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31 Mar, 2009 07:44

American teenagers on the edge

American teenagers on the edge

US teens, in comparison with their European counterparts, are increasingly the perpetrators, or victims, of acts of random violence. But pinning down the cause of this national epidemic is no simple task.

In the April issue of Pediatrics, an influential US government-appointed medical panel recommends that doctors routinely screen all American teenagers for signs of depression – a remarkable and unprecedented proposal that underscores the depths of America’s mental health problem.

The panel, the US Preventive Services Task Force, said that about two million adolescents, or six percent of adolescents, between the ages of 12 and 18, are clinically depressed.

The panel suggests that members of this volatile age group fill out simple questionnaires under the supervision of a pediatrician, or other medical authority.

However, what if the teenager being examined – an age group notorious for its aloofness, rebelliousness and moodiness, especially when we take into account the general angst that teenagers experience with peer pressure and puberty – is simply having a bad day? Suddenly a simple questionnaire may eventually snowball into return visits to the doctor and possibly even a prescription of anti-depression medication.

Americans are already the leading global consumers of these mind-altering drugs.

“The number of children getting psychiatric drugs… soared,” according to a report in the Washington Post. “In 2002, about six percent of all boys and girls were taking antidepressants, triple the rate in the period 1994-96. And about 14 percent of boys – nearly one in seven – were on stimulant drugs in 2002, double the number in 1994-96, the report found.”

The same newspaper, quoting statistics from a “huge federal analysis of hundreds of clinical trials,” reported that, “antidepressants double the risk of suicidal behavior in young adults, from around three cases per thousand to seven cases per thousand.”

Officials at the Food and Drug Administration said that the higher risk was prevalent in patients aged 18 to 25, and that the risk faded with older patients.

Where the blame lies

Does a correlation involving depression, random violence and modern forms of entertainment exist? It may be safe to assume that if a youth is more prone to commit suicide while under the influence of antidepressant medication, then taking the life of a stranger or acquaintance may be equally simple.

On March 11, Germany experienced an ‘American-style’ massacre when Tim Kretschmer, 17, revisited his former high school armed with a 9 mm Beretta. Before he finally took his own life, Kretschmer had killed 15 people.

In trying to unravel what motivated this young man to carry out such horrific acts of violence, a report from Agence France Press ventured a guess: “With the benefit of hindsight… there were some clues: he had been suffering from depression, enjoyed grisly horror films and violent ‘shoot-em-up’ video games.

“We seized his computer yesterday evening and analyzed it… On it are games that are typical for someone carrying out a mass shooting,” local police chief Ralk Michelfelder told AFP.

“Playing violent video games like Doom, Wolfenstein 3D or Mortal Kombat can increase a person’s aggressive thoughts, feelings and behavior both in laboratory settings and in actual life,” according to a study from the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Furthermore, violent video games may be more harmful than violent television and movies because they are interactive, very engrossing and require the player to identify with the aggressor,” say the researchers.

German President Horst Koehler appealed to the government for stricter gun laws and a ban on gory video games.

Although incidences of random murders do visit Europe and beyond on occasion, America by far leads the world in incidents of random manslaughter, and many fear that this deadly tendency – given America’s powerful influence – will spread like a virus around the world.

On April 16, 2007, America woke up to the deadliest shooting by a single gunman in its history, when Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 and injured 23 on the campus of Virginia Tech University.

Cho was diagnosed as severely depressed, and the media brought the spotlight unto the question as to how this mentally unstable individual was able to purchase two semi-automatic pistols.

This particular case put gun enthusiasts, and specifically the National Rifle Association (NRA), on the defensive. How, the critics asked, can the NRA support the sale of firearms when so many innocent people are being gunned down? The NRA, forever faithful to the Second Amendment of the US Bill of Rights, which guarantees the people’s right to keep and bear arms, responds that mass murderers who prey on defenseless people would do less damage if more people had guns.

According to rock guitarist Ted Nugent, who also serves on the NRA’s board of directors, creating ‘gun-free zones’ is impossible.

“Eliminate the insanity of gun-free zones, which will never, ever be gun-free zones. They will only be good guy gun-free zones, and that is a recipe for disaster written in blood on the altar of denial. I, for one, refuse to genuflect there,” Nugent told CNN.

Clearly, the NRA crowd will not give up their guns any time soon. Furthermore, the argument that ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ is somewhat supported by Switzerland’s mandatory law that all males own a rifle. Incidences of individuals going on random shooting sprees in that neutral country are almost unheard of. However, America and Switzerland are two completely different social animals; which even the most ardent gun enthusiasts would have to admit.

Violence Inc.

Hundreds of less-publicized, yet equally inexplicable acts of random violence occur almost daily on main streets across the United States, and oftentimes without a firearm.

For example, on Sunday, 23-year-old Kerby Revelus fatally stabbed his 17-year-old sister, and decapitated his five-year-old sister in front of a police officer. Before he was able to turn the knife on his nine-year-old sister, “officers shot him dead,” according to the Associated Press.

As America grapples with its culture of escalating violence, it is tempting to offer a diagnosis. In too many cases, it seems, American children with mental disorders are being spoon-fed antidepressant medication, a treatment that in itself is imperfect as more than one medical journal will attest to. Add to this America’s liberal gun culture, together with its violent video/film production, and it could be argued that you have the perfect storm for acts of terrible violence against a lot of innocent people. And the world – many of it impressionable youth – are watching the ensuing carnage with great interest.

Whatever the case may be, violence is becoming a grave American export that should be refused entry at every international border.

Robert Bridge, RT, RT