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.