How Can We Heal the Mental Health Crisis?

Today I was working with a massage client and we got to talking about baby, moms, and teens. She asked a question that triggered a pain point for me.

"I often wonder why the US has such a rise in teen suicide."

And I couldn't agree more.

I have some thoughts on this, but first, let me give you some background on that. For eight years I taught at a high school. It was a school in an upper-middle-class suburb of Denver. The students there, for all appearances, had good lives. Most had been involved in extracurricular sports from a young age. You saw the packs of moms who had grown closer as their kids had grown up together. It was a Shiny Happy People school from the outside, but my position as a teacher and athletic trainer gave me another view too.

I saw students enter the school with big plans for success in sports, or band, or theater, only to find out that they weren't as good as they thought. Their positions with their teams were cut (or they quit because of spending most of their time on the sidelines). When they left their team, they also often left their social groups - the kids they had been with since elementary school. There was no place to go because every other option was full of kids who had been groomed for it since preschool. They often found themselves alone in unfamiliar territory, without a peer group, and without a trusted adult mentor.

There was no place to go because every other option was full of kids who had been groomed for it since preschool.

Some of these kids carried on, but many slow moved into the background. I would see them in passing between classes, but the joy was fading. I would try to invite them to be a part of the athletic training staff to keep their foot in with their group, but not many took me up on that offer. Often they would come and sit with me in the training room just to talk, and that was OK with me. I was fine being the adult to talk with when there was no one else. I'm not sure what happened in these kids' home life, but it was clear that they were just trying to find their place in the world again - that identity we all seek and crave in order to be settled.

I left that position about seven years ago.

One of the saddest parts of my leaving that school is that it now has one of the highest suicide rates. It's not like I think that my being there could have prevented those, but just what if? What if I could have intervened to give a kid a place and sense of purpose, at least during the transition? We have so many support measures in place for kids with special needs or low economic "at-risk" youth, and I don't think we give enough attention to the kids who are seemingly OK.

I think they hide many red flags because of how they are supposed to present themselves to the world. I know as I teen my parents expected me to act in a particular way. Acting out, failing, etc. were not acceptable behaviors, and since I was a "good kid" I obliged even if it meant covering up the frustrations that I was feeling. I often felt like I was given a load to sort out by myself, despite my parents being very supportive and available. Sometimes we're too close to our kids to see what's going on under the surface.

One thing that is encouraging for at-risk teens (and helpful to them) is having a non-parent adult mentor available. Often this role is assumed by a coach, teacher, or club sponsor. However, when the student loses the connection to their social group, they also lose the connection to the mentor and there is no other place to go. While the research tends to be on that "at-risk" demographic, I don't believe there is much difference anymore in all the socio-economic statuses.

I've been separated from this school since I left. I do know they have implemented actions to help reduce the number of suicides but I don't know what those are. What I do know is this scenario is not unique, and I think it affects more of our kids that we acknowledge.

Then, let's look at the flip side of this situation.

I'm going to focus on the moms. In addition to the rise in teen suicide, we're also seeing an increase in women with young children taking their own lives, and tragically the lives of their kids in some cases. This kills me. I remember one of the first cases of this in Colorado occurred when my kids were around 4 and 1. I was a part of a mom's group and a few of the leaders of the group decided to act out a scenario similar to what had actually happened. You see, the woman who had taken her life was also a part of a group from the same organization. It was a heartbreaking scene and ended with an assurance that the group would be there if we were struggling and to reach out.

All I could think of was how I was feeling so low and disconnected from the group in that moment and no one noticed. In fact, very few women in that group interacted with me. I would sit out my table of women in silence as conversations continued around me. I would try to join a conversation, but was often then cut out again. I was a good 10-15 years older than many of the women. Age-wise, I had more in common with the "mentor moms" than those who had kids the same age as mine. I watched the scenario and thought that I could slip away and no one would notice. I was never asked to join activities outside of the bi-monthly meetings. In fact, when I did stop coming no one ever reached out. I just find this sad.

We live in a community where we are on our phones if we don't know someone near us instead of opening up and engaging in a conversation. Scrutinizing instead of giving a smile.

I believe that the loneliness that our teens feel is also felt by many moms.

Many of us left our old social groups to start our families, and are struggling with who we are now. We don't fit the old mold anymore, and yet don't have anyone to talk to about how hard that transition is. I believe these transitions happen many times in our lived - going into middle school, starting college, entering the world as an adult, when we become moms, when our kids start school, and also when our kids leave home.

We often walk alone during these transitions instead of having that group of women supporting us during the journey.

I know I feel this way often and although I am taking steps to gather a new support system around me, it is still hard. Especially when you reveal your struggles and those you thought had your back turn their backs instead. We retreat into ourselves and dive into a depressive state. When this happens we are less available for our own kids' needs. Or we see their struggle and just "can't deal" because we're too tied up in our own depths to rise and support them. It's sad.

I don't know what the answer is, but I suspect it's a matter of establishing a tribe of support that crosses generations. In the Blue Zone community of Okinawa, Japan one of the secrets to their long lives is the Moai that are established there. These are social support groups that form in order to provide varying support from social, financial, health, or spiritual interests.

Often these groups are composed of women of similar ages, but they also can act as mentors to a younger generation. They meet weekly from childhood to socialize and support one another. They are not alone in this idea and other Blue Zone areas like Sardinia and Lom Linda, CA have similar groups in their communities. The scientific research regarding the benefits of a supportive social network on mental and physical health is strong, and I don't understand why we don't implement it more. Probably because our lives are so busy that we can't find the time to stop and meet with a group like this. I realize that this doesn't apply to everyone, but I think many of us would benefit from a small group of women to meet with weekly, or even monthly, and discuses what's happening in our lives. Our kids, while may never become great friends, would get to know each other well enough to hopefully help alter the adults if they are in trouble or suspect another child is. Parents in the group can be a mentor for the other kids. By taking the time to make this kind of connection a priority could result in a shift in the mental health of our society. It's worth a try.

We can come together to move, break bread, and to share stories and experiences.

I can't remember what goal I had when starting the writing, but I like the way it's unraveled. I like the idea of pulling away from the constant sales and drama we find on social media and turn to what's real and in front of us. I think social media and online groups have their place - obviously since I run one. But, I'd like to think that my running this group isn't so much as having you come to listen to me, but rather to be connected with someone local to connect with. The online group can be a bigger organization for change that we then implement in our own communities.

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