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Saturday, April 21, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mercer Island has it all, plus extra helping of teen angst

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Talk scheduled


Suniya Luthar will present her findings at 7 p.m. Monday at the Mercer Island High School auditorium. Admission is free.

She will speak the following evening at 7 p.m. at Lincoln Square Cinemas, 700 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue, on "Overdrive: How Too Much Ambition Can Harm Kids." Tickets: $18 in advance/$20 at the door.

For tickets and more information on the Bellevue event, go to http://parentmap.com/lecture5.htm

Wealthy, accomplished and ambitious, Mercer Island youth appear to have it all — more money and, according to a new study, more problems, too.

Island teens show far more cases of anxiety, depression and rule-breaking behavior than the norm, according to a new study by Suniya S. Luthar, professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Luthar, a developmental psychologist whose research focuses on resilience among at-risk youth, was hired to conduct the study by Mercer Island Communities That Care, a communitywide initiative to reduce underage drinking and drug use funded under a two-year Department of Health grant.

"Because Mercer Island is a particular demographic, we thought it would be really helpful for this process to bring someone in who had a knowledge of affluent communities," said Project Coordinator Suzanne Tedesko. "She could address specific risk factors."

Results of a communitywide survey Luthar did on Mercer Island replicated many of her earlier findings on affluent youth and substance abuse. It showed a steep jump between junior high and high school in the percentage of students who used alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. A lack of contact with their parents contributed to distress among youth, according to the report.

Mercer Island High School students were far more likely to display anxiety, depression, withdrawal, trouble sleeping, social problems and rule-breaking behavior than the norm, the survey said.

Boys were more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior than the norm, while Island girls were slightly less so.

The fact that affluent teens are seen to face any particular adjustment risks is partly the result of Luthar's earlier work on the subject.

About 15 years ago, while studying resilience among inner-city youth, Luthar compared them with a sample group from an upper-middle-class area. She found the upper-middle-class adolescents reported far more incidents of substance abuse, anxiety and depression than those in inner cities and the general American teen population, thereby redefining the notion of who was truly "at risk."

In two subsequent studies on children and affluence, Luthar describes how isolation from adults, the erosion of family time and intense pressure to achieve contribute to a community of stressed-out, hypercompetitive youth who display anxiety, depression, sleeping problems and aggressive behavior.

To allay their anxieties, some turn to drugs, alcohol or other self-destructive behavior. Others may use the substances because they're bored, the substances are easy to attain and because they perceive few consequences for such actions, Luthar said by phone from her home in New York.

Pushed by themselves and others to excel in all aspects, "these youngsters start to feel their sense of self-worth is tied up into their accomplishment," Luthar said. This is exacerbated by feelings of guilt for being depressed or anxious in the first place — the feeling, Luthar said, that "with all that you have, what do you have to complain about?"

The attitude that the problems of rich kids aren't worth studying has turned up in the academic and social-service communities, making it difficult to find funding for research, she said.

Luthar recently embarked on a study of mothers (www.momsaspeople.com) to see if anxiety from the parent with whom children tend to have the strongest bond and most contact is being transferred to children.

But it's not just parents, teachers or peers — "you've got the broader American culture, which puts material wealth as the root to long-term happiness and well-being, and the way to get there is through a top-ranked college. This message is ubiquitous," she said. "I don't think any of us can get away from it."

Amy Roe: 206-464-3347 or aroe@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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