16 December 2012

Tragedy and Hope - Becoming the Change we Wish to See in the World

Brother Bear shared this with me through his facebook account last night.I watched the video just moments after reading this post I am Adam Lanza's Mother by Liza Long.

The video is powerful and inspiring. The article gives a beautifully haunting account of our children within society's fear of and refusal to acknowledge, accept, or treat mental illness. I know the story, and Ms. Long captures the intensity of living with a loved one suffering from mental instability - instability that persists despite a heartfelt desire to change, and something medications fail to address.

Mental health does not, cannot, come from a pill. As a society we continue to ignore the increasing incidence of anxiety, depression, mood disorders, etc. Worse yet, we continue to ignore the stigma that mental illness carries. I know this stigma well. I've struggled with depression most of my life - not pick yourself up by the bootstraps, garden variety depression. Not a simple chemical imbalance, here this pill will fix that. No - debilitating, paralyzing, mind numbing and heart breaking depression that makes life feel... impossible. That makes fear feel insurmountable. Depression that invites soul crushing anxiety, and the illogical white hot anger flash that is both frightening and without logic. Who knows why - maybe I was born with it, maybe it's due in part to assaults I've endured, abusive relationships, or (and I know this to be true) the damage wrought by pills thought to cure this kind of depression. (Hint, they didn't, and instead made it worse.)

For a long time, it felt as though depression robbed me of my livelihood, of my future. And I'm lucky. I managed to meet a few amazing souls who helped me learn and develop tools to manage and maintain my mental health. Tools that help me step out from the paradigm of victim that it is so easy to settle into. It takes work, never ending work and effort to maintain - work that would likely be less burdensome were resources available. That, however, would require that we as a nation talk about Mental Health, acknowledge it as a priority, and begin the hard work of asking what about our lifestyle, health, culture influences that potential to develop or manifest mental dis - ease. My belief, or educated guess, is that there is much within our society, within the rapid paced, multitask oriented, stress filled daily routines - that fails to support mental health or fosters that dis-ease we are so afraid to acknowledge. Which brings us back to the video Brother Bear shared with me.

Our children, particularly our teens and preteens face so much pressure today. Most especially, they face mounting pressure to think about the money, about careers, schools, the increasing level of competition to attend college, rising costs of tuition, the demand that they choose to be something competitive with our world neighbors. Brother Bear entered high school this fall, and for months the conversation about grades, effort, gpa centered on the impact these have on his future. On his desire and ability to attend college, on his ability to enter certain professions, or worse, his ability to make a livable income. Like Brother Bear, most incoming freshman are 14, maybe newly turned 15. Rather than focus on building positive Habits of Mind, a sense of self, and life affirming attitudes / choices, we thrust upon our children the idea that success of failure now has the ability to determine their life's course. I remember facing the same mounting stress, and see it in the faces of the young becoming adults that I work with.

Our teens feel beyond overwhelmed. We've managed to create a sense of fearful anticipation in much of our youth, and it begins long before high school. Miss N can attest to that. What math course, how well you perform, and whether you remain in the advanced track in middle school determines where you land in high school, determines the post secondary school graduation options available to you. On and on it goes.

Yet we regard the increase incidence of Mental Dis- ease with surprise? This doesn't even acknowledge the emotional, mental toll of growing up in single parent households, or homes where parents are forced to work multiple jobs and still fail to cover the bills. It fails to address the influence of high stakes testing environments that serve to gauge our youths ability to withstand stressful situations far better than their academic mastery. We do that to them starting at 8, and as a nation of championed standardized testing as early as kindergarten.

The video Brother Bear shared asks possibly the most important question - What if? What if money didn't matter? What if our nation's youth focused on developing qualities and attributes that truly mattered? Check out the Habits of Mind program, think hard about the value of pursuing that which you are good at, verses the pursuit of a bank statement and assorted material objects. What if we promoted the ideals of balance, emotional, physical and spiritual health? What if we allowed our youth to forge a new path, one free from contrived stress and filled with innovative solutions and approaches to the future?

Yes, as a nation, we do need to hold a conversation about the state of our nation's mental health. Included in that, we need to openly and willingly consider how we foster health and dis-ease. Our children deserve better than we have to offer. In the words of Einstein, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.

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