They Will Thank Us in the Future: Help the Kids Who are Hurting

There’s too much silence when it comes to talk of mental health issues and kids. That is, too much silence for the right things, for the soul and the need for heart-comfort, while there is so much vocal fear of societal alienation. Total anonymity, as an attempt to protect the sufferer when they are minors, only isolates them more. By keeping news of mental suffering secret from the people who would really help them, the suffering young person does not find relief.

Obviously, there are the right and wrong people to tell, but the trustworthy pool of people for every young person needs to be widened. Once, I was at a staff meeting at the private elementary school I worked at. The topic of the meeting was student health protocols. We talked about asthma, Epi-pens, seizures, diabetes, concussions, broken arms. We named names in confidence and protection of this sensitive information, but discussed these cases openly as it related to our ability to help these kids. I asked if there are children with mental health diagnoses we should know about. I was met with a glare from my middle manager, a ring of silence.

“That kind of thing is usually only shared with the school counselor,” said the director.

“And only if the parent chooses to share it.”

So, a parent’s social fear increases a child’s social fear, and the terror of stigma is passed on from parent to child. And that kind of thing, with all the stigma already implied in the manager’s voice, persists.

This is all incredibly stupid and isolates people, making the condition itself even worse. People with diabetes or cancer don’t get the same treatment. Depression, anxiety, PTSD; all these thrive on silence, isolation and shame. At the very least, all the adult professionals responsible for a child’s wellbeing, including teachers and childcare workers, should be entrusted with this information and taught what to do with it, how to appropriately protect it, and how to understand and take care of the child who has it, no differently than a child with severe asthma or a broken bone. It helps enormously to know what a kid is going through: whether their inappropriate behavior is merely a cranky growth phase for a kid, or if there’s something more serious underneath, such as depression, trauma or the death of a loved one.

Some of the same stigma follows diseases such as AIDS. Treat all blood as if it’s contaminated, says the protocol. I worry that this is ultimately bad for humanity, to suspect that all blood is awful and dirty and carrying contagious death. It would be better to have compassion on those who certifiably have a blood-borne pathogen, treating them with respect and the care they need, but openly, so that we do not live with the terror of our own human blood.

I’ve worked in after-school childcare programs that deal with these things. I was siting with a second grade girl and a first grade boy one day, coloring pictures together. I commented on how pretty those flowery paper decorations are on the wall, the ones we pulled out of the leftover bin in the supplies closet. The little boy said, somberly,

“Those are from A’s dad’s memorial.”

“What?!” was my response. “Did he die?”

Both kids looked at me like I was an idiot who hadn’t heard.

“We all stood in a circle to sing and remember him,” said the little girl.

Apparently everyone knew except me. A was a fifth grade boy at the time who who was a regular in the after-school program. He had been misbehaving only a little, but I noticed many other adults coming by to tenderly ask him how he is doing. The program director hugged his mother. I wondered what happened, but figured that if it was my business, someone would tell me. But it turns out it sure was my business. I had missed a mere email relaying the news –really, a damn email announcing the death of a parent we all knew. I found out from two small children what I should’ve heard verbally from my adult colleagues. Good thing I didn’t say, “Hey, A, is your dad picking you up today?” –totally not knowing why that would devastate him. It was part of my job to interact with the parents at pick-up time and get the kids signed in and out. This was something I needed to know.

… … …

A younger relative of mine, when she was sixteen, went through a terrible episode of self harm and depression. I remember that I had called and emailed her to just ask how things are going, wanting to hear her voice. I had no knowledge of what she was going through. She had been hospitalized, the whole psychiatric works, and I didn’t know. Her mom had to clear the house of all objects my young relative could hurt herself with. It turned out her parents were also getting a divorce at the time, further breaking my family apart, and I didn’t know about it.

This, a family, isn’t some legalistic place of employment, but a paper-free biological web of relationships, of deeply personal memories, bound by ancestors and land. The human family should be there for its own more than any other human social unit in the world.

I pulled the truth out of my reluctant uncle, spilling the beans, and my grandmother, thwarting this life-threatening silencing.

“But I was trying to protect her privacy,” he said. 

Yeah, I thought, and you’re  also protecting the growth of her silence, shame and isolation while your at it.

And maybe my young relative did, at age sixteen, want all this to be kept a secret, but that didn’t make it the wise thing to do. Luckily, this story concludes well for her sake: she’s come far from those days and, last I knew, is doing extraordinarily better as a young graduate of high school confidently heading to college. I’m enormously proud of her, and relived that she was supported. And I still miss my family, the few who are left, more than I can say.

We are supposed to protect and empower minors. To hell with their massing embarrassment when real help is on the line. A good adult will know how to meet that feeling of shame with deep honor and respect for the young person, so that they know they do not have to feel ashamed in the first place. They’re not able to help themselves yet. They will thank us in the future.

 

 

 

Recomposed from an original journal entry written September 1st, 2016

Testing for Stress

 

When I took the test, my Holmes and Rahe stress score was about 300 (pretty high). I didn’t take the student version because I didn’t identify with most of their questions about typical student life, because I don’t live a typical student life of an on-campus dorm kid.

What stood out to me about these tests was how frustratingly limited, how dully mainstream and worker-bee predictable the questions offered were about. They assumed a standard of normalcy that is only real for a certain percent of the population. I’m sure a lot of the situations offered to be officially recognized as stressful certainly do cause a lot of stress in real lives (loss of job, divorce, etc). Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder, with some anger, why the following type of questions were missing:

“Have you suffered the loss of a beloved animal lately (check: on-par with losing a human family member)?”

“We recognize that there are a lot of intimate relationships beside the strictly legally married ones: have you lost a beloved mate? This includes, but is not limited to, formal legal divorce.”

“Is one or both of your parents still living but are basically deteriorated into a state of violent, zombified walking dead strangers thanks to mental illness and poverty and now you’re an orphan?”

“Have you experienced a loss of a beloved community, a severing of ties with a cherished identity/tribe/lifestyle which was a foundational support to your wellbeing?” Why, yes, community actually matters as much if not more than biological family even though Americans are the only people in the world too fucking arrogant and solipsistic to even acknowledge that in their formal psychology.

“Have you been deprived of an important right of passage, the rejection from participation in ancient human life events? Are you suffering an inexplicable feeling of a lack of purpose and recognition of what matters in the world around you? In fact, is your whole society falling a part?”

“Are you suffering flashbacks of abuse and neglect?”

“Are you coping with the impending death of a family member, maybe the only one with whom you have a parental bond?” Grieving ahead of time is natural and a healthy way to cope with loss.

“Have your homeland and native ecology been devastated?”

“Have you experienced a decreased amount of time spent exercising or being in contact with nature or your understanding of the Divine? If so, this might kick your ass.”

Yeah, Christmas was a thing to be stressed about, but not separation from non-nuclear family. I’m not persuaded by much of standard psychology.

 

 

 

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

The Potter’s Wheel

Power be to the poet,
and to the child without voice,
and to the wrongly accused.
Power be to those who cry out
in word or in silence,
who knead bread from
the flour of unrest,
who do so sweetly.
Power be to the brave girl
and to the lost boy –
they are crowned in saving anger.
Glory be to the white furnace,
God’s hand on the potter’s wheel
who will not give up
making heaven
from dust.

 

 

–Gentle J. Pine