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A new look at the 'affluenza' issue

"Affluenza" defense not complete nonsense, says ASU researcher.
Studies show drug/alcohol use higher among affluent teens than inner-city kids.
Anxiety/depression among affluent youth found to be 2-3 times national rates.
January 14, 2016

ASU researcher shares what her studies have revealed about America's affluent youth

Late Monday night it was announced that Tonya Couch, mother of the infamous “affluenza” teen Ethan CouchPictured above in a photo released by Mexican authorities with dyed-black hair after he has detained in Puerto Vallarta., had posted bail after her bond was lowered from $1 million to $75,000.

This, after the elder Couch was accused of aiding her son in fleeing to Mexico to avoid a probation hearing that might have led to jail time.

It all stemmed from a 2013 incident in which the younger Couch, 16 at the time, killed four people in a drunken driving accident. At the time of his trial, Couch’s lawyers cited a defense of “affluenza,” claiming the teen’s affluent lifestyle lead to an inability to understand the consequences of his actions.

Many in the media and general public balked at this claim, calling it “junk science” or an outright lie.

Recently, however, research from Arizona State University’s Suniya Luthar, a Foundation Professor in psychologyThe Department of Psychology is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. has been cited as appearing to support the idea that affluent youth do actually suffer from issues such as severe depression and anxiety that can lead to substance abuse and poor decision-making.

A recent blog post co-written by Luthar and Barry Schwartz for Reuters states that although Couch’s “affluenza” defense may just be “an absurd effort to minimize one teenager’s responsibility for a horrific tragedy,” it would be “foolish to allow [it] to obscure growing evidence that we have a significant and growing crisis on our hands."

“The children of the affluent are becoming increasingly troubled, reckless, and self-destructive," they wrote. "Perhaps we needn’t feel sorry for these ‘poor little rich kids.’ But if we don’t do something about their problems, they will become everyone’s problems.”

ASU Now sat down with Luthar to get to the root of this growing problem and talk about ways to deal with and — potentially — prevent it.

Question: Your research has received a great deal of national attention in the past few months, cited extensively in The Atlantic and more recently by NPR, CNN and The Washington Post. Why so much interest now?

Answer: These reports stem from two sets of events recently, one involving the tragic cluster of suicides in Palo Alto, California, and the other being the Ethan Couch “affluenza” case. Essentially, these events capture the types of problems that we’ve repeatedly documented in our research on kids in white-collar, professional families: high rates of depression, anxiety and self-harm on the one hand, and substance abuse and rule-breaking behaviors on the other.

Q: Why are we suddenly seeing so many troubled affluent children? Have they always had these issues, or is this a new phenomenon?

A: Well, we really don’t know what “used to be.” Until the turn of the century, there really wasn’t any research on this subgroup of children in particular.

That said, it is clear that the pressures on these kids have increased tremendously over the last several decades. Competition among affluent youth has become that much stiffer, so that instead of having 200 kids vying for a particular spot in a university, it’s more like 2,000. Between that and globalization, there is so very much more competition, not just for university admissions, but for jobs in prestigious white-collar settings. These factors, I believe, lead to an enormous sense of pressure and, in turn, to high levels of distress among upper-middle class children.

Q: Your research article “I can, therefore I must: Fragility among the middle classes” is among the most-read articles from ASU according to ResearchGate. Does this mean that many more scientists are now studying this population?

A: No, not necessarily. The interest is partly because of the recent media stories, and I think scientists now acknowledge that these problems are in fact real. We have replicated our findings several times across the country.

Despite this acknowledgement, we can’t assume that many more researchers are working with this population simply because these kids are very difficult to access. Most upper-middle class schools are extremely protective about the privacy of their students and families, so that asking to conduct research with them is unlikely to go anywhere. In our case, after our first couple of studies (that happened pretty much by chance), schools started to reach out and ask for assessments, usually after troubling incidents involving serious self-harm or substance use.

Q: What are the solutions to these problems? Are they at all preventable?

A: Yes, I do believe that they are preventable in many cases, but our interventions will have to be at many different levels, as Barry (Schwartz) and I wrote in our recent blog post. Starting with the parents, obviously; it’s critical to keep the channels of communication open with your kids. Teenagers can be notoriously difficult sometimes to get through to, but do keep trying, do make sure your children really do feel loved and cared for, and that you value them for the human beings they are, and not for the splendor of their accomplishments. Also, you have to set your limits and be firm in sticking to them.  Kids catch on very fast about whether or not testing the limits will lead to any real consequences from you.

Equally important, parents must understand that they are not machines who can just keep giving and performing; that they too need replenishment if they are to sustain “good enough parenting” in these extremely fast-paced, stressful communities. This is why my recent work is focused on mothers, who are usually the primary caregivers, in efforts to ensure that they too receive ongoing support and tending in their everyday lives.

At schools, teachers need to remember that they are only one of many teachers parceling out tons of homework (often in challenging AP classes). And schools in upper-middle class communities tend to push kids toward a very selective group of colleges — back off that approach. Focus more on conveying to kids that there are many ways in which they can get a splendid college education, show them real-life examples of the many very “successful” people who went to schools nowhere near the Ivy’s.

And there urgently need to be changes in higher education. In our blog article, we reiterated Barry’s terrific suggestion to introduce a lottery system for admissions in highly competitive schools. So essentially, if you have a good enough portfolio to make the top applicant pool, your name gets thrown into the pool but from there on, selection occurs by lottery. This can do much to reduce the enormous pressure kids feel that if they did just one more challenging course or activity, that would make or break their admission.

For more information visit

Emma Greguska

Reporter , ASU Now

(480) 965-9657

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Reflecting on MLK's 1964 speech at ASU.
ASU celebrates MLK through speech remembrance, reenactment.
January 14, 2016

Civil-rights leader made speech at ASU in 1964, month before historic Civil Rights Act; listen to it here

Monday marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a time to reflect on the struggles for equality and freedom in America. It's also a day to recall our various connections to the holiday's namesake.

For Arizona State University, the major tie to King is a speech he delivered on campus June 3, 1964 — less than one month before the landmark Civil Rights Act was signed. 

Titled “Religious Witness for Human Dignity” (listen to the speech here), King delivered the address to an audience of 8,000 people at ASU’s Goodwin Stadium. In it King stumps for civil-rights legislation and reminds people that racism doesn't just exist in the South; it spreads everywhere.

That engagement is one of King's lesser-documented public appearances. And until a recording of the event was discovered in 2013 most people had no idea it ever happened. In 2014, ASU Archivist Rob Spindler told ASU Now, "This discovery is highly significant for Arizona and the nation. The major online Martin Luther King archives at the King Center and Stanford University don't mention this address, nor do they mention that King ever gave orations in Arizona.

The recording was among a box of reel-to-reel tapes donated to charity by late Phoenix businessman and civil-rights leader Lincoln Ragsdale, an ASU alum, and discovered by Phoenix resident Mary Scanlon while shopping at a Valley Goodwill store.

After the discovery, a committee of ASU archivists, historians and scholars worked to verify the recording’s authenticity. It's legit. And it's worth listening to for a perspective of history, and as a touchstone to one of America's most revered civil-rights leaders.

Man at a podium

Lincoln Ragsdale at the podium in Goodwin Stadium on the ASU campus in 1964. Martin Luther King Jr. sits behind him, to the right. Photos courtesy of ASU Libraries Arizona Collection

What we know now is that King (pictured at the top of this story with Ralph Abernathy to the left and ASU President G. Homer Durham to the right), was invited to Arizona by the Maricopa County chapter of the NAACP to deliver his speech at ASU’s Goodwin Stadium. Durham introduced King and praised him for putting the Sermon on the Mount into practice.

Durham, who came to ASU from Utah, was a well-known member of the LDS Church.

It's a worthy note because King's invitation to ASU was endorsed by a spectrum of faiths. A newspaper advertisement in the Arizona Republic in June 1964 invites “All Faiths” to “Join Together in a Religious Witness for Human Dignity in True American Tradition.” In addition to the NAACP, sponsors of the event included St. Agnes Parish, Central Methodist Church, Temple Beth Israel, Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, First Institutional Baptist Church and the Phoenix Council of Churches.

In an ASU Now story from January 2014, Keith MillerMiller is the author of two books about King, "Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources" and "Martin Luther King’s Biblical Epic: His Great Final Speech.", an ASU professor of English and national authority on King’s speeches, explained why King's ASU speech was so notable.

“King gave it less than a month before the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law by President Johnson after its backers had defeated a long Senate filibuster,” Miller said. “Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a powerful politician, was opposed to and subsequently voted against the legislation. ASU President Durham showed courage by welcoming King to ASU, despite the popularity of Goldwater, who received the GOP presidential nomination later that summer.”

Miller said Durham’s welcoming of King was also bold for another reason. The LDS Church did not fully recognize racial equality until 1978.

“Durham was a racial liberal who went out on a limb. He also hired African-American professors at ASU,” Miller said.

Others have said this speech, and Durham's willingness to bring King to ASU, is proof and a reminder that Arizona does have a history of supporting King and his mission of ensuring equality for all races. 

ASU's other notable tie to the holiday is its annual tribute to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That was the event that featured King's historic "I have a Dream" speech. Each year the West campus involves local sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students to reenact the march while ASU faculty member Charles St. Clair reenacts the speech. The event is free. Learn about MLK-related events on the ASU Events site.