Bringing Service Back: Why Obama is Better than Prozac for Today's Adolescents

Feb 21, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

I am Canadian and I have to admit Obamamania is funny to us here in the north. The American election, in general, got many Canucks scratching their heads.

We were dumbstruck watching the debates. We were confused by Palin. We were perplexed by the rouged lipped pigs and the leggy nutcracker comments. We were flabbergasted to see Obama at the DNC looking like a rock star. And now, we are mesmerized by the 24/7 round the clock coverage of what we are being told over and over again is a "historic," "pivotal," and "life-changing" moment. We think it's ironic that the soon-to-be president is dubbed "no drama Obama" given how much brouhaha is surrounding him and his inauguration.

That said, I think Obama is doing one thing that is hype-worthy and that I hope my own government will do too. He is bringing service and community back to American youth and this is good for the country and good for kids.

Parents, teachers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, health care professionals, and just plain old concerned citizens have been wringing their hands worrying sick about American youth. For good reason. They are not doing well.

A series of recent articles published by Columbia University psychologist, Suniya Luthar, reported that many adolescents are desperately unhappy. Those living in poverty are struggling to graduate high school and make it through the day only semi-starved instead of famished, while kids from privileged, upper, middle class backgrounds are equally, if not more depressed, anxious, and drug addicted than any other group of young Americans today.

Not surprisingly, Luthar found that kids whose parent's emphasized achievement as the be all and end all tended to have higher rates of drug and substance abuse and more depression and anxiety. It's not just the pressure to achieve or the fear of failure that is getting these kids down. It's also the narcissistic pursuit of attaining, and getting, and consuming at all costs that is hurting them. Consider the shows they are watching.

When I was growing up, we watched The Cosby Show, Full House, Growing Pains, Family Ties, and Who's The Boss. All programs emphasizing family, education, and morality. Today, teens watch Gossip Girl and an endless array of reality shows designed to ruthlessly rip the competition apart in order to get to the top. Think Survivor. Think America's Next Top Model. Think The Bachelor. Think American Idol. Think about how sad this is.

Luthar's second finding is even more insightful than the first. It turns out that one of the worst things for kids is to be physically and emotionally separated from the adults in their lives. Although they loudly protest it, kids need good, old-fashioned, unstructured "family time," not an endless revolving door of after-school activities designed to beef up resumes. In fact, Luthar notes that simply having dinner everyday with at least one parent is linked to better grades and better mental health and happiness in teens.

Which brings me back to what I love about Obama. Community and service is exactly what the doctor ordered. Literally. Psychologists and parenting coaches repeatedly tell parents that if they want their kids to be happier and better adjusted they need to inspire a sense of responsibility in them. This means helping out around the house. It means sharing with your siblings. It means being accountable for your behavior and seeing it through with consequences. It means participating in community service as a family and not just paying lip service to the idea. Giving kids challenges and responsibilities they can handle and inspiring them to think about people other than themselves is the key to happiness and well-being.

Obama gets it and I admire him for it. I hope his leadership will be "historic," "pivotal," and "life-changing" not only because he is the first black president, but rather, because he managed once and for all to do something I never thought I'd see in America, to really, finally, and truly shift the "me" into the "we" generation.