The growth in high school enrollment tracks the growth in teen suicides

Friday, August 23rd, 2019

Michael Strong suggests evolutionary mismatch as a causal factor in adolescent dysfunction and mental illness:

Human beings evolved over many millions of years in diverse physical environments. But with respect to social structure, until the dawn of agriculture and empire, almost all adolescents:

1. Lived in a small tribal community of a few dozen to a few hundred with few interactions with other tribal groups.

2. These tribes would have shared one language, one belief system, one set of norms, one morality, and more generally a social and cultural homogeneity that is unimaginable for us today.

3. They would have been immersed in a community with a full range of ages present, from child to elder.

4. From childhood they would have been engaged in the work of the community, typically hunting and gathering, with full adult responsibilities typically being associated with puberty.

5. Their mating and status competitions would have mostly been within their tribe or occasionally with nearby groups, most of which would have been highly similar to themselves.

Contemporary adolescents in developed nations, by contrast:

1. Are often exposed to hundreds or thousands of age peers directly in addition to thousands of adults and thousands of electronic representations of diverse human beings (both social media and entertainment media).

2. Are exposed to many languages, belief systems, norms, moralities, and social and cultural diversity.

3. Are largely isolated with a very narrow range of age peers through schooling.

4. Have little or no opportunities for meaningful work in their community and no adult responsibilities until 18 or even into their 20s.

5. They are competing for mates and status with hundreds or thousands directly and with many thousands via electronic representations (both social media and entertainment media).

We do not know for certain exactly which of these differences between our environment of evolutionary adaptation and contemporary adolescence in developed nations result in which manifestations of mental illnesses and to what extent. But it would be surprising if these rather dramatic changes in the social and cultural environment did not have some impact.


Might the growth in teen suicides from 1950 to 1980 be a result of an increased evolutionary mismatch during that period?

We don’t know why, exactly, teen suicide increased 3x during that period. That said, the correlation with schooling is intriguing. For instance, white students completing high school increased from about 30% to about 70% from 1950 to 1980. “Black and other” students increased from about 10% completing high school in 1950 to about 60% in 1980.

If we look at suicide rates age 15–19, white males increase from 3.7 per 100,000 in 1950 to 15.0 per 100,000 in 1980, more than 4x. Black and other males increase from 2.2 per 100,000 in 1950 to 7.5 per 100,000 in 1980, more than 3.4x. Female rates did not increase at the same rate: White females age 15–19 went from 1.9 per 100,000 in 1950 to 3.3 in 1980, 1.7x. Black and other females increased from 1.5 per 100,000 in 1950 to a peace of 3.0 in 1970 before coming back down to 1.8 per 100,000 in 1980, 2x at the peak, 1.2x by 1980.

For males, at least, the growth in high school enrollment tracks the growth in teen suicides.


  1. Alrenous says:

    The purpose of school is to traumatize children because the current system would collapse if a majority made it to adulthood untraumatized. In shocking news, trauma causes suicide.

  2. Neovictorian says:

    “ReHumanism” is an important strand in my novel Sanity, which Isegoria reviewed here.

    Aside from the gentle satire of Scientology, this was a serious take on this exact problem — evolutionary mismatch. There are of course several non-fiction works like John Durant’s The Paleo Manifesto that also seek to identify and ameliorate this mismatch.

  3. CVLR says:

    For instance, white students completing high school increased from about 30% to about 70% from 1950 to 1980.

    Let us do to the schools the inverse of decimation.

  4. Graham says:

    I admit I must have been lucky to go to a Canadian high school, 30 years ago, and to have largely been a natural introvert.

    I don’t know which of those is the most important. The nationality bit may be the least, or the time period.

    Regardless of which, I marvel whenever I encounter pop culture or media discussion of the perils of high school, even in my own country.

    I don’t mean to be flippant, either. I just genuinely don’t understand and had no personal reference points. I just went to school, I had a few friends, and did my thing. I realize I didn’t belong to a sexual or gender minority, but then I wasn’t exactly a teenage lothario or party animal either. Nobody bothered me, nobody hit me, nobody offered me drugs.

    It was a good high school, but there was nothing upper class or otherwise out of the ordinary for Ontario in the 80s.

    This, almost more than any other subject, makes me feel like a member of a alien culture when it comes up. Our media especially entertainment heavily implies everyone will be traumatized by high school.

  5. Graham says:

    Although some of the conservative or masculinist or paleo [various frameworks have come to my attention over the years] critiques of modern education have rung true for me.

    I always hated PE and organized sports but as a grade school kid enjoyed running around and general physicality, so the critique that says boys don’t get enough of this sounds more right to me than my physical appearance today might suggest to some. Even boys like me enjoyed some kind of exercise as kids. Many do enjoy the structure and rules of sports. Too much sitting is bad. Agreed.

    I don’t agree with the occasional version of this that implies boys are just about brute physicality and will ultimately lose to girls in academics, or that boys need to be taught that academics are not girly. I’m old enough to remember that while there was always the physical/mental culture clash, there has always been a masculine place for the work of the mind and “traditional masculinity” has no need of correction here. Mens sano in corpore sano, even if I’ve flunked the latter.

    Reading lists come up a lot, too. There is a point there. There’s plenty of written work by men about the lives of men that can challenge boys. Most of the corpus of human literature. Give them books by women about women, sure, but keep a balance. As early as the 80s, if my curricula hadn’t had mandatory Shakespeare most of my high school English reading would have been very feminine. There’s only so much enthusiasm the travails of a middle aged or aged woman on the Canadian prairie can evoke in a teenaged boy. The author in question is the late Margaret Laurence, for anyone interested. I’m glad I was made to read some of her work, as I’ve gotten older. It was a grind at 16. Thank God for Will S. and Julius Caesar.

  6. Harry Jones says:

    I experienced a horrid public school system, and am very tempted to blame it for all the problems I had in my early life. But it won’t wash. The real issue was that my parents were garbage.

    The worst I can say about that system was that it offered no solutions, and was a huge waste of time.

    Going full paleo is literally a step back. The universe experiments. It seeks to evolve new ways of life. Much of our current way of living is clearly a mistake. Much of the old way of living was almost certainly a mistake, or we’d never have left it behind. There is no perfection, only exploration of possibilities in search of improvement.

    This is why I favor individual freedom. Let every single human being run his own life as an experiment. Observe what works for others. This is the most efficient way to seek a way forward.

    Yes, it’s uncontrolled experiments. Lots of variables. But still, make it up on sheer volume.

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