young people

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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Dodgy Digits

My line of work puts me at the scroll face of online abuse, bullying and harassment of young people. Whilst I like to think of myself as youthful I cannot claim any knowledge of what it might be like to be growing into a young adult with so many ways to connect, share thoughts, ideas and more. Taking more clothing off and sharing these pictures with others is a growing phenomenon. I’ve been consulting with police and other agencies recently. It might be a bit hard for many parents to hear but if you have a child who knows how to use a phone and is socially networked you might need to be aware of the new harmful digital communications act.

The uncomfortable truth is young people in their teens are growing an awareness of sexuality, desire and taking risks, pushing boundaries. Some of these edges are new as technology creates alternative mediums and relationships. Parents are playing ‘catch up’ and while the act defines the law it will not necessarily prevent harm, distress, upset and deep regret. One consistent message I’d like to give is for parents to try and not ‘freak out’ and send their teen back into the dark ages of the 1990’s – which to them is last century…metaphorically. If they get it wrong, support them, listen and try and suspend judgement. I’ll come back to support later.

So what should people know? This is just my summary (the act is much more detailed and I do encourage people to read it)

First the act defines harmful as that which if any reasonable person was put in the same position then they would be highly offended. There are 10 criteria that define offensive, a digital communication should not…

1: disclose sensitive personal facts

2: be threatening, intimidating, or menacing

3: be grossly offensive to a reasonable person in the same position

4: be indecent or obscene

5: be used to harass

6: make a false allegation

7: contain things published in breach of confidence

8: incite or encourage anyone to send a message to someone to purposely cause harm

9: incite or encourage someone to commit suicide

10: put someone down (denigrate) for their colour, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability

One of the issues we face is that cameras are out all the time. It is not a crime to take pictures of people in public unless they could expect a privacy. This covers changing rooms, bathrooms, showers. But if they are posted online without someones consent the above criteria kick in.

A tricky bit for young people is the sharing of images with friends or somewhere like facebook. When talking with police recently they were very clear that once an image was ‘shared’ it was a form of consent. I’m not sure I agree and others would naturally challenge this. The issue is the ability to control that image and where it goes. Facebook profile pictures are some of the most common images uplifted and used in other places. So check you profile pics folks. Shutting down and removing images takes time and in my experience it is the worry, fear, anxiety and shame and humiliation that lasts much longer. The rumours start fairly instantaneously and once spinning are very difficult to stop.

If there are sexually suggestive images being shared of any young person under the age of 16 this is also legally classified as child pornography. So yup it’s serious. Your teens need to know this stuff! They also need to know where to get support. Hopefully they can talk to someone in their family. If not someone at school, or netsafe (nz) or the police. If you know someone who is being pressured to send pictures they can use the ‘send this instead’ app.

But we need more open conversations not just ‘thou shalt not take selfies’ lectures. Young people need to lead these conversations in schools. Peer Sexuality Support Teams, Body Image Leaders, Mediators, Prefects…others with capital letters of importance!

Many of us will shake our greying heads and recall the only harmful digital communications we knew about growing up was giving the fingers or making rude words on our calculators. Times change and we need to zero in and be one.

Busting for neutral territory

Animals don’t wear clothes, we are the only animals who have constructed such intense meanings around the coverings we wear. All animals excrete (actually so do plants, not sure about rocks and minerals) and we also have insane rules over who can excrete where and how. I’m a bit perplexed at the responses to the new guidelines around sexuality education and the insistence that unless we have separate bathrooms and gendered uniforms in schools young people will enter the ‘real world’ confused and unable to know how to conform and play by the (gendered) rules of life.

But I’ve been beaten to it by Philip Patston, his blog is well worth reading. The issue for me is when do we say ‘woops let’s leave those assumptions in the past’. I think gender is screaming out for a need to move on, or an extreme make over. Something like the androgynous 80’s but without the shoulder pads! Schools as social institutions have been shaping young minds and bodies, beating any resistance into shape by shoving young people into set uniforms, and other rules designed to identify them clearly for a particular gendered role in society. I’m not going to run through the tired justifications for uniforms particularly the myth that they create some ‘fairness’ or sense of ‘equality’ or ‘school pride’. However schools are more like brands these days – and parents as ‘consumers’ rate brands according to criteria perceived as valuable. Uniforms are part of the branding.

Toilets however are part of life. We have actually divided the world by excretory plumbling specs – mainly how our kidneys expel waste. How weird is that? I love the ridiculous paranoid rantings of the likes of Bob McCoskrie, the hand wringing over students playing for one team one day and another the next because they can’t decide what gender they are is laughable. Actually, it would be a question of reliability and commitment Bob – absolutely it is about picking a team because the wrath of the ditched players due to someones fluid identity would not be worth bringing upon yourself.

Having a Ball

It’s that time of year again. The school uniforms are ditched for suits and frocks. Forget no nail polish and jewellery it’s a chance to flaunt every rule schools have on hair, make up and shoes. So I still feel a bit like the school ball is a bit of an archaic ritual. I wrote about my feelings last year therefore I want to change tact, because last night I did the 10-12 shift at the ball and recognised the importance of these events as a kind of social rupture.

The opportunity to express an alternative identity for a night is like time travel or a dimension shift. Young people can decide how to present themselves and might even choose to express cultural or gender challenges that signal to others a sense of unique identity in contrast to the sameness school uniforms imply. I enjoyed the game of ‘who was that who just said Hi Miss Grant’? As I tried to do my own cumbersome version of facial recognition software. Sometimes it came down to voice before a name would drop in. The fact that the oldest song I heard was from the late 90’s helped me to acknowledge that I am finally awkwardly aware of my age.

Who knows what happened after the ball, and actually – it is none of my business. That is the door that needs to be shut once and for all. School staff and to some degree parents of 18 year olds might do well to remember we were once that age, and we need to play our part in the ritual ‘ignorance’ of the other ‘right of passage’ (post ball shenanigans) that might be a little less formal and perhaps a lot more messy.

Of course no-one wants anyone to get seriously hurt, but some will take more risks that others and expect it as part of the package deal. Cinderella lost her glass slipper and I saw a few young women learned from that – exiting the building one arm linked with her date, the other on her shoes, and on her feet a pair of jandals.

Oh the simplicity of a layer of rubber and the wonder of double entendre.

Prideathlon

In the half light, music blaring, a sea of flags, rubber and lycra, nervous energy and cameras flashing. Crowds lean against barriers but there are no police and no parade here, just thousands of 7-15 year olds participating in the Weetbix Tryathlon. There was another sort of pride parade happening last night in Ponsonby but this experience of pride was equally worth celebrating. The way these children and young people coped with such a huge occasion, feeling the fear and mixed emotions but managing to get to the start line shouldn’t be underestimated. Not to mention the navigating of three different physical activities and managing to put up with their sleep deprived, stressed and anxious parents who might also be suffering caffeine withdrawal, then they are all legends before even starting the event.

I’d like to suggest that everyone who took part have the curriculum ticked off for the key competencies demonstrated. This was nothing less than experiential learning, schools could do more to recognise and integrate these kinds of activities. There were some unofficial events worthy of note, for example the tree climbing and patience required to cue up for a bounce on a trampoline and also the bravery of those needing to use the port-a-loos. Then there is the ability to negotiate with tetchy adults and create a reasonable argument for the earning of a slushy. I was moved by an amazing display of leadership and natural mentoring from the young volunteers. I watched them channel the energy of tiny bodies into confidence and enthusiasm. This again is something missing from schools due to their segregation by age of such opportunities. They are artificially created from time to time but I wonder about what relationships and power dynamics might shift if this was a more common phenomenon.

One of the things I have enjoyed about multisport and triathlon is the across age level participation, bringing people together with a shared interest and enjoying the diversity this brings. There is nothing like the feeling of crossing the finish line – the distance is irrelevant as the sense of achievement is exactly that – a sense, lived through the body and in ways that transcend overworn success rhetoric that sports apparel companies flog.

Seeing so many bikes lined up in one area was a delight however I have a sense we are still moving in the wrong direction when it comes to physical activity being something integrated as a way of life, such as transport. If the bike goes back in the shed until next year what is the point? Nevertheless it cannot take away from the joy and pleasure I saw on so many faces today.

So many Kodak moments – good grief, now I am really showing my age.

Groan Ups

Adults can’t seem to up their mind about young people. In the five years between 13 and 18 the strange and unusual behaviour that should be under the spotlight are older people. Yet we seem desperate to turn this extraordinary timeframe into a complete cultural and social zone of contention. Without wanting to borrow too much from other rhetoric, it does feel a bit like a war of terror. I suppose my role as a counsellor working in a secondary school gives me more access to the ‘front line’ (again – kind of not keen on the metaphor – hoping not to induce PTSD which is real by the way). I know Nigel Latta has captured the market and I’m not attempting to replicate his ‘stand up psycomedy’ but I reckon I can at least describe my observations.

‘Groan ups’ (GU’s) seem to want a bunch of things from young people (YP) with ever increasing complexity and shifting rules, much like a hyperdimensional maze, where the walls keep moving and paths that appear open close down. To be fair, parents have the best intentions and worry because they care. I’d struggle to identify any person in a parenting role that didn’t absolutely believe that what they wanted for the young person was the best possible future. In my role I’ve been asked to ‘talk to’ teens and ‘tell them what is right’. Those who know me will understand what a conundrum this is both ethically and personally. I also experience YP who feel fully supported and affirmed by the adults in their lives.

There are some patterns to the relationships where YP and GU’s just talk past each other – if they are talking at all. Here is a quick rundown: We want them to talk to ‘us’ not other adults (especially counsellors). When they are open about difficult things some groan ups like to minimise, judge and criticise, or plain ‘freak out’ then wonder why they talk to someone else. It’s important they be unique individuals so long as they aren’t different. We want them to remain innocent yet be aware of world events, have empathy and want to change the world. Know what they want to do focus on that but keep their options open. They are supposed to learn from experience without making mistakes or having awkward moments. We ask them to be mature and take things seriously, and develop their own ideas and opinions – so long as they are the same as ours or at least modelled off our values and beliefs. Be independent and self-reliant but need us to fight their battles for them and stay needing us. The very idea that they will want to develop intimate relationships is perhaps the most difficult to find a clear path through. We acknowledge they will have these feelings but not to act on them because of course adults never act on impulse or go out and ‘hook up’ (while under the influence of socially lubricating substances). It’s important to love someone for their inner qualities groan ups say, but if their sexual organs are the same as yours that is going to be an issue for many (multiply that for those YP who were given the wrong plumbing from birth). It’s ok to take risks and push boundaries but don’t do anything stupid or that you’ll regret (one of my favourites) – sex and alcohol/drugs being hottest risk zones. Whilst they are allowed to be ‘moody’ they cannot be angry or upset or sad or frustrated because they just don’t know what the real world is.

This pattern I have generally termed as N.U.D.E. When GU’s get NUDE they are Not Understanding Diversity Exists. It’s not life threatening but can be managed. For those experiencing a NUDE GU try the following:

• Maintain a sense of humour – including grown up friends of groan ups
• Accept there will possibly be some ‘no-go-zones’
• Take nothing personally but if you need to make a stand – do it in the name of respect, concern or genuine worry for the effect actions might have on a YP
• Remember they will often want the last word in the conversation to slam home their point
• Appeal tentatively to their memories of being that age (depends on the context of course)
• Avoid comparing
• Use familiar social and cultural reference points
• Avoid advice – listen and listen more
• Look for the love and concern in actions – even if they are hard to understand

GU’s often struggle with diversity in all aspects of life. Our general culture is to assume that change ends once you are in your 20’s that you will then be over any ‘phases’ and be ‘who you really are’ like some strange version of metamorphosis…who doesn’t want to be a butterfly.

If we could be more courageous and speak as grown ups about continuing to change, evolve, devolve, grow and decay our identity and sense of being then our chaotic expectations of YP might just take on new meaning as a mirror of our own desperate misunderstanding of complex relationships we have with ourselves and making sense of what it means to be.

Perhaps the ultimate irony is older people trying to reclaim their youth. Mid life metamorphosis/crisis is a Chrysler rather than a chrysalis.