Next week is mental health awareness week and I’m already anxious. It’s also the first week back of the term and part of me is bracing for the inevitable leap onto the treadmill at full pace, desperately grabbing for the handrails of coffee and the sturdy support of my colleagues. Being a counsellor in a large secondary school is complex and next week puts the spotlight firmly on our area of work, but it’s one that I think is too directional and follows only certain players on the mental health stage.
I’m anticipating the light to fall on anxiety, depression, suicide, as well as debates around diagnosis, medication and looking for warning signs. There might be some promotion of strategies for coping with stress, mindfulness, and lots of other positive psychology techniques. It’s a life-coaches smorgasbord and while I respect there are a lot of good people doing great things to support people to live happy fulfilled lives there are some things that bother me greatly about the intense focus on western concepts of mental health and the mind as well as the emphasis on individual responsibility for managing your own wellness. The effect of the spotlight is to reduce mental health down to brain chemistry, managing emotional states (where some emotions are deemed not healthy) and a checklist of tasks.
So I want to scatter the light, diffract it if you will through some uncomfortable contexts that in my line of work are all too frequent yet avoided in public conversations. It’s a little like poverty – people prefer to see something about the lack of personal management of money or make it about some failure in individual people. There is the pervasive believe everyone can be well off if they just tried hard enough. Mental health is similar.
Some themes I’ve encountered in my 20 years working in schools that I think need to be considered as much as discussions about depression etc:
Family violence is traumatic – whether it be physical, verbal, psychological, sexual and it happens!
Sexual abuse is traumatic for all people and it happens across cultures and genders
Adults rarely think about how the ways they speak to their children and about them impacts on their well-being – we’ve had generations of values that suggest put-downs, harsh language, smacking and basically denigrating children and young people is good for their character. The other end of the spectrum is also unhelpful both are harmful for developing balance
Few adults say ‘I’m sorry’ to their children and take responsibility for their actions
Bullying happens in families first and in other community settings, not just schools – young queer people of all cultures are often more exposed to this
Trauma impacts on the brain – especially a developing brain, but also adult brains (see my blog on the limbic system). Young people can experience post traumatic stress (PTS) just like adults.
Young people are resilient but they need adults to listen and BELIEVE THEM when they talk about abuse and support for who they are as people
There is an expectation to be happy 24/7 these days – normal responses to grief, loss, stress are being lost to medicalisation – thanks google
The future is uncertain rather than bright for many young people – schools are also very stressful places. NCEA requires them to be on their game for 3 years! Good grief people of my generation came out of hibernation for about 3 weeks for exams. That level of sustained pressure is not good for anyone (including teachers).
Finally we need to critique the separation of mind and body and recognise that this is simply one way of viewing people and might not be the most useful in the 21st Century. Bringing in the range of spectrums of perspectives from other cultures could enable new conversations that move beyond the single white spot that is white western health concepts that leave many in the dark, isolated and invisible.
I’m in this fluid space, where fluidity is contained and made safe. A place of becoming aquatic mammals, bodies directed into rooms to transform, emerging and submerging revealing skin and hiding eyes behind artificial lenses, protected and vulnerable. Directed and patrolled spaces of chaos. A warning light and siren but no one is afraid a groaning, yawning mouth transforms the liquid medium into a new force, a slow moving wave, bodies scatter and flow into new territories. New flows, surface tensions break there is laughter and screaming, delight and concern a new uncertainty. Tossed, jumbled, scattered at the mercy of surges and flows both visible and invisible densities changing. Silence, the mechanical maw closes and order returns.
Through the door lines and lanes define spaces a clock is marking time. Lessons to learn bodies talking the unfamiliar with new movement, new patterns. Order and purposeful disciplined and regimented repetition with variation encoding technique. Separated and segregated together under the watchful gaze of instructors.
A strange disjuncture on the other side of the glass, an empty space, no water. Concrete and tiles dry, framed in fencing. A disabled space, functionally impaired now without a purpose, closed to the public and hidden from view awaiting to be rehabilitated, to be use-full again. Without the refraction of water I notice the slope of the floor beckons a flicker of recognition – 1970’s California drought and the birth of pool skating, a moment in time that ruptured and broke free enabling new movement to occur, deterritorialised and re-territorialized, this concrete cousin born after that time will never feel rolling urethane. I glance at the diving platform and the chasm below suggestive of an abseil tower. What it could become but will not. Out of order.
Yes I was at the pool today and I didn’t swim but I was fully immersed in my thoughts with Deleuze and Barad keeping me company in a strange exhilarating intra-action, or maybe it is just the chlorine fumes.
I’ve been waiting for the media to respond to the recent school uniform hysteria with Henderson High School’s unfortunate justification for the enforcement of knee length skirts. I was interested to read a response today and while it touched on some of the issues I was going to raise I became more interested in the comments from the public. It fell into a predictable pattern of ideas about sexual differences between males and females based on their physiological materiality, notions of responsibility and choice as a result of the inevitable outcomes of ‘natural’ male desire and the role of schools to police young bodies in order to mute or eliminate this contamination of learning environments. I have four challenges or provocation to put forward:
First a reality check – all teenager are sexual beings. Schools need to accept that cladding bodies in a uniform will not prevent young people seeing each other in these ways, they will be attracted to each other, and it won’t just be opposites attracting. Sexuality is always present, not at a particular year level, not when certain body parts develop, its part of being a human – even in accounting.
Second – schools emphasise sexual difference through clothing deemed appropriate for males and females. If schools are serious about de-sexualising young people as best they can they would all be in long pants or long skirts – or skirt like attire. There is also the issue of female bodies and breasts – will a school dare to say over a certain size they must be bound or that an over garment will be shapeless and baggy like a sheet. But we might not be able to stop there because people find lips, necks and hair sexual – so we might need to cover them as well (hang on – I have a familiar image entering my head).
Third (and perhaps my most provocative point) – of course teens are experimenting and taking risks sexually and experiencing desire with their bodies. Figuring out sexuality however doesn’t begin and end at high school. High school are places where lot of sexual beings exist, including adults – and some teachers are barely out of high school themselves. Schools and teacher training institute need to be more proactive in talking about the very real phenomenon of teacher-student attraction without fear of it dissolving into a moral panic. Our shame about sex and sexuality in general as well as the real power imbalances between adults and young people should be more open to discussion. However I fear we’d rather maintain the institutional paranoia around sex that maintains silence and gendered assumptions which make the teaching environment a vulnerable space particularly for male teachers who’s interactions and behaviour will always be under scrutiny for ‘inappropriate’ interactions.
Finally. Rape is a violation – a violation of respect and is often an act of extreme violence with traumatic outcomes for survivors. But we need to stop linking uncontrollable sexual desire in men and the sexual provocation of women to some predetermined natural outcome of sexual difference that rape is part of. It enables and maintains justification of date rape, sexual conquest a a right of passage and a ‘scoring’ of masculinity points. While sexual difference has largely focussed on male desire, female desire and sexuality has largely been ignored or misrepresented. Finding out more about how male and female bodies are similar in spite of the more obvious differences will not stop rape but might begin to open space for challenging the assumptions that support rape as a natural outcome of sexual difference.
It is time to stop skirting around the bigger questions and for educators to boldly step into a genuine critique of the purpose of uniforms and what ides schools hang onto in order to justify their continual gender normative policing.
And so tomorrow morning I will wake to my alarm for the first time in 5 weeks. My body will remember how to get to work and I hope my legs are ready for pumping pedals so early. I’ll shower and for the first time in 20 years I will not put my hair up. I will reach for my product and hope for the messiest look, one that will cause eyebrows to raise wondering if I intend it to look that way or maybe I am just off to the bathroom to fix it.
I’m now not sure what to wear. It would seem natural now I can almost pass for gender indifferent to go with my boyish (although I’m not sure at 43 that fits) short hair look and go all shorts and shirts. But I have found myself drawn to skirts and all things considered feminine including…a dress.
So I’m going to enjoy this week of reintroducing my-selves, in all genders and ages of expression. I’m struggling with this 40’s decade because I am way too old to be young and definitely too young to be considered old. In fact it is a strange way of locating people and putting them in a particular place this chronologically appropriate thing.
So maybe I need a skate board to go with the skirt and short hair and really mess things up. Think an orange skate board would look great beside my bike, with my plant and other more serious mature counsellor things like….ummmm…I’ll get back to you on that.
Back to the hair. It still interests me just how powerful hair length represents identity. But where is the ‘I’? Who is the ‘I’. So I’m ditching identity for ourdentity. Who’s with us?
It’s a delicate subject considering many adults can barely talk to their children about any form of sexual activity. It’s hard enough recognising children as sexual beings for most people, then we think teenagers will somehow ignore these strange wonderful feelings. While some hope that a simple biology lesson should cover it with frequent coughing and rushed syllables it’s clear we can still feel awkward about all forms of sexuality and pleasure in particular. There – I said it – desire and pleasure and warm fuzzy feelings. Human beings are drawn to these experiences like moths to flames and sometimes we get a bit singed and burnt, but we keep coming back for more (hmmm awkward pun). We’ve tended to keep pleasure conversations secret and couched in dodgy metaphors or colloquialisms and education has generally steered clear preferring the reproductive-heterosexual-preventing disease and/or pregnancy focus. Respectful relationships, negotiation and consent might show up however these still fit into a bit of a mechanistic process of sexual activity.
Porn is part of that complex mix of desire which has traditionally been built around male sexuality. It might just be luck but I have never accidentally found porn online or been sent any and I intend to keep it that way. However it is time for a reality check when it comes to young people and the rapid expansion of visual media and online communication. Working as a counsellor in a secondary school I see the first hand effects of the porn on young people. I know older people are impacted as well, but if children and young people are exposed to graphic sexual content from an early age it will inevitably impact on their understanding of sex and sexuality as well as how bodies should look and be during sex. There are also questionable messages communicated about dominance power and submission and ‘men’ and ‘women’ like. Porn can also be used as a form of grooming for abuse. So it is really important we think carefully about where things are at. Time for a deep breath.
The digital age has made both the making and distributing of sexual content easier and accessing it as simple as a google/oggle search, even if unintended. Back in the day it was pretty hard to accidentally purchase magazine or rent a video from the back room and convince someone you were 21. Thankfully there are people like Maree Crabbe who has been researching and working with young people since 1993. I’m pleased someone has done this work and put together some really great resources that have been thoroughly tested and youth approved. Perhaps what might surprise people is the openness about desire and enjoyment of sexual experiences as well as thinking critically about the gendered stereotypes and assumptions it can create. Which inevitably confuse and blur understandings of consent without creating a one sized fits all model. Sexuality is in there to so they have covered all bases…so to speak.
Parents might not want to know but they need to know this stuff. Again there is a generation gap, so let’s not just fill it with fear and avoidance or blame and shame. Fill it with knowledge and understanding – it really is time we talked.
Riding into work I was greeted by the sight of our park like grounds draped in toilet paper. Windows painted and classrooms set up outside. A grin spontaneously erupted onto my face as a bunch of students scooted towards me in ‘boys’ uniforms. A BMX lay beside the hall (Redline…very nice) and bodies ran and moved freely. But this wasn’t the norm, far from it and yet it was so natural and joyous. The energy and vitality was a welcome contrast to the digital zombies I often see in the morning.
It’s now known as ‘prank day’ but for some reason it seemed more like an ordinary school day, or perhaps what could easily pass for ordinary in other places (minus the tree decorations and occasional water gun). The gender blurring of seeing bodies in shorts and racing around on wheels toyed with the ‘girls school’ image, it enabled freedom of movement to express physicality. The pranking gave gender a well deserved spanking.
Here’s the thing, school uniforms can police gender. If there are no other options other than skirts or culottes then femininity is enforced. I’m occasionally tempted (in my dark sardonic moments – of which there are many) to ask the question ‘why not go the extra step and mandate long hair’. If masculinity in some schools is regulated by hair length, then surely in keeping with ‘uniformity’ of gender girls must maintain long hair.
Its wheels day again tomorrow and I might just have to bust out some moves on a unicycle or borrow a skate board. Gotta make ‘hey-watch out’ while the shun shines on gender-correctness.
Body’s struck by the dazzling light. A moment taken to gather nerves and step out for the first time. Hearts racing the crowd on the edge of their seats. This is it the moment we have all been waiting for. Months of build-up, the count-down is over, fighting back the tears of joy and delight. Tension and anticipation broken by the emergence of the performance. It’s awkward and a little uncoordinated but that’s ok, most of them are only three years old.
It’s their first ballet recital and the choreographed stage fright is nothing short of brilliant and is truly inspirational. Meanwhile on the other side of the world a bunch of other performers wait in their own test on the world stage. Their costumes will be worn with the same level of pride and a bit less tulle. They will wrestle with the same emotions, fear, excitement, triumph and satisfaction.
Playing on the stage and field with dirty knees and hearts filled with pride. Where both try-d. Today was a first for many and many cried.