I am planning to use my Holton Highlights columns this year to highlight topics that are especially important to me, beginning today with mental health. Anyone who listened to the Convocation speeches last week would immediately recognize that mental health is top of mind for the Holton community. While I talked about mindsets, particularly as they relate to stress, Senior Emma K. '23 mused on the value of pursuing the activities, theater in her case, that you really love even if that means you don’t do as well academically as you might like. Sixth grader Svea P. '29 talked about the power of a supportive community to help you be your true self. Eighth grader Cindy M. '27 urged us to believe in our own innate worth, concluding her speech saying, “You are more than capable of achieving all your dreams, big or small. And in case no one says this out loud today, you mean everything to me.” Clearly striking a cord, her message drew a standing ovation from twelfth graders.
We know from the news and from our Authentic Connections data and our counselors’ observations that young people, including Holton students, are struggling with their mental health. Depression and anxiety were increasing among teenagers before Covid and Covid accelerated that trend. Why is this happening?
A recent edition of The Daily, a New York Times podcast, set forth the clearest explanation I have heard. The New York Times reporter, Matt Richtel spent months studying this issue talking to young people, pediatricians, and psychologists around the country and he believes that that earlier onset of puberty combined with the technologically driven pace of the modern world provides the explanation. Girls now have their first menstruation on average at 12, two years younger than in 1900 and male puberty is following a similar acceleration. This matters because much of puberty involves maturation of the brain. Richtel describes it this way:
The brain is preparing this creature to be aware of social information — in fact, to crave social information as a way of figuring out how to fit into a much more complex world than the one where the child was cared for. Hierarchy becomes apparent. Competition becomes apparent.
All of a sudden, children start to notice all kinds of things about the world around them that they were oblivious to or uninterested in before. However, the reasoning and analytical parts of the brain that help one make sense of all this new information haven’t fully developed yet. This has always been true to a degree, but now children are younger when the gap emerges. Compounding the problem, young people are growing up in an age when the amount of information and stimulation they receive is enormous and unrelenting, a very different environment from even a few decades ago. Social media certainly plays a role, but really it’s “the pace of a technologically driven world,” which manifests itself in many ways including pressure to compete in a variety of areas and the 24/7 news cycle with its constant stream of disturbing stories.
According to Richtel, approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy, which help people identify and implement coping mechanisms, seem to help young people. An important aspect of cognitive behavioral therapy is the acknowledgement that a person is having a difficult time. What they are experiencing is real and, importantly, not their fault. Second, there are steps they can take to help themselves through the tough times. We can all support our young people by taking this approach.
Let me say that if your child is experiencing anxiety that seems to dominate her life or involves reactions way disproportionate to the situation; if they descend to a dark place and don’t come back for days – these behaviors signal a need for professional help. On the other hand, negative emotions, including anxiety, are part of life and are even beneficial. We need to help our children understand that negative emotions, within bounds, are normal, not a sign of mental illness. At the same time, we want to help young people manage their emotions, something especially difficult for teenagers whose brains aren’t ready for all the stimuli they are receiving.
We may want to think about helping our children in two ways. The first is managing emotions in the moment, feeling panicked about a test, for example. The second is about developing habits that support mental health in more fundamental ways. Dr. Lisa Damour, a best-selling author and psychologist familiar to many of us, is the source of most of this advice.
If we’re feeling panicky, we should first recognize our emotions and then make a conscious effort to slow our breathing. Deep breathing will reduce our heart rate and lower our anxiety level; breathing resets the nervous system. We can also engage in self-talk. Ask ourselves if the issue we are anxious about is really as bad as we think it is. On the flip side, can we actually handle this better than we’re giving ourselves credit for?
There are steps young people should take – and we need to help them take – to provide a foundation for better mental health.
- If they do nothing else, they should get enough sleep (12 hours for LS students; 10 hours for MS students; and 8 hours for US students). There is extensive research that supports the positive effects of sufficient sleep including better mood and emotional regulation and better cognitive functioning. I know many students, especially older ones, believe this is impossible. If this is your child’s position, have a conversation about what she can do that would make it possible. We’re happy to help you with that conversation. One of my senior advisees who traditionally has slept very little has made a goal of going to bed at 11 every night after reading that lack of sleep impacts life expectancy. That scared her into making a change! Instituting a family policy of no phones in bedrooms while sleeping will help young people get a good night’s sleep.
- It’s really important not to demonize tech or social media; these are staples in their lives and we risk alienating young people if we fail to recognize that. At the same time, they need to take breaks from their phones. Adopt a policy of no phones at meals. Some of the biggest concerns about the amount of time spent on phones isn’t the phone consumption itself, but rather what they are not doing instead. We see repeatedly how much students actually appreciate breaks from their phones when we require it of them. A comment from a ninth grader about her summer camp experience perfectly encapsulates the value of taking a phone vacation:
Because of camp, I didn't have my phone for the whole summer, and it made me realize how productive I am without it. I also found that I did so many things such as sports and bonding with my friends that I wouldn't have experienced if I had had my phone with me.
Taking time away from their phones also gives them breaks from the news cycle. Being informed is good, but we all know that the constant pinging of news alerts is not healthy for any of us.
- Getting regular exercise and spending time outside are also proven supports for mental health.
- Volunteering serves as an excellent antidote to the self-focused mental anguish of adolescence. Volunteering gets us out of ourselves and focused on others, and may have the side benefit of helping us appreciate our own situations more.
Finally, I would encourage us to think about mindsets, as I suggested in my Convocation speech. They are very powerful and can have a very positive impact on our mental states. Indeed, the main point of all of this is that helping young people to find ways to control aspects of their lives that may feel out of control represents a critical way in which we can help them manage their mental health. Without being mentally healthy, we can’t expect them to thrive and make progress towards reaching their potential.