Adolescent Depression and the One-Inch Picture Frame

Like adults, sometimes tweens and teens need to reframe their perceptions..

            *Kira is a twelve-year-old with a penchant for animae and Greek mythology. She is articulate and kind, responsible and perceptive. Unfortunately, she also considers herself a disappointment to her parents and feels like she is failing her friends and family.

            *Mandy is just shy of thirteen. He attends school virtually, participating in class daily, turning in assignments on time, and deftly plays chess. Yet he has attempted suicide twice this past year. “My parents were pretty angry when they found out—my Dad especially. I think he’s upset that he didn’t know how bad it was.”

            As a middle school English teacher, I have the pleasure and responsibility of working with Kira and Mandy. After over a decade in the classroom, I’ve witnessed an unprecedented and palpable uptick in depression in tweens and teens this past academic year. No doubt, the psychological toll of pandemic life has left its mark on humankind’s psyche. The economic duress alone created waves of stress in families. Regardless of the reasons for the increased depression, unlike adults, our adolescent population may not have the tools to seek or get the help needed. 

            I teach six separate classes, and there are 1-2 students in each class struggling with depression or anxiety tainted with thoughts of hopelessness. A numbness will often emanate from them as well. As one student recently shared with me, “Nothing matters anymore. I just stopped feeling.”

            There’s a writing exercise the talented Anne Lamott shared in her famous book, Bird by Bird that I share with my students who honor me with their honesty, with the raw, underbelly of their emotions:

            “All I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”

            Now, I am not asking my students to start writing their feelings or anything at all for that matter. I am asking them to consider the idea that they are in one picture frame of their life right now—that’s just it, one frame. And while that frame might look overwhelming or render them numb or any other negative emotion for that matter, it is simply one frame. The frame, however unbearable to them, WILL pass.

            Besides, I remind them, there must be other frames that they like in their present life. Here are some recent ones they shared:

            “When my dog licks my face.”

            “Drawing—I’m working on a book!”

            “Soccer—kicking the ball.”

            “The smell of my dad’s pancakes.”

            It need be noted that the above frames were spoken with smiles that could light up a room.

            Whatever we focus on we get more of. We always have the choice to focus on a frame that makes us feel worse or better.

            I am not a doctor or therapist, nor do I play one on TV.  I am a teacher and mother who lost someone dear to suicide when I wasn’t much older than the students who are courageous enough to share their often-concealed pain with me. Perhaps they can sense the experience in me; the unspoken guidance I’m able to give that will nurture us both.

            Regardless, these students’ parents were informed; help is on the way. Help is always on the way. 

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

What Matters Most…(It’s NOT What You Think:-)

 
If we want to alter the course of our lives to acquire the feeling of what we desire, we must make how we feel matter most

*Ms. Pierce is a teacher in my school who cares deeply for our students. You can see it in the way she puts great effort into her history lessons, working long hours to ensure her students are engaged yet well-paced, challenged yet not overwhelmed or frustrated. Many a day, I will leave our school hearing her on the phone with parents, passionate about getting their sons and daughters motivated, organized, and involved in their academic progress. She is also at work before most of the staff, decorating her classroom to reflect whatever historical lesson is next on the syllabus.

Yet I also see another side to Ms. Pierce: she will regularly yell at the children after the last bell rings to end the school day, the muscles in her neck straining, her face flushed with emotion, reminding the students to walk down the stairs, not jump—and to do so in an “orderly fashion.”

Ms. Pierce will often come into my room towards the end of the day and tell me, “I need a drink” and announcing “I’m done–checking out, shutting down, over and out.”

There’s a bit of Ms. Pierce in all of us: wanting the best in this life, giving it our all, and then—at some point—shutting down (or wanting to shut down). We care, oh we care so much and then we exhaust ourselves, feeling like our efforts don’t make a shred of a difference, so why bother? Or we push and push to change something and grow resentful while we simultaneously lean towards self-destructive behaviors.

Everyone wants something on this planet Earth. For some it’s more money, for others it’s better health, a better relationship, a fitter body. Ms. Pierce wants our students to walk downstairs in an orderly fashion each day at 4:05 PM. All of these things we want—whatever these things may be—we want because we believe we will feel better in the having of them. It’s the feeling we are after: The feeling of driving the new car, the feeling of that first kiss, the feeling of the toned arms (and for Ms. Pierce, the feeling of our students walking down those stairs in an orderly fashion).

There’s a famous quote by Dr. Wayne Dyer:

“You cannot always control what goes on outside. But you can always control what goes on inside.”

If we want to alter the course of our lives to acquire the feeling of what we desire, we must make how we feel matter most. Our emotions are on a continuum with love on one end and fear on the other. Each morning we wake up, we have a choice to make our feelings a priority. When we prioritize our own emotional wellness, we are in a better place to help others. 

Ms. Pierce only wants that drink because she has made her well-being a low priority. And no doubt, a little imbibing will help her relax, returning her to a better feeling state (at least, temporarily).

But if Ms. Pierce woke up and decided that her well-being mattered first and foremost, her moment-by-moment choices would alter until she momentum with the feeling she wanted all along. She might decide to go for a walk before heading to work, or she might meditate, enjoy a cup of her favorite coffee or tea while she listened to soothing music. These small changes—motivated by a desire to make her well-being a priority—would create a different law of attraction in her external world. By letting go of altering the children’s behavior, the students would see a more relaxed and happier history teacher. And perhaps, just perhaps, our students wouldn’t feel so eager to stomp down the stairs past her door at the end of the school day.

How you feel matters, so make your inner state a priority. Reading these words now, you can choose to relax your shoulders and smooth your forehead; you can choose to take a deep inhalation and focus on things you find pleasing. The butterfly effect of these small inner changes creates unseen yet impactful, significant consequences to the world around you.

*Name is altered for privacy purposes.

Thank You, Langston Hughes

The talented Langston Hughes reminds us of the choice we all have in his moving story, “Thank You, Ma’am”

Our world is fraught with anxiety, filled with the uncertainty of COVID-19 as our death toll continues to mount. The almost full calendar year of pandemic life has rendered many of us depressed. Factor in the economic stress and growing political tension, it is no surprise that many of us are also quick-tempered. After all, when we are experiencing pain it’s normal to react. 

How we react to pain makes all the difference.

As an English teacher to middle school students, I bear the gift and responsibility of educating minds through literature. Students “buy in” when they can connect a text to both the world around and in them. With the escalating violence at the US Capitol, I felt a need to choose a story that could palpably demonstrate an invaluable commodity: kindness.

 It’s easy to be kind when we are in a good place, when our needs are met and we want for little or nothing; kindness becomes, for many of us, a challenge when we are in pain.

The social activist and prolific Harlem Renaissance writer, Langston Hughes offered my students (and humanity) a short but profound and palpably moving example of kindness in the face of pain with his story, “Thank You, Ma’am.”

The story involves a young teen who attempts to steal a woman’s purse on the street at night. Instead of reporting the boy to the police, the woman brings him home and gives him a warm meal. Her kindness alters the boy’s behavior, his perception and—although we can only infer—the trajectory of his life.

I want my students to know that each of them has the power to make a choice every moment; I want each of us to remember that, despite how painful life can get at times, we always have a choice to be kind. This is not a call to be a doormat. Langston Hughes’ character, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones is portrayed as a strong, no nonsense woman. She is that rare mixture of confident and compassionate, perceptive yet matter of fact.

So, as you go through your morning, your day, your week, your life, regardless of wherever life may take you, channel your inner Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. A simple gesture of kindness can change someone’s life in ways you may never know—including your own.

Feeding Our Minds

Remain curious and open to learning new things!

A colleague reached out to me over the summer and let me know about a teaching opportunity that involved working on camera for our school district. I jumped at the chance.

The audition involved creating a mini lesson, replete with standards and curriculum that followed the state’s guidelines. It required a specific rubric to follow. 

Did I know what I was doing? Absolutely not. With content as a teacher, I shine, but with technology…well, that wasn’t in my wheelhouse. But I wasn’t going to allow a lack of experience using technology to impede me from doing something I love: teaching AND teaching on camera!

Creating the material for the lesson didn’t take me long, nor did the Power Point itself. Uploading my video with me on camera simultaneously…well, let’s just say, I didn’t eat for the entire day and it was dark outside by the time I was ready to hit submit to the district with my uploaded lesson.

Playing around with the unknown of the technology was frustrating but by the end of the full day, I had accomplished a new skill.

When I inquired whether or not my fellow teachers were auditioning as well, they looked at me as if I had acquired several heads. Their responses ran the gamut of:

“I don’t want to give myself anymore work.”

“That sounds too hard—no thanks.”

“Uh—no.”

In the end, over one-hundred teachers submitted their audition (I’m part of a large district), so there were plenty of teachers, eager for the exciting opportunity. 

I am grateful to note that I was one of the 25 fortunate teachers to get “cast” for the TV virtual teaching. And when we met for the first time this past week, I was not at all surprised by their positive energy. I felt like we all felt we had earned a “Golden Ticket” like something out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Our lessons will air on local TV weekly for 30 minutes. Since it’s only local to our state and city, I want to share the lessons I’ll be creating here for any potential parents or students out there, hungry to feed their minds. To that end, I’m my first episode at the close of today’s blog post. Feel free to use the lesson as a starting point or follow along directly and participate in the activities.

I encourage you to consider an area of your life where you find yourself reluctant to try something new and go for it anyway. When we push ourselves past our comfort zones, real growth takes place.

Happy learning–for all of us!

Students can bolster their reading comprehension skills through this 10 minute video, connecting text to reader.