emotions

Spotlight on Mental Health

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.

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Un-rant Pulse lowered

I’m still angry – it is my body protesting

My Pulse still races with a frustration and despair I cannot name or that words fail to capture

It’s interesting how the world suddenly sees diversity and attempts to explain it away, so many lenses refracting light, colours strong and bright, rainbows lost in the white, no longer in-sight

Not one family member or straight friend checking in – asking – wondering about my well-being, invisible in front of them

Who I am, outwardly concealing a truth that dare not speak its own name, let me remind those who do not get it:

It is a crime to be me in parts of the world, I can be legally put to death, I can be arrested, tortured or sent to a conversion camp. In the past I could have been institutionalised, had shock therapy, deemed mentally unwell

I can be me at a price – always a price – always – but I like me and I refuse to be afraid, but I am wary, cautious, alert, my heightened sensitivity a gift one I would never give up

This event was not bullying, harassment or some bad taste joke to get a few laughs or mock – it is not a misunderstanding. It was an act of genocide

It is what it is – it should not be denied and yet the media continue to side step into the shadows that ignorance casts

But light is always moving, and so is my grief and the patterns of my thinking shift to supporting my community – everywhere.

International zombie day

Today is international happiness day (no link to my previous blog). Watch out for the smiling zombies. I’m cool with that, but if I fail to be demonstrating my happiness in ways that others approve of then I’ll probably be deemed aloof, surly, detached or depressed. Why does happiness get it’s own day? I don’t think that is fair on all the other emotions, the full spectrum that is. They are all part of a normal healthy balanced life. To be honest I find happy people scary, I get a little freaked out by what I call the ‘happiness evangelists’. It comes via their profound sense of happiness always being a choice and that positive thinking is the antidote for negative feelings. At the ‘evangelical’ end of the spectrum anyone who is suffering, feeling down, alone worried, sad, angry are promptly told to appreciate life, be grateful and turn that frown upside down.

For me, this disavowal of the full range of feelings and states of mind is like a psychic genocide, where we segregate people who do not comply with the stated acceptable ways of being in the world and do all we can to ensure they do not contaminate society. There are other ways to quarantine these people in society, we diagnose them with disorders, put them in support groups to talk to each other so they can fit back in when they are ready.

It’s not that I don’t want people to experience being happy, crikey it’s not a great look for a counsellor. What I worry about is how these special days of celebration fragment our understanding of life. Why not a day of sadness? That might be more productive and meaningful, to talk about the things that hurt, that are about the darker places people go and do not get permission to share. Opening the door to empathy is about being alongside people in their moment of pain. We need more of this from society rather than the sugar coated pill of positivity.

If you are celebrating today take a moment also to recognise that happiness can only be known in relation to it’s opposite and that our lives are richer when we are able to be more authentic with emotions. Perhaps a day of vulnerability?

Will have a beer later and think it over – that makes me happy.

Dirt-knee-dancing

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.

Circle of life

Circles are whole and complete. They are geometrically perfect and there are so many magical features to explore if you feel like unlocking your inner maths geek. They also make for a great seating arrangement for working through conflict. Last night I was involved in running a circle conversation with a great group of young women (gender assumption provided by working at a girl’s school) from a hostel. They had asked for one and had participated in one earlier in the year. However this time it was a bit different and it got me thinking about the difficult place of emotions or the places emotions find difficult to be present.

I’ve run plenty of classroom circles where the dynamics had broken down or a specific incident needed addressing. In a learning environment it is fair to say that there are some common hopes and expectations about what works for everyone being able to maximise the opportunities available. There are rules and expectations around participating so that everyone is heard and that the focus is not on individuals but actions, a form of externalising problems that can enable shame to shift into understanding. It gives a form of emotional distance.

But this wasn’t a class. It was a group of 17-19 year olds some of who had been living together for 5 years. I knew a bit going into the meeting and hoped my finely honed skills could keep the process contained however within a few minutes I realised I needed to shift my reference point of containment and what was needing to be held. This was a whanau, the bonds of this group ran deep and so did the hurt and the compassion. The raw emotions and language were rough and at times I felt the urge to stop the process but caught myself in moment of censorship, of trying to sanitise the process for the good of politeness and minimising hurt. Again however had those feelings not been spoken, had the passion, energy and upset not been expressed there would have been an injustice of the utmost kind.

The injustice of silencing emotions and denying people the real effects in the name of ‘managing self’ and having control of our feelings at all times denies a spirit of being and simply cages and penalises people for being upset. Often I sense people want to avoid the difficult emotional part of restorative processes. Sometimes a hearing conversation is needed before healing can begin.

Last night was just that – a hearing conversation. And as we turned out the lights in the library I noticed my t-shirt reflection in the glass. A glowing Kiwi with a laser beam coming out of its eye and a silver fern on my chest. It seemed the match the burning intensity of some of the looks and the unity and genuine sense of togetherness in spite of the conflict and anguish.

Circles also form spirals, springs, and other complex shapes. It was messy and there are probably some people wondering if it was worth it, sphere enough but that isn’t the point (oh so delicate pun to finish).

Class Act

I remember a time when the message to young teachers about how to establish authority in the class boiled down to some simple instructions about remaining distant and aloof. Many of us will recall the doctrine of ‘no smiling before Easter’. While most new to the profession these days will be encouraged to develop more positive connections with students before Easter there is still some of this authoritarian hangover lurking for teachers who’s own default settings remain in the reactive negative affect range of basic emotional responses. In spite of having fully developed frontal lobes, yelling, humiliating, mocking and shaming young people is still a preferred tactic for some.

And I can speak from experience. When I started teaching I was still understanding my own reactive limbic system defaults and wish my teacher education had spent more time to help me work through how to become more aware of how my behaviour impacted on the learning and well-being of young people. I was a bit reckless at times – and had social media been around I’d probably have had a few hash tags of the not so salubrious kind.

Given as a nation we don’t have such great statistics with violence and abuse toward children it seems highly undesirable to have our learning institutions endorsing abuse tactics with so much understanding these days about the effects on developing brains. Yet as adults we tend to hide behind our privileged position as the ‘older species’ assuming this chronological difference entitles us to respect regardless of our own behaviour. Sometimes I wonder who really needs to grow up?

The artificial structures of respect and authority in 21st century schools that linger from post industrial revolution ideologies and practices taint modern learning environments. In a postmodern landscape with technology blurring the accessibility of personal boundaries growing, the very idea of calling teachers Mr or Miss is crazy if teachers profiles can be seen online.

Perhaps the best litmus test for a readiness to change is the openness to restorative practices as these really do challenge assumptions about power, authority and how to do respect. The most confronting aspect however is not so much in the kinds of conversations that are had but the need to acknowledge the recognition that we are all human beings in process. Developing empathy and caring is not done by the time you are 18. Every conversation changes a person therefore the quality of those conversations and interactions matter.

For those still unsure about the power of restorative practice watch Daniel Reisels TED talk. Emotions are there to connect with understanding and I think there is more to empathy than what happens in the brain. Genuine learning engages uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability. We need to ditch the idea of negating or ‘managing’ these emotions or seeing them as primitive and a mark of weakness. Thinking and being reason-able is over rated sometimes or at the very least over emphasised as a mark of maturity.

I hope we can start creating modern learning environments that expect smiling on the first day and compulsory facials by Easter due to face ache.

Digital divide multiplied

There are times when I feel really out of touch with the pace of change in regard to technology. I can navigate my way around yet I still sense I am an imposter with a stick on moustache and bad wig. My relationship to all things digital is still as something external to me personally that operates more like a vehicle to get somewhere or access and communicate with others.

But things have moved well beyond passive receiving of data. The screen is no longer one way and identity as we have come to know and understand it is also rapidly shifting in multiple dimensions. The boarders and boundaries of self, other and even the notion of human bodies and connectivity have radically changed. There is a sense of disorientation exacerbated by the wide steep chasm of intergenerational dissonance of experience. Perhaps the rush of fluidity is carving out new spaces in the otherwise assumed bedrock of certain stable and uncontested taken for granted truths. Simple needs and common desires are swept into swirling complexity. This is something I am more aware of and where my hesitation is sitting at the moment is the vulnerability of children and young people forging a sense of themselves in these times.

Perhaps what is not different is the role of supportive adults – even if we ourselves have not been through it in the same ways. This will be the challenge for my generation as my folks talk about the first ever TV and I remember getting online for the first time at university and getting my first brick cell phone in my late 20’s I feel woefully inadequate at times to know what to do. So I’ve accepted my position as awkwardly old school trying to be onto it 40 something year old and decided my naive curiosity is in fact an asset. That I can ask questions from a place of genuine not knowing, suspends judgement of meaning allowing for young people to explore their own understanding of the journey they are on.

Tears and upset speak for themselves, as do smiles and laughter and that is definitely a timeless universal language.