In retrospect, I was crazy to consider not going to today's Salem City Club program, "Oregon Youth: Crisis in Mental Health."
Fortunately I had the good sense to attend the meeting and hear two people from Liberty House, a child abuse assessment center, plus a South Salem High School counselor.
I'll end this blog post by talking about my own long-ago mental health problems in my high school years.
First, though, here's some of what I remember from the presentations by Alison Kelley, CEO of Liberty House; Neda Grant, program manager of Liberty House's Hope and Wellness services; and Ryan Marshall, counselor at South Salem High School.
I didn't take any notes during their talks, in part because they all were such great speakers, and had such compelling information to share, I wanted to listen wholeheartedly to them. So while I may not have gotten what follows exactly right, I'm confident that I've captured the spirit of their messages.
Maybe the most important thing I heard was this: if a youth confides in you, having the courage to tell you about a problem they're having, don't say "I'm so sorry." Instead, say "I'm here for you."
Marshall said that often it isn't until 45 minutes into a counseling session that a student has enough trust in him to reveal what is really going on in their life. So keep this in mind if a troubled youth is willing to speak with you, even haltingly, about what's bothering them.
Grant shared compelling anecdotes about what parents do right and wrong. She related a decidedly unhelpful thing a father said after his child talked about a problem: "Put your big-girl panties on and deal with it" (or words to that effect).
We all know how obnoxious teenagers can be -- typically forgetting, of course, that once upon a time we adults acted very much the same. But often this seemingly recalcitrant behavior is masking an underlying mental health problem. Which leads me to break my intention to leave my personal story for the end, since I can offer up a good example of this.
My high school years (1962-66) included a period when my alcoholic mother was drinking heavily. Here's an excerpt from a previous blog post of mine that I wrote on a Mother's Day.
Since my clearest memories of my mother are from when I was older, the drunken, mean, angry moments that I can easily recollect got all mixed up with happier moments when I tried to ponder what my mother meant to me.
A pain in the ass. Like when, during my teenage years, she'd yell from her bedroom into mine when I was trying to go to sleep, muttering nasty alcoholic crap that I couldn't tune out even with a pillow over my head.
It got so bad, when I'd drive home from a date with my high school girlfriend, who had a pleasingly normal family, I'd pass a liquor store and think "I should throw a rock through the glass and steal some stuff, just so people would know that seemingly well-adjusted star student Me actually is screwed-up beyond belief but I do a damn good job of hiding it."
Even now, reading what I wrote brings some tears to my 70 year-old eyes.
Our teenage years are formative. We're struggling to make the transition from being a child to being an adult. A part-time guidance counselor in my high school, who also was my tennis coach, called me in to his office once to ask how my mother was doing.
Not well, I knew for a fact. But I said nothing about the pain I was in, and the counselor left it at that.
Students in the Salem-Keizer School District have more mental health services. However, the City Club audience was told that compared to other large districts in Oregon, Salem-Keizer doesn't have nearly enough counselors. Hopefully the 2019 legislature is going to address youth mental health by providing more money in this area.
After the program ended I asked Kelley if she considered that there actually were more disturbed youth now, or if mental health problems were simply not recognized previously. Her answer was clear: now is worse.
And a big reason is social media and smart phones. The iPhone was introduced in 2007. Since, smart phone use among youth is ubiquitous. This produces problems that didn't exist before. Here's some examples that I recall.
-- "Sexting" (sending sexy/nude photos via text messages) begins as early as eight years old. A girl may be pressured by classmates to send a naked photo of themselves. Then they hear, "You're fat, ugly, and should kill yourself." Sadly, some students do. Or at least seriously consider this.
-- At a party, youth may communicate by text even when they are sitting next to each other on a couch. This seems decidedly weird to my senior citizen mind. However, at my athletic club I see young people obsessively clicking away on their smart phones while on a weight machine, while old folks like me have the quaint idea that exercising should be Job #1 in this setting.
-- Everybody wants to be popular in high school. Now, though, social media like Instagram make this quantifiable. If a student doesn't have 500 followers, they may consider themselves unliked. Or even worse, unlikeable. Too often, youth substitute distant relationships in cyberspace for intimate relationships in real life.
In her presentation, Kelley talked about how problems at home translate into youth mental health problems.
Divorce and death in a family, for example. More disturbingly, sexual abuse and drug problems. Some parents even give their children marijuana edibles to quiet them down. (But I have to note that legal weed apparently hasn't led to more marijuana use by young people in Oregon.)
Parents may expect either too little or too much of their children. Regarding the latter, it's important that youth be given sufficient time to relax, do nothing, enjoy free time. Too many students have almost every moment scheduled with either school or after-school activities.
Lastly, during the Q&A part of the City Club program a question about mindfulness training was asked. Kelley responded that this Eastern/Buddhist approach to being directly aware of what is happening with us, typically using the breath as a focus of attention, can be very useful for distracted/anxious/worried youth.
I heartily agree, having meditated every day for about 50 years. Some time ago I embraced mindfulness meditation and have found it helpful for keeping me mentally healthy.
More or less, at least. (A small dose of craziness adds spice to life.)