Nihilism, teenagers and stolen cars


MONROE COUNTY, N.Y. — Every time we tell a story about a stolen car, especially if it involves teenagers, we try to understand why it happens. One person suggested we look into something called nihilism.

In laymen’s terms, it’s a total lack of hope and a feeling that what you do doesn’t matter — and therefore you don’t care who it hurts. That’s what we learned from the psychiatrist-in-chief at Golisano Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Michael Scharf, Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: “Nihilism refers to a belief that nothing matters.”
Brean: “Are you seeing that in adolescents in our community?”
Dr. Scharf: “I am. In fact, I’ve been seeing it for some time.”

Brean: “Do you have kids that are actually telling you that when you talk to them?”
Dr. Scharf: “I do. They don’t necessarily summarize it in the way I’m trying to in an articulate short description, but I’ll hear comments like — what’s the point?”

In February, I looked into Monroe County’s report on teenagers. It found a 15 percent increase in feelings of hopelessness.

Brean: “Is a 15% increase significant?”
Anne Kern, Public Health Program Coordinator: “Yes.”

We’ve watched video of teenagers crashing stolen cars into businesses and a rollover crash on Monroe Avenue two weeks ago where the teens got out and ran away.

Brean: “Do you believe that nihilism plays a role in teenagers stealing cars in our community?”
Dr. Scharf: “I do. I think it’s fair to say that and I think it’s accurate to say that nihilism is playing a role. I think that just saying the word isn’t enough to understand it or to make a change. The other end, or the opposite of the nihilism, would be hope. So it would also be true to say it’s a lack of hope. I like to talk about it that way because in the language it then implies that if we can help instill hope, if we can show people examples of how your behavior can change the outcomes, that there’s hope for the future.”

So how do we turn it around?

Dr. Scharf: “So focusing on the future really is important and as hard as this topic is to confront, I am not hopeless about it. While, as I mentioned, I hear teens all the time making statements suggesting their behaviors don’t matter, don’t make a difference, don’t have consequence, I’ve also had the honor or knowing a number of young adults and middle-aged adults now who followed that path and then turned their life around. Many are doing outreach work with our youth intervention and gang intervention teams. I think that’s really important when you’re thinking about working with kids, when you’re thinking about systems, because it’s hard to sit with someone, to do your best to provide counseling, help and education, and in the moment you can’t even really tell if they’re listening to you. It can be very discouraging. But again, my experience is that those interactions, that even in the moment you’re not sure if someone is listening, over time it really does make an impact.”

Dr. Scharf talked about the importance of positive human contact.

Starting two months ago, if a teenager got arrested over a stolen car, they started getting contacted by a county probation officer who would get them in touch with a social worker or a job before their first court appearance, which could be two weeks away.

In those two months, 54 teenagers were contacted and Mayor Malik Evans told me that only two have been arrested again.

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