They Will Thank Us in the Future: Help the Kids Who are Hurting

There’s too much silence when it comes to talk of mental health issues and kids. That is, too much silence for the right things, for the soul and the need for heart-comfort, while there is so much vocal fear of societal alienation. Total anonymity, as an attempt to protect the sufferer when they are minors, only isolates them more. By keeping news of mental suffering secret from the people who would really help them, the suffering young person does not find relief.

Obviously, there are the right and wrong people to tell, but the trustworthy pool of people for every young person needs to be widened. Once, I was at a staff meeting at the private elementary school I worked at. The topic of the meeting was student health protocols. We talked about asthma, Epi-pens, seizures, diabetes, concussions, broken arms. We named names in confidence and protection of this sensitive information, but discussed these cases openly as it related to our ability to help these kids. I asked if there are children with mental health diagnoses we should know about. I was met with a glare from my middle manager, a ring of silence.

“That kind of thing is usually only shared with the school counselor,” said the director.

“And only if the parent chooses to share it.”

So, a parent’s social fear increases a child’s social fear, and the terror of stigma is passed on from parent to child. And that kind of thing, with all the stigma already implied in the manager’s voice, persists.

This is all incredibly stupid and isolates people, making the condition itself even worse. People with diabetes or cancer don’t get the same treatment. Depression, anxiety, PTSD; all these thrive on silence, isolation and shame. At the very least, all the adult professionals responsible for a child’s wellbeing, including teachers and childcare workers, should be entrusted with this information and taught what to do with it, how to appropriately protect it, and how to understand and take care of the child who has it, no differently than a child with severe asthma or a broken bone. It helps enormously to know what a kid is going through: whether their inappropriate behavior is merely a cranky growth phase for a kid, or if there’s something more serious underneath, such as depression, trauma or the death of a loved one.

Some of the same stigma follows diseases such as AIDS. Treat all blood as if it’s contaminated, says the protocol. I worry that this is ultimately bad for humanity, to suspect that all blood is awful and dirty and carrying contagious death. It would be better to have compassion on those who certifiably have a blood-borne pathogen, treating them with respect and the care they need, but openly, so that we do not live with the terror of our own human blood.

I’ve worked in after-school childcare programs that deal with these things. I was siting with a second grade girl and a first grade boy one day, coloring pictures together. I commented on how pretty those flowery paper decorations are on the wall, the ones we pulled out of the leftover bin in the supplies closet. The little boy said, somberly,

“Those are from A’s dad’s memorial.”

“What?!” was my response. “Did he die?”

Both kids looked at me like I was an idiot who hadn’t heard.

“We all stood in a circle to sing and remember him,” said the little girl.

Apparently everyone knew except me. A was a fifth grade boy at the time who who was a regular in the after-school program. He had been misbehaving only a little, but I noticed many other adults coming by to tenderly ask him how he is doing. The program director hugged his mother. I wondered what happened, but figured that if it was my business, someone would tell me. But it turns out it sure was my business. I had missed a mere email relaying the news –really, a damn email announcing the death of a parent we all knew. I found out from two small children what I should’ve heard verbally from my adult colleagues. Good thing I didn’t say, “Hey, A, is your dad picking you up today?” –totally not knowing why that would devastate him. It was part of my job to interact with the parents at pick-up time and get the kids signed in and out. This was something I needed to know.

… … …

A younger relative of mine, when she was sixteen, went through a terrible episode of self harm and depression. I remember that I had called and emailed her to just ask how things are going, wanting to hear her voice. I had no knowledge of what she was going through. She had been hospitalized, the whole psychiatric works, and I didn’t know. Her mom had to clear the house of all objects my young relative could hurt herself with. It turned out her parents were also getting a divorce at the time, further breaking my family apart, and I didn’t know about it.

This, a family, isn’t some legalistic place of employment, but a paper-free biological web of relationships, of deeply personal memories, bound by ancestors and land. The human family should be there for its own more than any other human social unit in the world.

I pulled the truth out of my reluctant uncle, spilling the beans, and my grandmother, thwarting this life-threatening silencing.

“But I was trying to protect her privacy,” he said. 

Yeah, I thought, and you’re  also protecting the growth of her silence, shame and isolation while your at it.

And maybe my young relative did, at age sixteen, want all this to be kept a secret, but that didn’t make it the wise thing to do. Luckily, this story concludes well for her sake: she’s come far from those days and, last I knew, is doing extraordinarily better as a young graduate of high school confidently heading to college. I’m enormously proud of her, and relived that she was supported. And I still miss my family, the few who are left, more than I can say.

We are supposed to protect and empower minors. To hell with their massing embarrassment when real help is on the line. A good adult will know how to meet that feeling of shame with deep honor and respect for the young person, so that they know they do not have to feel ashamed in the first place. They’re not able to help themselves yet. They will thank us in the future.




Recomposed from an original journal entry written September 1st, 2016

On Intelligence

The Webster dictionary definition really hits the nail on the head when it defines “Intelligence” as successfully learning through experience and adaptation. The naturalist in me respects how this brings learning back to it’s animal roots: intelligence stems from an ecosystem which demands keen awareness and sensitivity to one’s environment to survive and thrive. Our environment isn’t what it used to be, but our instinct to adaptive learning is now more crucial than ever. Though the contemporary of cognitively acquisition of knowledge through books and words (compared to skills learned physically, in immediate circumstances) has tremendous value, a return is needed to the experiential, physical, responsive learning of our instincts. This will be necessary to ameliorating many of the ills of our modern educational system.

In the discipline of “book-learning” is the elitist attitude of ridiculing “street-smarts” as a somehow lesser form of “smarts”. This experience-based learning is assumed to only be relevant to the roughest city streets of disenfranchised youths. It is not respected as a way of learning so essential for survival as complete humans. Comfortable Americans maintain this misunderstanding because this instinctual way of acquiring knowledge arises naturally in people who must remain aware of their immediate physical environment to survive, such as in inner-city neighborhoods, unlike the privileged who are accustomed to living in their heads (or tuned-out in their head-phones) all the time.

I want to acknowledge, however, that the stresses of living in embattled environments should not be romanticized. A hostile environment can compel those on the edge of survival to use their energy for more immediate demands, such as escaping a physical threat, thereby leaving less room for softer sensory awareness. Yet this can also, paradoxically, be a direct link into greater environmental sensitivity.

To grow up with intelligence and awareness, of any useful kind, is to come to terms with the world. To face adulthood is to leave the teenage time of endless battles and accept which struggles are worth your morning coffee. If I ever get the great honor and privilege of mentoring teenagers, I will try to put this understanding into their minds without overpowering them, but encouraging them to discover these truths. A good teacher or mentor is to lead them in reverence for the path, with wisdom to alarm them of unseen snakes in tall grass, as was the way of all ancestors for their young initiates. But a good teacher accepts that these young ones must necessarily be wounded –the old primal wound of the psyche coming to terms with the harsh and beautiful way of the world– to “die” to their childhoods. Elders must protect and defend the young while yet getting out of their way. The young people are to be put in charge for a change, which too many adults live in fear of acknowledging, and so put their children in trouble on the road ahead. But if the young are taught well, and learn intelligence by experiencing and witnessing the living, active wisdom of the old, we who are older should have nothing to fear when it comes time to hand them the wheel (the driving wheel, or the wheel of life!).

The Anticipation of Love

Back-posted from January 2019: Wow, what a trip down memory lane to read these old hand-written journal entries which I’ve hereby transcribed. Such tenderness there was: I wouldn’t write like this now, not with such adoring surrender. I’m glad I wrote so unselfconsciously about these sweet, innocent moments: I remind myself of Anne Frank.

I believe the matter can’t be helped. I saw an old acquaintance on Saint Patrick’s Day and I think that’s all it took to give me the flutters for him as he danced with me, let me on waltzes. He is an Irish dancer, too, with a big imagination and a musketeer goatee and he does a hilarious Kermit the Frog voice impression. He charms my heart. He has pretty, long dark-blonde hair down his back, died with streaks of pink and purple. When I was reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets to him he stood riveted, looking into my eyes as if here were melting with a devilish smile, and said “I could listen to you recite Shakespeare all day.” And when we were waltzing he said, “We’re totally waltzing! This is great!” He has a big imagination.

When I got home I sent him a message saying thanks and joy and praise, and how kind of him to suggest I come to a Shakespeare play in Berkeley this Tuesday, hope to see you there! Well he hasn’t responded, and of course I’m on pins and needles waiting to hear something, anything from him! O, the suspense! O, the anticipation. I called my dear friend to gush like we females need to, and told her my dilemma, and her my dilemma about the absence of his response. “Don’t worry about it,” she says. “Women tend to overanalyze communication and men tend to underanalyze it.” that was actually quite reassuring. I showed her his picture and she smiled and approved of his charm.

Yesterevening I decided, what the heck, I am turning 21 in one month! I could either whine like a baby that nobody loves me and nobody’s throwing me a party, or I could get off my pity pony and throw myself one and see who comes. So I invited a hundred and twenty nine people, half of whom don’t even live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Of the half that do live here only half of them would probably even consider coming. That brings it down to a possible eighty at tops. Half of them will say they’re interested but probably won’t make it, which means I’ll be lucky if even ten to fifteen show up; that’ll be a big crowd. Well, I went ahead and announced the event. I didn’t expect anyone to RSVP soon, so after posting it I went to bed late, about midnight, and woke up at 4am with thoughts racing, half joy, half fear. I wanted to read Mary’s Magnificat, I wanted to sing Morten Lauridsen’s Agnus Dei, Lux Aeterna if I could, for I had awoken at this time feeling like something joyful and wonderful had happened in the universe, or was about to happen. the feeling was distinct: that blessings abounded upon me and happiness in a tangible form was near. Though I fought anxious fear, I had the sense that a triumph had taken place, that my soul was so intensely awake, so alive, so fervent a present in my life, my body, my reality.

Well I was still mighty tired no less so I managed to go back to sleep, only to wake up at 7:15 so excited I couldn’t wait any longer. Maybe he responded now…

And he did! Not a message, but he sure RSVP’d to my birthday, the first and only one last I knew, and it didn’t take him long! Perhaps his response was casual and off-handed and impersonal, or it could’ve been personal and purposeful. Cannot say: I must wait and see if he comes to Shakespeare on Tuesday.

My point I really mean to make in writing all this is one of an authentic, legitimate excitement, and anticipation wholly true in its giddying, nerve-wrecking importance to me. It’s been absolutely just like I remember Christmas as a kid; though my mom was an atheist, the magic to me was no less. In a word, a child’s excitement over Christmas goes like this: in the long, quiet dark of the night there is something absolutely wonderful happening, some very good change taking place, something exceedingly precious will be given to us if we only find the self-control to close our eyes in the long unknowing. And when we wake up early in the morning, still quiet, God will have been born and there will be gifts under a sparkling, enchanted tree. Few things seem to compare to this joy, though now Christmas (or any holiday, for that matter) does not anymore entrance me in quite the same way. I miss this. I hope that when I am baptized and confirmed and receive my first communion a week after my 21st birthday, on Easter, this feeling will be new again.

It’s hard for me to separate emotions and spirituality, and I don’t think I should try, because these should be emotional joys. Why should that be thought of as wrong? What if we, if I, could somehow find the ecstatic joy in the yearly birth and resurrection of Christ that so naturally comes through the delight of a crush? This love I feel, this longing for him: how close to God it brings me.




Photo by Chloe Si on Unsplash