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November 09, 2022

Please Don’t Watch the Building Burn

Fostering Community

Recently, I observed an interaction between my nephew and his young daughter who just (very proudly) turned 3-years-old. She was playing outside with great glee when she tripped and bumped her head. Her father and I were standing close by and turned just in time to see her topple over. When she landed, I immediately saw in her eyes that lightning-quick moment of thought that informs how we react to an event. Before she could even make a sound, her father went over, helped her to her feet and said lightly, “That was a bit of a trip. Looks like you’re all good.” She immediately relaxed, he quickly examined her forehead, a kiss was bestowed on the (non-existent) booboo and off she went, back to climbing and jumping with great joy. She ran back to me a minute later and with confidence and pride said, “You know what, Yaya?” (Yaya is what she calls me.) “I’m tough!” And off she ran again.

What I got to witness was one moment in the many childhood moments that will ultimately shape this wee one’s self-concept. It was a rehearsal for how she will manage setbacks later on in life. What my nephew did (consciously or otherwise) was to foster resilience. He modelled how to take upsets in stride and (literally and figuratively) taught his daughter how to get up when you fall down. I contrast this with the scene I’ve observed many times over the years on playgrounds when a toddler falls and suspends reaction while looking to its caregiver for a clue as to how it should respond. If the child sees a look of panic, fear or shock on its caregiver’s face, the ensuing wails of despair should not surprise anyone because the child was prompted to experience that moment as a crisis rather than an upsidaisy.

I thought a lot about how we prime children to react to hardship while reading an article in Newsweek entitled, The Story We’re Telling About Youth Mental Health is Hurting Our Kids. The article explains the science of framing which is the study of “how the choices we make in presenting information affect how people think, feel, and act.” It argues that the ways in which the current mental health crisis is framed – note the use of the word “crisis” – is potentially making an already dire situation worse.

Authors Nat Kendall-Taylor and Andrew J. Fuligni, both professors of psychology at UCLA, see four problems with the current crisis narrative surrounding youth mental health:

  1. The way in which the crisis is being described and discussed makes it so big in our minds that we become paralyzed and unable to respond;
  2. The narrative is unbalanced, focusing largely on stereotypes that frame adolescence as a time of extreme danger (e.g., suicide, self-harm), leaving parents and youth panicked, fearful and despondent;
  3. Awareness is created but information on prevention (e.g., better access to family therapy, more school resources) is scant;
  4. The story being told focuses our attention only on what’s happening in the moment. It’s like gathering a community around a burning building to discuss how it burns rather than putting out the fire and (afterwards) educating people about fire prevention.

The article made me think of the disturbing phenomenon of teens using TikTok to diagnose mental illnesses such as borderline personality disorder (BPD), bipolar disorder and dissociative identity disorder (DID). These are serious and rare conditions. Rates of occurrence in the general population for BPD are 1.6%[1], 1% for Bipolar Disorder[2] and 1.5% for DID[3] but school counsellors will tell you that it’s not uncommon these days for a student to arrive in their office ready to share that, without doubt, they are suffering from [insert mental illness here].  (I think this is part of growing peer pressure on youth to feel unique or to identify as part of a “special” group but that topic is for another day.)

I don’t want anyone to think our children and youth are not suffering. They are. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) reports that 39% of Ontario high-school students indicate a moderate-to-serious level of psychological distress (symptoms of anxiety and depression). A further 17% indicate a serious level of psychological distress.[4] My concern is that our current and pervasive crisis-framed narrative will leave us frozen in the moment, holding our breath, just hoping or praying for things to get better. Instead, we need to take action now because, as Kendall-Taylor and Fuligni note, “Youth mental health needs to be proactively built rather than retroactively repaired.”

There is no single fix to the problem we face. Fire prevention, for example, involves education, changing risky behaviors, developing effective policies and ensuring equitable access to resources. Mental health is essentially the same.

In our schools and our families, I propose we start by changing the narrative around mental health and adopting a new story about youth who find themselves living in a time of unprecedented challenge but surrounded by support. Let’s acknowledge the hardship and pain they are experiencing but emphasize and point them to a network of care and hope. Encourage them to find meaning in the everyday, educate them about self-care and limit their access to things that do harm (e.g., toxic social media, substances, too much time spent alone and indoors, etc.) How we tell the story of this journey will influence where we land. I hope our children land in a place of resilience, knowing how to pick themselves up after falling down, able to climb and jump into the future with great joy.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430883/

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK558998/

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK568768/

[4] Boak et al. (2018). The mental health and well-being of Ontario students, 1991-2017: Detailed OSDUHS findings. CAMH Research Document Series no. 47. Toronto: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

 

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