Talking it Through: Some Current Challenges in Adolescent Mental Health and How to Respond

Talking it Through: Some Current Challenges in Adolescent Mental Health and How to Respond

Recently I had the privilege of joining an alumni panel at my old high school to speak to the current students about adolescent mental health and the pandemic. Here is a summary of some of the points we discussed:

Use creativity for self-expression, not performance. When I was in high school, and for much of the time since, I funneled my efforts and talent towards some external objective: getting good grades, getting into college, getting more good grades, getting a job, getting into graduate school, rinse/repeat. As a result, I stopped meaningfully engaging with any activity that did not fall into the category of “resume builder.” And since I was not branding myself as an artist or a creative type, it seemed unnecessary—even frivolous and irrelevant—to spend time on creative expression. I did not understand that I can express myself for my own sake, and that expression is necessary and worthy regardless of how it is rated externally.

Of course, creative pursuits can and should be appreciated externally: people consume music and entertainment media on a massive scale, after all, and no one would doubt that the contributions of the artistically gifted are beneficial to those who consume them. But that does not mean that only the artistically gifted should create. After taking a course in expressive arts therapy recently, I realized why this belief is so damaging. Artistic media like singing, dancing, playing instruments, writing, painting, sculpting, etc. create a context for emotional expression and healing that is utterly unique. It requires engagement and coordination of the body, it stimulates emotional awareness, it invites imagination and narration—often leading to novel understanding or increased calm.

Befriend your perfectionism. As a teenager I did not relate much personally to the idea of perfectionism—I was far from perfect and felt more in common with the “hot mess” archetype—but, as in many competitive academic environments, perfectionism penetrates the atmosphere of my old school. Everyone inhales it, mostly unconsciously and involuntarily, same as they inhale oxygen. The stress from the pandemic has helped increase awareness of the culture of perfectionism, and many students are eager to reverse the effects.

However, internal family systems theory (Schwartz, 2001) teaches us that our perfectionist parts—critical, demanding, unsatisfied, even cruel though they may be—are trying to do something helpful for us. They do not really understand how to best to help, but they are trying. Maybe they are trying to protect us from failure or rejection, maybe they are trying to express loyalty to a person or a community that we love, that espouses perfectionism.

In any case, perfectionism is often the result of an anxious, maybe childlike part of ourselves that is working overly hard out of fear. Rather than trying to scold or eliminate this part, the best response is compassion and curiosity: begin by acknowledging that scared little perfectionist, thank them for trying so hard, reassure them that they are seen and appreciated, and gently counsel them that they can relax because everything will be OK.

Self-care is essential. Like artistic expression, movement has also been coopted by the cult of performance under the guise of sports or fitness. But movement strengthens all people, and everyone has an equal right to benefit from it. Any time spent walking, stretching, dancing, leaping, running, pulling, pushing, etc. creates a context for emotional release, relief, and even gratification. Similarly, stillness, rest, is commonly mislabeled as laziness or withdrawal, when in fact it is essential for fulfillment as well as functionality. In tandem, these opposite but complementary sides of self-care—movement and stillness—sustain us. Both are more potent when done frequently, vigorously, and intentionally.

I probably could not do what you are doing. Before giving advice or correction to any of the current students, I must acknowledge a major limitation of my perspective: despite what I may know from scholarship or experience, I have never had to be a teenager during a global pandemic.

Adolescence is already a swirling chaos of growth and vulnerability—imagine adding to that fear of a nebulous illness, fear of falling behind in school, loneliness from social distancing then social anxiety from being out of practice, the burden of keeping yourself and others safe, the burden of learning at home, and endless other challenges. For all my current composure, could I have done what these students have had to do? If this pandemic had hit a couple decades sooner, where would I have landed?

Finally, I want to include a couple extra points that I did not cover at the time but seem relevant in retrospect:

Learn to enjoy work. While I certainly support reducing high school workloads and increasing lenience where possible—e.g. offering extensions, deprioritizing grades—I also want to encourage students to practice enjoying work. Too often work is something we try to avoid, something viewed as a constraint to happiness and satisfaction, something to try to finish it as soon as possible. This attitude, in my opinion, fuels student overexertion via the narrative that “I can rest in when my work is done.” Once out of school, this narrative is observably unsustainable—and waiting to rest until all the work is done breeds exhausted, frustrated, burned-out adults.

I use the term “work” broadly on purpose. The students were mostly focused on their academic work, but adults know work encompasses a wide swath of what demands our attention every day: professional work, household maintenance, planning and scheduling vacations, folding laundry, unloading the dishwasher, answering emails, calling plumbers and banks and homeowners’ associations, coordinating with kids’ teachers and caretakers, maintaining social connections, etc. This work is rarely, if ever, done. To face the never-ending work that comprises our lives, we need to let ourselves rest. We need to let ourselves get a C+ on certain tasks. We need to find a way to relax even as we work: move slowly, listen to music, eat and drink, look to be fascinated, practice self-compassion and self-affirmation.

Nothing is more important that safety. Kids are often privy to information about one another which may not be forthcoming to the adults in their lives. If a child or adolescent is in danger of harming themselves or others, as adults we hope we would be able to identify the risk and eliminate it—but sadly, we cannot guarantee this is the case. I highly recommend any kids who worry that their friends or peers may be at risk for dangerous behavior share their concerns with a trusted adult—teacher, therapist, parent, friend’s parent, etc.—rather than carry that burden alone. Sharing that information will hopefully be a comfort for them and may be life-changing or life-saving for someone else.

I recommend consulting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for information about assessing the risk of self-harm and suicidality, and the options available to deal with that risk.

Janine Joly-DeMars, MS, LCMFT provides individual, couple, and family therapy in our downtown Bethesda, MD office, as well as virtually to those located in the State of Maryland. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with Janine!