Teens start talking about their mental health struggles

I was asked by the Friday Night Live club mentor at Winters High School recently to do a story on their upcoming Mental Health Awareness Week event, and while normally I might be inclined to pass this story on to one of the reporters, this one grabbed me.

While I’m no fan of guns or the NRA, even in light of the epidemic of school/mass shootings, I don’t think gun control is the complete answer. The mental health issue still must be addressed, because there are all sorts of ways for a deranged person to kill lots of people, from cars to pressure cookers, and the fact is undeniable: It’s the person pulling the trigger that actually causes the carnage.

It’s that person we need to work on. We must teach kindness, empathy and anger management beginning in kindergarten and onward through high school. Prevention may be more difficult than cure, but the results are infinitely richer.

In my day, school was the only safe place from my tumultuous home life. Nowadays, going to school seems ominous. Who will snap next? Much of the “cure” talk has included gun control, arming teachers, fortifying classrooms and having armed guards on campus. Even with all that, I’m skeptical that a deranged person dedicated to creating horror will not find a way around all those things. Sociopaths are very creative.

So, when FNL mentor Olivia Rodriguez asked me if I wanted to write about their prevention event, I immediately said “Yes.”

At the interview, I sat at a table with Olivia and some FNL members and we started clicking through the basic information and schedule. As I asked more questions about the mental health issues themselves, the students began opening up about what their worlds are like, and depression and isolation are front and center.

Several said they feel like there’s is no one they can trust to turn to and, worse yet, they fear that if they do reach out, that person might not care.


I asked Olivia, who has taught for 12 years, if she’s seen an escalation in mental health issues amongst teens and, if so, what has changed. Her response was “yes” and “social media.” By contrast, she said that in her own high school days, back-stabbing was limited mainly to passing nasty notes and doing the whole “mean girls” thing; only a handful of people involved.

Today, it’s no longer backstabbing. It’s front-stabbing. It’s right in their faces. Victimization, bullying, harassing and humiliation is played out on social media, and the reach is exponentially farther and faster than the nasty notes of days past. A single humiliating or hurtful post not only singles someone out for a thread of vicious comments, the “shares” start to fly, and in moments, a teen is in a very painful and unavoidable spotlight… with no way to escape.

And here I viewed the impact of social media on teens mainly as a colossal waste of time, a distraction from real life, a huge danger if texting and driving or walking and, worst of all, an activity that is retarding them developmentally and socially. They aren’t learning how to read body language and facial expressions (beyond emojis) because rather than interacting with each other, their faces are buried in their cell phones with their thumbs a-flyin’. The world doesn’t exist around them anymore. It exists in their cell phones.

But I learned it’s so much worse than that. Because social media is embedded in teens’ lives, it’s their source of approval and validation. It’s where they get attention. Should that attention spin in the wrong direction and become a source of pain, stress and sadness from which they can’t break free — from a teen’s perspective, it ruins their lives. They’re teenagers, for heaven’s sake! They have no defenses, no coping strategies, and in the case of social media bullying, they’re wildly outnumbered.

Think back, all of us who haven’t been in high school since the 80s or before: Weren’t our teen years not painful, awkward and drama-laden enough, without the added magnification of social media bullying? Teens have never been well-equipped for dealing with drama. Every heartbreak or insult is the end of the world, and now, the social media stress is omnipresent in their lives, 24-7.

But there’s another angle, said one student: Sometimes lack of attention is just as painful, like when you post a picture of yourself where you think you look pretty and… nothing. No one “likes” it or comments. You become publicly invisible. And it hurts.

As these students shared their experiences, I wanted to throw my arms around them and say, ” In 10 years, none of this will matter! All this high school drama and conflict will disappear! You MUST trust that this too shall pass!” But, I kept quiet because I know that I might as well just walk around quacking like a duck. That much about teens hasn’t changed: old people are lame, and that goes double for everything we say.

All this said, these students were opening up a little, and that’s the beginning of hope. They’re learning to talk about their feelings and encourage others to seek out support; they’re creating activities to bolster self-esteem, and talking kindness and empathy. Better that all this begins in kindergarten, but hey — late to the party is better than not showing up at all.

Speaking of showing up… could we show up for these students who are getting to the heart of the matter regarding school shootings, violence, bullying and mental health? There are three ways: reach out to Olivia at the high school and offer financial support, sponsor a table at their lunchtime event on Friday, May 18, and offer information about local mental health services, and/or volunteer to help. We need to show up and set an example about the value of kindness.

It’s all about the kindness, man. It’s the flower we can stick in the gun barrel.

Facebook privacy is a steaming pile of unicorn poop

Wait, what? Facebook compromised our privacy? That’s outrageous! What’s next? Santa Claus isn’t real? Unicorns don’t poop glitter?

OK, I can’t actually verify the validity of unicorn poop, having not yet seen one with my own eyes, and I can’t personally attest that they don’t excrete a sparkling rainbow-colored swirl. But I’ve known since I was 10 that the fat man in the red suit is a total hoax.

I mean, really. Even a child with the IQ of a radish can consider the logistics of flying reindeer (that have no wings, mind you) pulling one roly-poly dude in a sleigh filled with ONE — count ’em — ONE bag that holds enough toys for all the children in the world, and they will all be delivered in one evening.

Utter B.S.

Just like the notion of Facebook privacy.

Come on, people. If you’re shocked to discover that Facebook not only compromised but sold your privacy and personal information, just exactly how naive are you, and B), maybe you shouldn’t trundle out into the world without a chaperone. Also, FYI, C) Santa isn’t real.

It’s not just Facebook, my friends… it’s Google, it’s Safari, it’s Amazon… it’s all of it. They’re all watching what sites we visit, what we search, what we click on, and gathering that information to parlay it into profit. Or power.

Did you think it was merely a bizarre coincidence that you just searched for backyard chicken coops on your browser or on Amazon, and suddenly your Facebook sidebar is littered with ads for chicken-related things? The internet giants… they talk. They share our information. And, they’ve been doing it for years.

This became glaringly obvious to me when we got a new computer at the Express office. Because I’m mostly the only one using that computer and mainly just for office work as opposed to searching for column information (and man, does that result in some wacky stuff popping up in my Facebook sidebar), its browser history was pretty much pristine.

Until that one slow afternoon awhile back, when my work was caught up and things were really slow, so I decided to search for the one thing that would make my life complete: red cowboy boots.

Not only must they be red, they must also come in a women’s size 10EE, which apparently doesn’t actually exist in the cowboy boot world. Ergo, my search was fruitless and I must resign myself to plain old brown boots. Men’s. Wah. However, my browser hasn’t give up so easily. I can’t go online on that computer without being bombarded by ads for red cowboy boots. My homepage, SFGate.com, has two rows of cowboy boot teasers above where the news stories begin.

Hey — ya gotta have priorities.

So, if you’ve ever searched for anything online, Google and Amazon and Facebook and Safari have already logged and categorized that information. Besides your searches being monitored, if you’ve ever done one of those fun, dumb little Facebook personality quizzes, you pretty much handed your information to whatever entity was behind it.

Back in the early days of Facebook, these quizzes seemed harmless, and who amongst us doesn’t need to know “Which Character on ‘The Office’ Are You?” (Pam) or “What is Your True Spirit Animal” (owl). Just good fun, right along with Farmville, the most grotesque waste of time since watching paint dry, and yes, I did it too.

As for the quizzes, when they started notifying me that by participating, I’d be granting access to all my personal information, contacts, photos and posts on Facebook, I’d give them a big fat “nope.” But many of my Facebook friends didn’t, took the quizzes, and thereby handed my information over as well. But, at least they know which Game of Thrones character they are now. So worth it.

But, there’s no point being bitter or angry. What’s done is done, even though I’m surprised that anyone would grant that sort of personal access to an unknown entity. But also, it’s pretty silly to get all high and mighty about other people giving my information away when the notion of “online privacy” is simply delusional. It’s right up there with glitter poop.

There’s no privacy online. Everything you share, post or say can be forwarded to 7,000 people with one mouse-click. Posting on social media is akin to walking around naked in public. Anyone and everyone can see what you’ve got, and many will exploit it however they can.

Wait, what? There are people online who are insufferable pricks?

I’m aghast!

Where is my unicorn! I must saddle up and fly away!

Oh wait. That’s Pegasus.

(Maybe I think about horses too much.)

As for Facebook, should we abandon it? What’s the answer? That’s exactly my point: There’s no answer. Your personal information is gone, gone, gone, baby, like a bird set loose from a cage. That bird has flown, and it ain’t ever coming back. Abandoning Facebook to protect personal information that’s already been compromised is like closing the proverbial barn door after the horses are loose: pointless.

That said, getting off social media has its merits. For one thing, think of all the things you could be doing besides staring at a computer screen. Facebook is a vortex: it siphons your time and, therefore, your life. Life isn’t anything but time… why waste it on Facebook?

But I get it, and I’m as guilty as anyone — sometime Facebook’s just good fun. But not when you’re embroiled in a whirlpool of drama and nasty comments because someone you used to respect posted something so outrageously asinine that you’re psychologically incapable of letting it go by.

Been there, done that, have the long list of “un-friends” to show for it.

Little by little, Facebook has become more aggravation than fun. Since it’s too late to save our information, let’s go back to only posting cat videos and photos of our food. Let the Russkies try and figure out how to throw our next election from that.