MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today - new family values. Within a generation, the American ideal has completely changed - 2.5 kids, a mom and a dad. Most of us now recognize there are many other ways to have a family. But to get to that point took a lot of heartache.
ANDREW SOLOMON: I had grown up, I think, trying to be all that my parents could want. And I felt from an early age that when they found out I was gay, that it would be a gross disappointment to them. And, indeed, it was.
ZOMORODI: This is writer and psychologist Andrew Solomon.
SOLOMON: My mother initially said, you know, you're placing sexuality over the values of having a family and having children. And I had been very torn because what I most wanted in the world was to have a family. And yet, I also knew I had to be true to who I really was. And that balance had been very difficult for me.
ZOMORODI: For years, Andrew agonized over the idea that he couldn't be gay and have kids. But today, he's married to a man and they have a family. And his mother's reaction all those years ago, it can sound pretty old-fashioned.
SOLOMON: The life I have now was unimaginable at that time. It's not simply that she or, indeed, I failed to imagine it. It's that nobody really seemed to be imagining it. So while I wish that the path to where I ended up had been a little smoother, and I certainly wish - I think if my mother had lived longer, we would have resolved all this. And she'd said all of the right things before she died, but I don't think she really meant them yet. And I think if she had seen the life that I have now and had met the man I've been with for 22 years and married to for 16 and had seen, particularly, my children and had a chance to know them, that the tension would have resolved, dissolved and disappeared.
And I want to say, kind of clearly, my mother and I had this one terrible thing and it was terrible and there were some terrible things said. She was also an extraordinary mother who was unbelievably supportive of me through a complicated childhood and by whom I always felt adored, even if adored sometimes with some criticisms added in. And so she gets a lot of credit, I think, for my having the resilience that allowed me to endure the problems that she, herself, in some instances, created.
ZOMORODI: Well, it makes me ask, though, you know, Andrew, maybe there's a silver lining here because all these years later, you've written numerous books about families to critical acclaim. They have helped millions of people. And in some ways, maybe being rejected by your mother possibly launched an incredible career.
SOLOMON: Well, that's very kind of you to say. You know, it's always the question of how one has responded to one's circumstances. I wouldn't choose that particular part of my experience over again, but I do feel that in the end, one is always hesitant to say these things - and I feel I should be knocking loudly on wood as I do so. But in the end, I think things worked out well.
ZOMORODI: Why do some families stay strong, loving and united when one member is different, while other families fall apart? As our values change, how is the very concept of who belongs in a family changing along with it? On the show today - Andrew Solomon. His work includes the Pulitzer Prize finalist and National Book Award-winner "The Noonday Demon," as well as the bestseller "Far From The Tree." His TED Talks are some of the most-watched ever. We'll be discussing parenting and his own experience with depression. We'll talk about the pros and cons of embracing identity politics and how they affect our closest relationships. We'll also hear how Andrew ended up creating his own family. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.
Andrew, can you please introduce yourself? Tell us your name and what you do.
SOLOMON: I am Andrew Solomon. I am a writer. I'm a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia and a lecturer in psychology at Yale. I'm also an activist in LGBT rights, mental health and the arts.
ZOMORODI: You have now spent decades writing about identity, parenting and family dynamics. And in "Far From The Tree," which has also been made into a documentary a few years ago, you interview parents who are navigating having a child who is different from them, whether that means a disability or that they're a prodigy or even a criminal. And you introduce us to terminology that I find incredibly useful, this idea of vertical and horizontal identities. Can you explain what you mean by those terms?
SOLOMON: Sure. So vertical identities are the mainstream identities that are passed down generationally - so your nationality, your race or ethnicity, your language most of the time. These are things that parents have in common with their children. But there are also what I called horizontal identities, which are not passed down generationally - so being gay, being disabled, even being dyslexic, which I also am. All of these things that you don't have in common with your parents and that they, therefore, either don't know how to allow you to deal with or aren't willing or interested in making them feel more comfortable. And so if you're going to gain any kind of coherent sense of identity, you gain it not from your parents, which is the previous generation and therefore vertical, but rather from your peers, which is to say from a horizontal community of people you've found. Most people have some amount of horizontal identity, and there are a substantial number of people for whom those horizontal identities are their primary identities.
ZOMORODI: You actually - you talked about this on the TEDMED stage about 10 years ago, and I think the moment it clicked for me was when you described how acceptance is complicated.
(SOUNDBITE OF TEDMED TALK)
SOLOMON: I wanted to look at what the process is through which people who have those identities come to a good relationship with them. And it seemed to me that there were three levels of acceptance that needed to take place. There's self-acceptance, there's family acceptance and there's social acceptance, and they don't always coincide.
ZOMORODI: And then you go on to say, you know, your parents can love you, but that doesn't mean that they accept you.
(SOUNDBITE OF TEDMED TALK)
SOLOMON: And a lot of the time, people who have these conditions are very angry because they feel as though their parents don't love them, when what actually has happened is that their parents don't accept them. Love is something that, ideally, is there unconditionally throughout the relationship between a parent and a child, but acceptance is something that takes time. It always takes time.
ZOMORODI: In the film and in the book, one of my favorite scenes is a young man with Down syndrome. And what I enjoyed was just having an entry into his life.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FAR FROM THE TREE")
JASON KINGSLEY: I think slowly, but I'm smart in my own way.
ZOMORODI: He lives in a group home with a couple other young men who have Down syndrome.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FAR FROM THE TREE")
KINGSLEY: We are the Three Musketeers. All for one and one for all.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All for one and one for all.
ZOMORODI: And just watching them, like, enjoying each other's company, making a meal together, all of those things - and I feel like, why is this so interesting? What is it that we - do we feel so separate from people who are different from us? Is this voyeurism in some way, or is this just an understanding that adversity - at the end of the day, we're all the same?
KINGSLEY: We're not all the same. And that's a big theme of the work that I'm doing now. I feel like there has been a tendency to assign the notion of sameness where it isn't really applicable. And I feel like in a valid quest for equality, we've made false claims of equivalence. But they're having a different experience. There has been an assumption also that having a child who is different in some way is a grave misfortune. And Down syndrome is a very obvious instance. Most people who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome choose to terminate those pregnancies. My experience with Jason Kingsley, the young man you were talking to, and his mother, was very illuminating, as were other encounters with people with similar conditions. And his mother, Emily, said to me, if I had known that I was carrying a child with Down syndrome, I would probably have terminated the pregnancy and would have missed out on what has been not only the most difficult, but also the most meaningful experience of my life.
And I felt that the book and film worked, really, when I started getting letters from people, some of whom said, I read your book and watched your film, and I realized that I was going to be able to handle this. And I decided to continue my pregnancy and to have the child I was going to have. And my attempt was not to advocate on either side, but merely to allow people to make better-informed decisions. You know, I'm very strongly pro-choice, but I'm pro-informed choice.
ZOMORODI: You phrased it really beautifully. You said that we are at a point where we think we have to decide what to cure and what to celebrate when it comes to certain identities.
SOLOMON: I mean, I think, frankly, if my parents had known that I was going to be gay, they would probably have terminated the pregnancy. I think a lot of the time you have parents who start off saying, my child has this awful condition - and, of course, you want to mitigate your child's suffering. You want to help your child function as well in the world as your child can. You want to do all of those things, but you don't necessarily want to erase your child. Once you actually have a child, you tend to love the child you have.
ZOMORODI: And as you say in your TEDMED talk, every parent, no matter how tough their kid is, they would not swap them out for another one.
(SOUNDBITE OF TEDMED TALK)
SOLOMON: All of us who have children love the children we have with their flaws. If some glorious angel suddenly descended through my living room ceiling and offered to take away the children I have and give me other, better children - more polite, nicer, smarter - I would cling to the children I have and pray away that atrocious spectacle. And ultimately, I feel that in the same way that we test flame-retardant pajamas in an inferno to ensure they won't catch fire when our child reaches across the stove, so these stories of families negotiating these extreme differences reflect on the universal experience of parenting, which is always that sometimes you look at your child and you think, where did you come from?
ZOMORODI: When we come back, Andrew shares his own family's story and why he decided to have kids while working on this project.
(SOUNDBITE OF TEDMED TALK)
SOLOMON: Many people were astonished and said, but how can you decide to have children in the midst of studying everything that can go wrong? And I said, I'm not studying everything that can go wrong. What I'm studying is how much love there can be, even when everything appears to be going wrong.
ZOMORODI: I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm a Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, a conversation with psychologist Andrew Solomon, who has spent decades researching parenting and family dynamics for his books, including the award-winning "Far From The Tree". One of his more recent projects is an audio series called "New Family Values," in which he visits families across the United States who are redefining the concept of family.
SOLOMON: "Far From The Tree" was about how parents who perceived themselves to be ordinary dealt with children who are perceived by those parents and by the world as being extraordinary in some way, generally construed as either positive or negative. But now I'm trying to write about extraordinary families. So I'm looking at divorce and stepfamilies, which are a relatively modern invention as part of a general society, and interracial families, because the Loving decision was the first time that anyone stood up to the forces of officialdom and said, it is not up to you to decide what constitutes a marriage and a family, but up to us; and then looking at assisted reproduction and at single parenthood, at adoption, at foster care, at LGBT families and multi-parent families.
And the mission in doing all of that is essentially to say that these families all have different experiences, but that the 1950s ideal of family that we hold up as the measure to which all of these other family experiences ought to fit is actually a dated concept and that it was never really true in the first place; and that in a society that supposedly embraces diversity, the method of embracing diversity shouldn't be to say, well, these families are all OK because in many ways they all echo this vanishing ideal, but rather to say these different ideas of family, these different constructions, these different ways of coming to be a family represent, in many ways, the most profound form of diversity in our society. And we should cherish the ways they are different, rather than emphasizing over and over again the ways they are the same.
ZOMORODI: Yeah, and you say there are so many examples of people coming together in ways that were certainly socially unacceptable, even technologically impossible, a few...
ZOMORODI: ...Years ago, like surrogacy and other things. But one of my favorite visits that you make is to people who have been rejected by their parents and have formed what they call a rainbow family in Mississippi. This particular family calls itself the House of Black. Can you just explain first, what is a rainbow family? And can you tell us the story about the House of Black?
SOLOMON: The startling statistic that I got from the Williams Institute, which researches LGBT families, is that the state in which there is the highest population frequency of LGBT people who define themselves as having children is not California and it's not New York; it's Mississippi. And I thought, how can that be the case? Perhaps that represents prejudice toward certain areas of the country. But I just thought in Mississippi, it must be nearly impossible to do this. What I found is there is a large population of people who come out to their parents and are thrown out of their households, either, you know, explicitly or implicitly, and that they often end up meeting older people who are LGBTQ who take them in, and they form a new kind of family and define themselves as families.
And so the rainbow families that I was interested in are these families in which you have possibly two adults in a committed relationship, possibly one adult, possibly a number of them who have taken in these kids, and then they tend to stay together for a long time. So you then will have older adults who just have these younger adults whom they call their children and who call these other people their parents, in a variety of setups that we wouldn't necessarily anticipate. And there is a focus on drag culture a lot in those communities, and so often they all end up performing together as drag performers. And the family that you referred to was a group of people who were all in drag together, they were all living together.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "NEW FAMILY VALUES")
MALAYSIA WALKER: I am Malaysia Walker. I am the mother of the Jackson branch of House of Black (laughter).
SOLOMON: While Malaysia went to change, her husband, Leroy, packed her bags.
LEROY: Right now, I am putting in a dress and heels, some entertaining hair, a costume, a dance costume.
SOLOMON: Malaysia is a transgender woman. She and her husband, Leroy, share their house with their daughter Portia and their grandbaby, Cody. As I walked in the door...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SOLOMON: They all supported one another. And while they don't meet what most people think of, technically, as the definition of family in terms of biological relatedness or legal adoption or lots of other things, they all lived in a big house together, and they certainly met my sense of what a family is. They supported one another, they loved one another, they built a life together, they taught things to one another.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "NEW FAMILY VALUES")
WALKER: I know my place at home. I know who I am with my immediate family because this is my immediate family now. And excuse me, we have an event to get to. So, you know, that's what we do. That's just what (laughter)...
SOLOMON: And so people who could have been isolated and marginalized and pushed away to the edge were actually having a much more intimate and rich feeling of family than many sort of so-called normal, heterosexual families who were living in their community, or indeed in mine. And I think there are going to be increasingly - I hope there will be some form of actually legal recognition for families like the rainbow family I just described and people in all of these other structures and I hope, ultimately, a recognition that believing in those families is a way of believing in humanity.
ZOMORODI: But, Andrew, there are some people who do not want to receive this message. People have tried to ban your books in certain states. How do you deal with the fact that not only do some people not want to talk about this stuff, they do not want to allow it to be talked about?
SOLOMON: Well, I'm dealing with it in part by going on the TED Radio Hour and making my views known. You know, by trying to be a public spokesman for it, I can talk very openly about things that other people still have to keep under wraps and keep secret. My hope is that by broadcasting these stories, I can be helpful. But I will tell you anecdotally that I recently realized I had to revise my will for various complicated reasons, and I was talking to the lawyers about it, and we kept coming on phrasing that is standard boilerplate. And I kept saying, I think we have to change that. So for example, it would say, any children born to me da, da, da, da, da, da, da. And I would say, well, there are people who would say born to reflects on the person who carried the pregnancy and gave birth to the child rather than to me. And they said, well, it's not generally applied that way.
And I said the Supreme Court had just had a decision in Dobbs that not only took away reproductive freedom from women, but in the opinion on which - or in the concurrence on which Clarence Thomas talked about the need to revisit the gay rights cases, we have to come up with language that some court is not going to be in a position to interpret otherwise than as we intended. So the ways in which people seem to think that their kind of family is undermined by the existence of my kind of family and these other families I'm describing, it's pernicious and it's dangerous. You know, I spent years in Russia when I had a Russian boyfriend for a while, and we could be very open. Our relationship as it existed in Russia in the early 1990s would be impossible in the Russia of today.
These things can shift and change in very sinister ways, and they shift and change because of the people you're describing who somehow feel threatened. And this notion that by controlling what constitutes marriage and what constitutes family and who deserves which civil protections and all of the rest of it, I really and truly don't see that there's any advantage served by those narrowed definitions.
ZOMORODI: You've touched on it, but let's get into it. You said you always wanted to have kids, and now you do. Tell us about your family and your children and how you made it happen.
SOLOMON: My husband is the biological father of two children with some lesbian friends in Minneapolis. My best friend from college and I decided, following her divorce, to have a child together. And so mother and daughter and now virtual stepfather are living in Fort Worth, Texas. And then my husband and I wanted to have the experience of bringing up a child full time. And so we have a son of whom I am the biological father. My husband, John, is the adoptive father. We had a - an egg donor whom we found through a commercial agency. And our surrogate was the lesbian mother of John's biological children. She carried the pregnancy. So it's really, at this point, six adults of four children in three states. And the relationships are quite different.
Oliver and Lucy, the children in Minneapolis, we love dearly, but their parents are their two moms, and we don't have any parental rights or obligations in connection to them, and we do like to see them. We were just all of us together for Christmas. It's lovely when we can do that, but our involvement is much less. With my daughter in Texas, I am her legal and biological parent. I'm involved in all major parenting decisions, and I talk to her on the phone every night for at least half an hour. And she comes to visit often, and I go down to Texas often. But her primary custodial parent is her mother. And then for George, our son in New York, John and I are his legal parents. And it's full-time, full-on parenting and making all the decisions that parents make and being fully engaged in that. So it's been sort of revelatory that this was even possible.
ZOMORODI: I mean, I got to say, I'm exhausted...
ZOMORODI: ...Just listening to all of this. I mean, the amount of negotiating that it must take to - schedules and rules and discipline and expectations and who's doing what and when can we get together, all the different spring breaks, my Lord.
SOLOMON: I've always loved the line from Tallulah Bankhead when she said, it isn't easy being me. Sometimes even I have a hard time doing it.
SOLOMON: But the rewards of it have been enormous. And for so long, the part of being gay that I was sad about was that I wasn't going to have kids.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SOLOMON: George, let's go and put on your pajamas, please. George, pajamas.
So when it turned out that actually you could be gay and have kids, the sense of, you know, not just relief but of sort of revelation...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GEORGE: The first chapter is called "How Shasta Set Out On His Travels."
SOLOMON: Would you like me to read it to you?
SOLOMON: Sort of, oh, I can be true to myself and have the thing I most wanted.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GEORGE: Who is Shasta, anyway?
SOLOMON: Oh, we'll...
JOHN HABICH: I guess we're going to find out.
SOLOMON: This is the story of an adventure that happened in Narnia.
You know, having kids is exhausting and can be challenging, and, as you pointed out, this complex structure is a little overwhelming. And also having a family, I worried - particularly, I think, when the mother of my daughter was pregnant with my daughter, I thought, what if I, having gone to these extraordinary lengths, have children and then I don't like being a parent? And I will admit that I spent the first probably six months overwhelmed by the transition into parenthood. And since then, you know, as parents mostly will say, it has been what I hoped it would be in terms of the ways in which it has deepened my life, which is not to say that I think everyone needs to do it. I needed to do it.
ZOMORODI: You're reminding me - because I read something you wrote about parenting lessons that you've learned. And one of my favorite ones - and I guess it kind of surprised me, but it says my pride shouldn't be my children's burden. And I guess this comes back to this idea of identity. Is it vertical or horizontal here, the fact that their family has been structured the way it's been structured?
SOLOMON: We are in the midst of doing high school applications for my son, which is very...
ZOMORODI: I'm so sorry.
SOLOMON: Exactly. It's a very horrendous process. And one of the schools said write about your identity and the way you will contribute to diversity at our school, and my son came in and said, I don't know what I'm going to write about here. And he is a white kid who has grown up in relative privilege and who is straight and - well, I said to him, you know, we have this extraordinary family. I said, if what they're looking for is diversity, that's probably your best card. And he said, it's not a big deal and who wants to hear about it anyway? And I said, well, you may experience it as not a big deal, I said, but that itself is a topic for you to say, this isn't a big deal to me. I said, there was a time when it would have had to be a really big deal. And he said, I just think that's really boring. And I said, well, this is really, really great. He doesn't find this extraordinary, and that made me feel that I had been successful in what I set out to do at that level, at least.
ZOMORODI: He may not get in the high school, but at least he thinks you're normal, right?
SOLOMON: (Laughter) Exactly.
ZOMORODI: I want to turn to a different but related topic, one which we touched on before, your own experience with depression. It's the subject of one of your TED talks, which has almost 13 million views. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
SOLOMON: In 1991, I had a series of losses. My mother died. A relationship I'd been in ended. I moved back to the United States from some years abroad. And I got through all of those experiences intact. But in 1994, three years later, I found myself losing interest in almost everything. I didn't want to do any of the things I had previously wanted to do, and I didn't know why. The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and it was vitality that seemed to seep away from me in that moment. Everything there was to do seemed like too much work. I would come home and I would see the red light flashing on my answering machine, and instead of being thrilled to hear from my friends, I would think, what a lot of people that is to have to call back. Or I would decide I should have lunch, and then I would think, but I'd have to get the food out and put it on a plate and cut it up and chew it and swallow it. And it felt to me like the Stations of the Cross. And one of the things that often gets lost in discussions of depression is that you know it's ridiculous. You know it's ridiculous while you are experiencing it. You know that most people manage to listen to their messages and eat lunch and organize themselves to take a shower and go out the front door and that it's not a big deal, and yet you are nonetheless in its grip and you are unable to figure out any way around it.
ZOMORODI: Your ability to put into words what depression feels like - I mean, I hear it from so many people, including myself. It has helped so many people, because even, you know, just a decade ago, when you gave your talk about your depression, people didn't really discuss mental illness as openly. And I think that specificity made people feel, I'm not alone.
SOLOMON: I - what I don't think I had realized until I put the story out into the world was how many people are going through these experiences terribly alone and believe that no one else can understand what they are going through. And the loneliness and aloneness of these people is so enormous, and it is partly the cause of their depression, but it is in large part the consequence of their depression. The idea of going out and making friends when you're feeling miserable is almost inconceivable. And for a lot of them, just the discovery that other people also have had these feelings and have had these experiences makes a huge difference. And, you know, I think depression touches more or less every life. There's no real escape from it, and I think the cost of secrecy is enormous. It's so tiring and takes so much energy to keep secrets. And that energy could better be spent on getting better. And so trying to help people to talk about their own depression, if they are ready to, felt, to me, like a necessary social service.
ZOMORODI: In a moment, more from Andrew Solomon about overcoming his depression and how he's trying to help others. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. My guest today is writer and psychologist Andrew Solomon. Quick warning here - in this part of the show, we will be talking about depression and suicide, including suicide among young people. Right now, Andrew is working on three books simultaneously, including one about teens and their mental health. Over 20 years ago, Andrew suffered his own debilitating depressive episode. He couldn't get out of bed or make himself lunch, much less even eat it.
You recognized that you were in trouble. You said, like, I need to do something, and you ended up going on medication. Millions of people did back in the '90s when antidepressants went mainstream. But putting on your psychologist hat, I mean, I have to ask, here we are, decades later, and we still don't know the long-term effects of people being on antidepressants for years and years and years - for the majority of their life, even.
SOLOMON: We'll never know the long-term effects of any intervention until that intervention has been around for a long time. I mean, we didn't know the long-term effects of antibiotics until people had been taking them on and off across a lifetime. What we do know is the long-term effects of untreated depression. And the long-term effect of untreated depression is essentially a life of misery and woe that usually doesn't get to the point that it might otherwise have achieved. And in many instances, in the end, it leads to suicide, which is, you know, horrifyingly frequent in the United States right now. And so you have to think, OK, what is the effect of the medication and what is the effect of not taking the medication and measure them against each other.
I have been tremendously helped by medication. And when I tried to go off it altogether, the results were invariably catastrophic. So I respond very well to medication. Some people don't respond well to it systematically, biologically. So I don't universalize it at all. But even with the excellent psychotherapy I had, which was absolutely crucial to my recovery, even with the marriage and family that I've had, even with the support of my father, I think that if it weren't for the medication, I wouldn't be talking to you like this now. I think I would be in bed with the covers pulled up.
ZOMORODI: You just touched on something that I feel like there's a lot of debate around right now, which is the root cause of depression - how much of it is genetic, a chemical imbalance, the effects of society, whether that means living in poverty or spending a lot of time on social media. Where do you stand on that debate?
SOLOMON: I think that, by and large, depression happens when a genetic vulnerability interacts with an external stimulus. And if you're very vulnerable to depression, the external stimulus can be fairly slight. And if you're relatively invulnerable to depression, the external stimulus has to be enormous. Genes are probably involved. I think they're more involved in some cases than in others. I don't think we know what genes they are. There are various, you know, connections that have been marked where you have a 2% higher risk of depression with a particular combination of genes. But we really don't understand those mechanisms at all.
And what I ultimately think, really, is that the biological and the social are two different vocabularies for what is effectively a single - though in its own way, a very diverse - phenomenon, and that it's all sort of the same. The genetics question is complicated. And the other thing that people get wrong, I think, is that they say, well, if it's mostly a biological issue, then the appropriate intervention is medication. And if it's mostly a social issue, then the appropriate intervention is talk therapy and various other things. No, it doesn't matter. Once you have a depression, it's a depression. If you're depressed, avail yourself of all of the treatments that you can as quickly as possible, in the first place because it's easier to turn around a depression if you address it promptly, and in the second place, because life is short and you can lose a lot of time to saying, well, I don't want to try that yet. I'll wait until next month.
Just do what you can to turn it around and to get out of it. And then when you're out of the acute phase of your depression, you can have some philosophical conversations about how you want to deal with the possibility of its recurrence or address the matter of your own mental health.
ZOMORODI: Oh, Andrew, I have to follow up with questions I really don't want to ask because it's just so, so painful to talk about. And that is the book you're writing on - the one about the rise in child suicide. I read your New Yorker article on it, and I could barely finish it. Are you hoping to try and pinpoint some of the reasons why kids are taking such drastic measures? Is that what's sort of driving you with this book, why you would want to write this article and then keep going?
SOLOMON: I have been shocked by the rising rates of youth suicide. And for the book, I'm going from age 5, which is the youngest at which people make - die by suicide or make suicide attempts, up to age 25, which is the age at which your prefrontal cortex is ostensibly fully developed and most major mental illnesses will have set in. And the material I've been looking at statistically is very alarming. Effectively - and this is a broad generalization. There have been ups and downs, but effectively, the rate of youth suicide in particular has been going up since the 1950s and has been going up dramatically since about 2012. And I'm trying to look at both the problem and the answer, so I'll say the problem comes from many, many sources, but modern life is extremely stressful. I think the most obvious component is social media and, really, the internet altogether. People are more socially isolated because of the way they interact with electronic media, and interacting with someone electronically is very different from interacting face-to-face. There's all of this stuff about self-image and the way that social media influences that. It's also that, you know, when I was growing up, my parents watched the news for half an hour in the evening, and now my phone buzzes once every 15 minutes with a notification saying this awful thing just happened here. That awful thing just happened there. There's no escape from it.
But the other thing, which I think has been grossly underestimated, is that if you interview the people who have survived, the things they most often point to are not what happened on Facebook, and it's not about being bullied at school. They are concerned that the climate is a disaster and that the world is going to be uninhabitable and that they won't be able to have families because it will be too horrible a world to bring children into and that they themselves will die in climate disaster. And they're worried about the disappearance of social mobility and the sense that whatever is wrong in their lives will never be fixed because nobody manages to get out of the situation they're in. And it used to be possible to work your way up, and it isn't possible anymore. Those are the two things people say most frequently. Now, it's pretty hard to fix those things, but I think it needs to be a social imperative, and we need to understand children are dying in large numbers because of those problems that we are addressing very inadequately.
There is one family whom I've just interviewed, and they - I mean, their son was in a hospital for a while and so on and so forth. He said, I hate being in the hospital. And they said, you can stay at home if you promise two things. One is that you will allow us to be with you all the time, and the other is that you will tell us what you're thinking and feeling, no matter how much you think we don't want to hear it. And so they had a full year while they were doing various kinds of intensive therapy in which he slept at the age of 16 in bed with his parents, in which they were in the bathroom every time he took a shower. He was never alone.
I am not saying that that would work for everyone, and I certainly don't want to say that parents are to blame when their children have died this way because they didn't do all of these things. But doing all of those things helped, and I said to him when we spoke just a week ago, I said, what did all of that do? And he said, I wanted to die, he said, because I was a nihilist. He said, I just thought life was pointless, everything was pointless, and why would I stay alive in this stupid, pointless world? And all of what my parents did gave me an ability to change. He said, I'm still a nihilist, but I became an optimistic nihilist. He said, I became someone who thought life has no meaning and there's no point, but let's do the best we can with whatever it is. It's not that long anyway. He said, and I haven't felt suicidal now in three years.
It was also the therapy that he had done and so on and so forth. I mean, get good therapy. If someone needs medication, don't delay it and say, can you get through this on your own? But put them on medication temporarily if that will help, and give the person - you don't want to sort of make them just feel incredibly guilty, but people who are killing themselves almost always, if you talk to survivors, have reached the point of believing, inaccurately, that everyone will be better off if they're dead. You have to make them know that you will not be better off if they're dead. You have to make them know that if they were to die, it would be the worst thing that could ever happen to you, and you need to make them believe that, which you can't necessarily do just by saying it from time to time. Having said all of that, you know, I think we could reduce the rate of youth suicide, and I think we can do a lot of things like controlling how much they use social media, like, all of that.
ZOMORODI: Well, can I ask you about that because it seems - and, of course, parents have to look out for their kids and take any threat of self-harm seriously, but I think one of the issues I hear from my fellow parents is trying to understand the difference between a real crisis and normal teenage angst because it does seem like, at least in some parts of the country, that it's almost trendy for kids to identify themselves as having a mental illness. There are TikToks where people talk about my anxiety, and there just seems to be a conundrum because on the one hand there's this rise in depression, anxiety and unfortunately, suicide, but there also seems to be a decrease in the stigma against talking about mental health and seeking care. And then there's this sort of - back to this idea of identity, like, this is a way - I'm different. I'm special. I'm - look at me. I have depression. I'm - and I have anxiety instead of saying I am anxious, which is a normal part of life.
SOLOMON: Yes. You're absolutely right, and it's very, very difficult, and it's difficult for me as a parent, even though this is an area of expertise. I mean, the first thing I would say is that if you're going to make an error, it's better to make the error of taking very seriously something that turns out to have been just a stupid manipulation than it is to make the error of thinking it's just a stupid manipulation and getting it wrong with someone who actually wants to die. So that's the first thing. The second thing is that TikTok is a pernicious, evil presence in teens' lives. Social media are complicated.
But on TikTok, once you've decided that you're interested in those videos or even just looked at a couple of those videos that deal with mental illness, you will quickly find yourself looking at more and more and more things about it. And after you've heard the hundredth person describe it, you think, yeah, I kind of feel that way, too. And, yeah, I have that experience. And it does become an identity for people who are starved for identity. We live in this era of identity politics as a larger construction. And no adolescent really has a clear identity. They have pieces of identity. But adolescence is about finding or constructing the identity that you will ultimately have.
ZOMORODI: You find yourself at the nexus of psychological research, beautiful storytelling, but also a very personal experience. And I guess I wonder, as someone with a history of depression, how do you wake up and make breakfast and then dive into these topics?
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SOLOMON: It's often hard. And there are days when I think, I'm feeling able to write about all of this today. And there are days when I don't. But really, the experience of writing the depression stuff, which was quite agonizing, and having many people say they were helped by it - I mean, I remember getting a letter relatively soon after my depression book came out, "The Noonday Demon." Someone wrote to me and said - and it was an unsigned letter. It just said, I was going to kill myself. But I read your book. And I changed my mind.
Boy, is that inspiring. And these people who have lost children to suicide, I mean, it's the grimmest topic there is. There's sort of no other grimmer topic. But the reason that those people go through an agony far worse than mine in talking about what's happened - I just listen and ask a few questions - is because they are hopeful that they can save someone else from their agony and grief. And that trust and that hope are unbelievably motivating.
ZOMORODI: I think that actually beautifully brings me to my last question, which is, for someone listening right now - all these different kinds of families, all these different kinds of problems, all sorts of adversity, whether you are a traditional nuclear family or in a chosen family, or maybe you're figuring it out - but I guess I'm wondering, is there anything that you see repeated in the people who do manage to work it out? I won't use the word happy family because, well, that seems a bit rich. But is there something that these people do that makes it a little bit easier?
SOLOMON: There are a lot of things. And of course, different things work for different people. And generalizations are only generalizations. The first thing is just not to waste energy on secretiveness, not that everyone has to be public in the way that I have been - I think most people don't want to do that, and they certainly don't need to - but not to be more secretive than you feel is necessary. And I think to try, as much as possible, to find the capacity for love in yourself and find its objects. People heal in community. Interact, even when it feels too stressful. Try to embed yourself in community of any kind however you can. And if you can do it, do it in real life rather than online. I mean, I could give you, you know, tips for the next half-hour, but I think that's really the essence of it.
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ZOMORODI: Andrew Solomon, thank you so much.
SOLOMON: Thank you so much. You're a wonderful interviewer. This has been a joy.
ZOMORODI: Andrew's books include "The Noonday Demon," "Far From The Tree" and many more. You can find all his talks at ted.com. If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, please, call or text 988 to reach the suicide and crisis lifeline. Thank you so much for listening to our show today.
This episode was produced by Rachel Faulkner White. It was edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour and me. Our production staff at NPR also includes Fiona Geiran, Andrea Gutierrez, James Delahoussaye, Katie Monteleone, Matthew Cloutier and Harsha Nahata. Our intern is Susannah Broun and our fellow is Malvika Dang. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our audio engineer was Carleigh Strange. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint, Jimmy Gutierrez and Daniella Balarezo. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
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