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
There are, typically, seven dimension of wellness according to health researchers on the topic. They are Emotional, Environmental, Intellectual, Occupational, Physical, Social and Spiritual. I’ve added Financial, so we’ll call it eight areas of wellness, here. I did some brainstorming as to what improvements can be made for our mainstream modern culture in each of these areas. These are rough notes, and will doubtless leave out important issues in each area. But this is what came to mind, food for thought. Please, respectfully add your opinion in the comments section as to what you would like to see improved in each area.
All this being said, I’d like to note that I think there’s a lot to our modern culture which is just fine and isn’t in urgent need of changing. We’re really good at at fulfilling due process of law, attaining high literacy rates, getting rid of Polio, abolishing slavery, not burning people alive at the stake, etc. So this is not meant to be an overwhelmingly negative critique. America, my modernized country from where I write and am most influenced by, is a country which is relatively very comfortable with change, even among conservative people. I am proud of this. Change is expected and is written into our cultural life together. Sometimes I think we actually need more of the healthy kind of stability (ie, everybody please stop bitching about Christmas trees and how people feel about them being in public. This is not worth arguing about.) But I critique my country because I love it and I believe in its worth. I intend my critique to be in a good spirit of uplifting and righting that which I love.
Areas of wellness, room for improvements and the challenges that hold us back:
Improvements: More openness, transparency, and respect for the actual emotional inner lives of real people, ourselves included. Good communication. Better compassion and service for the mentally ill, in particular widespread chronic depression and anxiety as a common ailment which too many are afraid to openly claim or discuss. Ceasing an alarming trend of public shaming via the internet, which increases rabid mob mentality and isolates recipients of attacks.
Challenges: Depression, social isolation, self-loathing from trauma or social stigma.
Improvements: Spending soulful time in wild or green spaces. Prioritizing nature education and a personal human-nature relationship with efforts at conservation. Being careful to not emphasize death and destruction of the environment above what good there still is, where success and resilience reign (children especially are sensitive to too much of an alarmist dying-earth message in education). Having a sense of identity, belonging and responsibility for where you live, connected to your land. Recognizing the deep aliveness and spiritual power of the animal, plant and nonhuman world, and our proud natural relationship to them. Increasing understanding between “creationists” and “evolutionists”; there is not a strict division, one can be both in a broad mind.
Challenges: Cultural disconnection/severance from the primal, nonhuman, wild world. “Nature Deficit Disorder” in kids and adults alike. Too much time inside, in artificial surroundings. Disconnect with the body.
Improvements: Becoming financially literate. Strong comprehensive financial education of teens and young adults. Decreasing reliance on credit and debt. Values of simple living: balancing needs and wants. Concurrently, respecting natural desire for material items in moderation without cultural shame of this desire, which feeds a psychological complex of obsession over materialism without fulfillment. Economic justice for affordable housing, increase the minimum wage and absolute respect for service workers, working parents, visibility and gratitude for the invisible people who clean our buildings every night. Adopting an attitude of “We are all in this together as Americans”. Honoring “hard work” without glorifying strenuous, exploitative labor at the cost of economic justice and basic restful wellness.
Challenges: Overwhelming debt, high cost of college, money-shame. Inexcusable lack of financial education for citizens.
Improvements: Finding real delight in learning, discovering that knowledge is often a greater joy than mere entertainment. Discovery of the inner and outer worlds of human life. Integrating the emotional and intellectual components of the full range of thought. Pursuing truth and wisdom.
Challenges: Rigid academia. Divorce between the emotional and intellectual. Lack of empathy in intellectual culture. Bad experiences with school turning people off from their own intelligence or potential. Biased, narrow measurements of intelligence.
Improvements: Connection with economic justice for working people. Knowing that what you do for money does not define who you are. Fair and meaningful labor options. Organizing fellow workers and demanding more time off and better working conditions.
Challenges: Oppressive, systemic problems in work culture/history that affect us all. chronic overwork, lack of sleep, lack of childcare for working parents. Lack of social mobility, low pay and unequal pay discrimination. Not feeling free to be authentic self in work culture.
Improvements: Think of “exercise” as not separate from the rest of life, not a punishment; self-regulated, less boot-camp ideology, which is unsustainable. Pacing ourselves. Embodiment and delight in our physical selves. Allowing yourself to rest when you need, eat food when you need, move when you need, piss when you need, touch when you need, run when you need. Do not sit all day. Awareness and Vitality.
Challenges: Furniture culture, sitting too much, even while I’m writing this and a part of me would rather be outside with my eyes on the marvelous movement of clouds across the bright, big sky instead of glazed on a computer (but I’m here because reasons). Being conditioned as kids to think of exercise as a punishment or a task inflicted on you externally, instead of internally-driven. Despair, disembodiment, devaluing the body’s aliveness.
Improvements: Grasping the spirit of “I am because we are.” –African traditional saying. Intact cultural identity. Connection to greater human story. Going outside yourself. Having a supportive village-style community. Having an intimate spouse/life partner or finding fulfillment as a single person. Interconnected social identity with one another, an end to self-segregation.
Challenges: Too much individualism. Not enough restorative alone time may exhaust what time is spent with others if it is not quality time. Confusing the difference between in-person and online relationships.
Improvements: Seeing the Divine presence in all places, the “Imago Dei”. Sing songs that give you power in the middle of the chest. Understand the poetic and prophetic. Gratitude. Go into the forest. Listen for the voice of Wisdom and Beauty, knowing you are not estranged from it. Play with God. Delight in the World.
Challenges: Fundamentalism, including both conservatives’ textual literalism and liberals’ rejection/belittling of all that is imaginal, metaphorical or mysterious. Loss of imagination, dulled inner vision, numbed awareness of natural magic innate in the world. Rejecting the nonhuman world. Not remembering or paying attention to the pull of the heart.
Found some great reading by David G. Myers today in my psychology class…
[In counseling psychology] another area of potential value conflict is religion. Highly religious people may prefer and benefit from religiously similar therapists (Smith et al., 2007; Wade et al., 2006; Worthington et al., 1996). They may have trouble establishing an emotional bond with a therapist who does not share their values. Albert Ellis, who advocated an aggressive rational-emotive therapy, and Allen Bergin, co-editor of the Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change, illustrated how sharply such differences can affect a therapist’s view of a healthy person. Ellis (1980) assumed that “no one and nothing is supreme,” that “self-gratification” should be encouraged, and that “unequivocal love, commitment, service, and…fidelity to any interpersonal commitment, especially marriage, leads to harmful consequences.” Bergin (1980) assumed the opposite—that “because God is supreme, humility and the acceptance of divine authority are virtues,” that “self-control and committed love and self-sacrifice are to be encouraged,” and that “infidelity to any interpersonal commitment, especially marriage, leads to harmful consequences.”
– from Psychology in Everyday Life
That lesson is being applied by Stephen Ilardi and his colleagues (2008) in their training seminars promoting therapeutic lifestyle change. Human brains and bodies were designed for physical activity and social engagement, they note. Our ancestors hunted, gathered, and built in groups, with little evidence of disabling depression. Indeed, those whose way of life entails strenuous physical activity, strong community ties, sunlight exposure, and plenty of sleep (think of foraging bands in Papua New Guinea, or Amish farming communities in North America) rarely experience major depression. “Simply put: Humans were never designed for the sedentary, disengaged, socially isolated, poorly nourished, sleep-deprived pace of twenty-first-century American life.”