith is attributing rising rates of youth suicide and mental health problems among younger working Americans in part to negative messages of "despair" coming from the political left, according to a column she penned last week for the Patriot Post, a conservative national website.
The Hixson Republican and social conservative's opinion piece, titled "Youth Suicide: The Fruit of Leftist Indoctrination," triggered a fierce debate on her Facebook page after she posted it online last week.
A registered nurse, Smith writes a regular column for the Chattanooga-based Patriot Post and cites two studies. One is a recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistical report showing youth suicide rates in the U.S. increased 56% from 2007-2017 among 10- to 24-year-olds.
The other is a survey cited in the October issue of the Harvard Business Review that was conducted by Mind Share Partners, SAP, and Qualtrics.
Looking at the prevalence of mental health challenges and stigma in U.S. workplaces, the Mind Share Partners survey found half of millennials and 75% of Generation Zers surveyed reported they had "voluntarily left roles in the past for mental health reasons, compared with just 20% of respondents overall."
In her column, Smith pointed to a Wall Street Journal analysis of the CDC report that notes while government researchers weren't certain of the cause behind the suicide rate increase, they cited factors such as a rise in depression, drug use, stress, access to firearms and social media "as areas of interest and study."
While taking issue on access to firearms, Smith largely concurred with other potential factors, including peer pressure, stress related to school and achievement, bullying and access to individuals with drugs. And she cites the omnipresence of smartphones and social media.
But she heaps criticism on some messages the age group gets at school, especially in higher education.
"Of late, the message has been that the Earth will cease to exist in less than 12 years because of climate change," she wrote. "Our kids are told that it's their right to determine their own gender rather than live within the capacity of their biological being while maximizing their gifts and talents."
Moreover, she wrote, "too many students hear that life is a wad of cells until a baby is outside the mother's womb and wanted by both the biological donors — formerly called the mother and father."
Students "of all ages hear that part of growing up is being sexually active, having access to abortion as a type of birth control and part of a female's health care, and that choosing a life of discipline, maturity, and restraint is not possible — much less a characteristic of an individual living at the fullest extent of their 'rights,'" Smith adds.
While apportioning partial fault to parents "failing to be the first teachers in the lives of their children to inspire, offer hope, and equip for their future," Smith blames higher education "institutions entrusted with the high trust of academic instruction."
They're "populated with activists who are invested in more than educational excellence and accomplishment and are now turning to the playbook seen in failing cultures of sameness for the common good and a posture of dependency rather than self-reliance," she wrote.
"Youth suicide, along with this mental-health crisis, is a manifestation that is one of many fruits of a failure to equip and inspire our children, first in our homes, then in our communities, and finally in our critical institutions meant to prepare academically," she wrote. "It's critical to stop those who sow the seeds of indoctrination of fear, self-loathing, and dependency. Inspiration, not indoctrination!"
One Facebook critic charged: "This is fear mongering at its best and at its worst will keep people needing mental health to avoid it. You as a former RN, should be ashamed."
But another commenter said Smith "is absolutely correct in her comments. Children need adults to be adults and protect them from a 'Lord of the Flies' existence. They are not animals, they are human beings created in the image of God."
The lawmaker told the Times Free Press the topic was assigned to her by Patriot Post, which also provided the CDC suicide data and the Harvard Business Review article on millennials and Generation Z.
Smith said she doesn't question CDC suicide rate figures. But as to the study cited in the Harvard Business Review article on millennials and Generation Zers citing mental health issues for leaving their jobs, she said, "I reject that. I believe through reinforcement, through indoctrination and through messaging that they have developed a personalification of victimhood and fearfulness about the world they live in."
The message is coming "from the left side of the equation," she said, "about how the Earth is going to end in 12 years because of climate change — and that children, when they are conceived, are a wad of cells until they take their first breath."
Smith said she never mentioned or criticized Democrats by name in the column but for those on the left "It's anti-life, it's anti-inspiration for the future, anti-hope for the future."
Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said that when it comes to suicide prevention and related measures, "of course we'll work on it." He declined to comment about Smith's specific remarks, saying: "I think it would take away not only my focus but others who are very concerned about this issue."
Summing up her take on Smith's argument, Knoxville Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson, a retired teacher, said it amounts to saying "we're not sure why it's happening, but then [Smith] goes on to give her best guess. If you're in a school all day with those kids, you know why they're struggling, you know why they're stressed out. Most oftentimes it's their families are struggling."
That includes not having health care coverage, Johnson said, going on to criticize Tennessee Republicans' refusal to expand Medicaid coverage to an estimated 300,000 working-age men and women under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Johnson also called blaming people on the left for suicides "outrageous" and took issue with Smith's characterization that the young are hearing messages from the left that the world will cease to exist in a dozen years.
"That's not what climate science says," Johnson noted, saying the prediction has been made by scientists about the ability to reverse climate change unless action is taken. "It's a warning."
But Johnson also said she found some of Smith's points "valid," adding, "I think that social media and kids always being on a device has got its downsides for sure." But she said students are "stressed out because of the performance value they have to hit in schools because their next year or their after-high school outcome depends on these test scores they've made such high stakes."
Scott Ridgway, executive director of the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, said "it's very important for people to realize that suicide is a very complex issue," adding, "no one dies for one reason."
Nobody "wants to die by suicide," Ridgway said. "What they want to happen is their pain, their stressors, their combination of a lot of things happening in their lives to change. And so without sometimes having those support systems and those coping mechanisms" some "turn to suicide because they feel like they're being a burden on someone, they feel like they're not connected any longer and they have isolated themselves to where those three things combined can lead to suicide."
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit their website. The Tennessee Statewide Crisis Hotline is 1-855-CRISIS-1 or 1-855-274-7471.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.