by Melissa Warden Black, Orientation and Transitions Coordinator, University of Manitoba
Drawing from my experiences from new student to Orientation, Transition and Retention professional, take a remarkable journey from the ancient world of 1998 to the modern world of 2018. Hear nightmarish tales of reading letters sent by mail and busy signals on phones, to the despairs of 45-minute orientation sessions, and the downfalls of not reading an email. Complete with tales of the surreal and wondrous, you, my listeners, will gain a better understanding of how communication has changed, how these changes have influenced Generation Z, and what we can do to better support them as they navigate the start of their university career.
In these posts, we will reflect on the evolution of student affairs in the last generation and begin to explore resilience strategies that you can integrate into life as an SA professional. We will discuss how particular strategies increase resilience, and offer suggestions for how to incorporate these strategies into your own individual wellbeing practices, as well as into supervision of staff and students. By the end of this blog series, you will be exposed to a wide range of tools- thoughts, behaviours, and actions- that will increase your personal resilience and the resilience of those you work with.
A Virtual Reality: Mental Health and Generation Z
Podcast script (for accessibility)
“Why aren’t you in school? I see you every day wandering around.”
“Oh, they don’t miss me,” she said. “I’m antisocial, they say. I don’t mix. It’s so strange. I’m very social indeed. It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn’t it? Social to me means talking to you about things like this.” She rattled some chestnuts that had fallen off the tree in the front yard. “Or talking about how strange the world is. Being with people is nice. But I don’t think it’s social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk, do you? An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running, another hour of transcription history or painting pictures, and more sports, but do you know, we never ask questions, or at least most don’t; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing, and us sitting there for four more hours of film-teacher. That’s not social to me at all. It’s a lot of funnels and a lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottom, and them telling us its wine when it’s not. They run us so ragged by the end of the day we can’t do anything but go to bed or head for a Fun Park to bully people around, break windowpanes in the Window Smasher place or wreck cars in the Car Wrecker place with the big steel ball. Or go out in the cars and race on the streets, trying to see how close you can get to lampposts, playing ‘chicken’ and ‘knock hubcaps.’ I guess I’m everything they say I am, all right. I haven’t any friends. That’s supposed to prove I’m abnormal. But everyone I know is either shouting or dancing around like wild or beating up one another. Do you notice how people hurt each other nowadays?”
“Screws fall out all the time…. the world’s an imperfect place.” – John Bender (The Breakfast Club)
Hello, and welcome to the second podcast of my Generation Z series. This is A Virtual Reality: Mental Health and Generation Z. If you haven’t listened to Confessions of an Orientation Coordinator, I recommend giving that a listen first. In that podcast, I laid out some topics related to Gen Z, and after recording, I felt there were a few subjects I still wanted to explore further. Given we are now right around what is said to be the most depressing day of the year (the third Monday in January), it seemed fitting to make the second installment about mental health. I’ll be following the same framework as that initial podcast, looking at my own mental health, taking a trip back to my own life as a new Xennial university student, looking at our current Gen Z students, and framing it all against a novel. And, for those of you who recognized my opening passage, that novel will make an appearance, but there’s also another novel sharing the spotlight.
Bonus points however if you caught where the audio clip was from. It was none other than John Bender, delinquent extraordinaire, from The Breakfast Club. While he is of the Generation X angst, this well-known quote from him was one that kept speaking to me to be included. While he’s speaking to Richard Vernon, the assistant school principal, in the movie, what he says rings true outside of that library on a Saturday morning – the world is not perfect. Things happen. But it’s how we deal with them that matters.
So, I’m going to make my own disclosure here and tell you that I deal with clinical depression, also referred to as major depression, and was also diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I don’t tell you this because I feel I have to, and for the record, no one owes it to you to give you details about their mental health struggles, but I say it because I am comfortable talking about it. The comfort, however, falls within context, meaning I don’t go around giving away these personal details on a whim, but rather within environments and situations that make sense. Looking back, I dealt with depressive moments throughout my life, and had some anxiety, including moments that I now recognize as moments of anxiety, but overall nothing that required medical attention or was out of the ordinary. I fell into an ongoing depression a few years back, which is also when I started having anxiety attacks. I know the exact event that tossed me further into that black void almost two years ago, and has since left me on a daily regime of anti-depressants and some meds to help manage anxiety.
So, basically, my amygdala, a cluster of nuclei in your brain that manages your fight or flight response, has been working a constant overtime for years. My brain has gotten pretty confused about whether I’m safe, scared, anxious, ok, or nervous for many situations that otherwise would be pretty clear cut. And, I gotta tell you, it’s not all that fun. Sometimes the simplest things make my heart race, my chest tighten, and my body fill with dread.
It is with these experiences, my genuine interest in Gen Z as a whole, and seeing students struggling in ways that are kind of foreign to me if I base it solely on when I was a new student, that made further exploring mental health an obvious choice. As someone who works directly with students in a post-secondary setting (and manages new student programming), it’s important for me to share my own knowledge, interests and experiences, to help frame some of the challenges and needs our new students face, and ways that we can help them navigate these paths.
If you are familiar with the novel, Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, then you’ll have recognized my opening passage. In it, the main protagonist, Guy Montag, is talking to his teenage neighbour, Clarisse. They live in an unspecified time in the future, where books have been outlawed, and if you are found with them, they are set on fire, along with your home and all your belongings.
Years before, people began to embrace new media, like television and film, and a faster pace of life. Books began to be abridged to accommodate the ever-shortening attention spans, while comics and sex magazines remained to feed the want for mindless entertainment. While advancements were made to make buildings from fire-proof materials, the role of firefighters evolved into the fire starters, burning books, because books were considered to be a source of depression and simply a way to complicate people’s lives.
Mildred, Guy’s wife, has attempted suicide multiple times, and is fixated on her ‘parlour wall’ which is a focus wall in your living room that is covered with flat screen televisions. It’s a misplaced source of happiness, believing a parlour wall to be envious of would be perfection, and bring contentment.
Now, I don’t know about you, but this novel is hitting a little too close to home for my taste. Sure, we have books still, but we’ve seen a steep decline in printed newspapers and bookstores closing. Social media is everywhere, and expanding in capabilities, and attention spans in Gen Z are proven to be shorter than ever. And social media is often a misplaced source of happiness, thinking that a stranger on the other end is the ticket to pleasure and fulfillment, or thinking the ideals presented are life goals for bliss. Is Guy’s world the future we’re heading towards?
If you haven’t read Emily St. John Mandel’s novel, Station Eleven, I highly recommend it. It’s based around a virus outbreak that wipes out most of the world’s population, and jumps between the past, present and future. We start in the present, at a theatre in Toronto, on the night of the outbreak, and throughout the novel the reader is taken into the future, nineteen years after the outbreak, and back into the past of the various characters’ lives. We see the course of events from when the outbreak is exposed, and how the characters process the news. In the future, we see how societies have been rebuilt, and how far removed they seem from lives only two decades before. We learn of a false prophet, kidnapping women to be his wives. And in the future, people live in small communities, amongst people they can trust, and often have to fight for safety and survival. In the past, we learn more about the characters, and how they got to the present world the novel opens with.
The novel is often characterized as science-fiction, but Mandel herself doesn’t understand that classification, and neither do I. Personally, it’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and the evolving story weaves through the characters’ lives and motivations, and creates an intriguing look at a future without the comforts and familiarities we have now. And also how we as humans interact with each other in a world where everything we knew is gone – people have to choose different ways to survive, mentally and physically, and the way Mandel outlines the world after the outbreak is an intriguing look at what happens to us when we are forced to live without what we take for granted in the present. Memories play an important part, because on one hand they comfort, but on the other, they are a painful reminder of a past that is far removed from the current reality.
The structure of Station Eleven is how I’ll be breaking up the rest of this podcast, with the past looking back at my own life as a new university student, the present looking at our current Gen Z students, and the future being, well, the future.
First, let’s take a trip back even further into the past, to take a brief look at the evolution of mental health over time. Let’s start with the witch hunts, and burning at the stake, as many people with mental illnesses were declared to be witches. (Fun Fact: redheads were thought to be witches, which also is where the myth that redheads are fiery stems from. Just to note, I’m a redhead, but rest-assured, I am neither witch, nor fiery.) From there, we move into times of Shakespeare where those who struggled with mental health were considered to be mad, and madness often got the best of people. After our dear Ophelia fell into the water, and poor Lady Macbeth rubbed furiously at that damned spot, we moved into asylums, which were, despite the name, anything but a safe haven. Residents were chained and abused, left to live in unimaginable situations and to only fall deeper into their own personal hells. At the turn of the 20th century, psychoanalysis gained popularity, where Freud brought dreams and mothers into the conversation, and Jung’s theories formed the main psychological concepts we know today. Then lobotomies and shock therapy became the fashion of mental health treatment by mid-century. In the 1970s, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy began to emerge, followed by advancements in medications and further research into mental health. More recently we’ve seen Bell Let’s Talk Day, and celebrities and people in the public eye comfortably talking about their own mental health struggles, making them seem much more relatable than in the past.
So, sufficed to say, mental health has been a bit of a taboo subject over the centuries, so it’s no surprise that it’s still a stigmatized topic today – not to mention one that is still poorly understood by many.
The Past: Xennials
When I was a fresh university student, mental health was not something that was widely talked about. There were stigmas if you took medications, and associated thoughts sometimes that something was wrong with you – both from the person taking the meds, and from those who knew you did. I don’t really remember anxiety attacks being something that was talked about or widely understood. I can’t say for sure what I would have thought back then if I saw someone having one, but my guess would be that I’d have felt uncomfortable and been unsure of what was actually happening. I remember once a girl in my grade in high school thought voices were talking to her through the radio, and with none of us understanding the intricacies of mental health, I’m shamed to say we made fun of her.
During my Xennial youth, what I knew, I basically learned from people, print or television. There was no social media. We had MSN Chat. Having the internet at home was still relatively new, with my own home only getting dial-up service about a year or so before I started university. MSN Chat, for those too young to know, was a basic messenger system, where you spoke to people in chat windows, and could join chatrooms to talk to people based on similarities like location or age. A major difference back then was there were no restrictions or checks and balances systems, so if you were a teen in a teen chatroom talking to someone, you could just as easily been talking to another teen, or a 50 year old predator. While that can still happen today, these rooms, in retrospect, were far more dangerous in some ways.
There were no sites where people posted photos of their lives, creating misguided representations of happiness and perfection. Though MySpace came along a short while after, it was pretty lame and mostly about things you liked. Celebrity lives weren’t infiltrated like they are now. In fact, only a few years earlier did we see the very basis for the reality TV we’ve come to know so well – the famous white Ford Bronco chase with OJ Simpson. It’s hard to believe, or remember now, depending on your age, that we’d never seen anything like that before. Stations like CNN and CBC News World didn’t exist. We’d never been taken into someone’s real life through our television. OJ Simpson’s case was also the first look into the courtroom in ways that Court TV and Judge Judy make so familiar now.
So, let’s think about that for a minute. What was different about how we lived lives before we discovered that delving into strangers’ lives and problems in real time, or seemingly real time, was entertaining? We had nothing to compare our lives against beyond people we knew and photos and stories in glossy magazines. And sure, there were ideals that we could hold ourselves to through the movies or those photos in those glossy magazines, but, overall, the standards of which we held ourselves to came primarily from our family and close friends. These differences play a huge role in our mental health. They relate to how we see and assess ourselves. In retrospect, we were barely inundated with messages of perfection or how to live compared to what we’d have today as teenagers.
Now, when I applied to university, I knew exactly what program I wanted, and what I wanted to do for a career. And where I work now isn’t that far off. I graduated from Wilfrid Laurier University with a double Honours Bachelor of Arts in English and Communications, and I even completed a post-graduate certificate in Communications at Sheridan College. I knew I wanted to go into public relations, and was also interested in event planning. Given that interest, I chose to take the post-grad at college for the hands-on experience to broaden my opportunities. And after I graduated, I worked in public relations and media relations for years before moving into event planning, where I’ve been for 10 years now. And, given how much I loved school and the campus environment, it’s not at all surprising that for the last 10 years I’ve also worked on post-secondary campuses.
I took full course loads of five classes per term. I even took summer classes to help balance out some electives I wanted to take that didn’t fit into my majors. I graduated in four years. And I handled it all in a healthy way.
That’s not the reality for Gen Z. The reality is that for many, five courses is too much. Is it because the work and post-secondary expectations have gotten harder? I don’t think that’s a very strong argument. But what is indeed different today is that our young people are more anxious and stressed out than ever before.
The Present: Generation Z
“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.” It’s a written quote in the future world in Station Eleven, and it’s a play off of Sartre’s quote “Hell is other people.” I was thinking of this quote, and my mind kept pulling me back to Gen Z and the mental health struggles many have. I’m not saying that Gen Z doesn’t know how to interact with real people, but there’s no question that virtual communication is a norm for them, and it can easily challenge in-person interactions for some, and for others, it conquers it. Looking online for answers is an easily misguided search for happiness and peace.
We’re not far enough removed yet to have many studies on how our technological communications have affected our mental health, but I think there are definitely some easy conclusions to be made – the lack of human to human interactions affects us as humans. I mean, as much fun as I love FaceTiming or messaging my young nephews who live a plane ride away, my heart still aches for the in-person giggles, tickles, hugs, and calling of ‘Auntie Dissa?!’. So, we can’t really be surprised that young people are suffering from more anxiety and depression than other generations at this age.
In my previous podcast, I mentioned Jean M. Twenge’s book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood* (*and What That Means for the Rest of Us). Twenge points out that compared to earlier generations at the same age, Gen Z doesn’t ‘hang out’ like previous generations did. There is a decline in statistics showing that Gen Z hangs out with other friends in person, or do mundane things like driving around with nowhere to go. When looking at grade 12 students who got together with their friends every day, or nearly every day, when I was that age it was about 50%, vs about 34% in 2014. In 2013, the time that young people spend online first converged with in-person meetings, showing that since then, more young people spend 10 or more hours a week online as opposed to spending time with friends at least four times a week.
Now, I want to be sure to clarify, that just like in my previous podcast, I’m speaking about generations on the whole. I’m not saying every single Gen Z is the same, and trust me, I’ve met some amazing students in my time here that defy many of these traits, but when looking at generational traits, you have to look at averages and the groups as a whole.
You may or may not be aware of the slow decline of the mall. If you pay attention to this kind of stuff, then you’ll know that many malls have had to shut down due to a decline in business. One that sticks out to me is Rolling Acres in Akron, Ohio. It sticks out to me because, one, I saw it on an episode of Abandoned (a show found on Viceland), and two, my husband grew up in Akron and hung out at that mall. Abandoned is a show about abandoned places (shocker, I know) and one episode was about abandoned malls in the mid- northeast. Rolling Acres is now like a ghost town, with overgrown foliage, graffiti, and with some groups of people often lurking that you don’t want to run in to. The mall opened in 1975 and closed in 2008, which, to me, is nuts that it had such a short life. Plus, it looks like it has been abandoned for much longer.
Facebook first appeared in 2004, and by 2006 it was opened up to those without a Harvard email. Twitter was founded in 2006. Instagram in 2010, with Android users having access in 2012. And Snapchat was created by students at Stanford University in 2011. If we use 1995 as the first year of Gen Z, then the first wave of Gen Z’ers entered their teens in 2008. Our current Gen Z students turned 13 in 2013. Just like grunge, making mixed tapes and recording songs off the radio, picking up videos at Blockbuster for sleepovers, and being out without anyone ever being able to call you because only landlines and payphones existed were the lives of Xennials, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat have all pretty much been the lives of Gen Z. They have grown up watching their peers lives play out online. Seeing the popular kids live an ideal life. Watching reality TV stars push agendas of beauty and excess.
In all honesty, I don’t know how I would have handled that teenage life. It was one thing to speculate on the perfection of the relationships of the popular couples at school, or what the cool kids did on Friday night, but to be able to see it play out in front of my eyes, in the ideal way social media tends to frame lives, I’m pretty sure that would have dealt some blows to my self-esteem (on top of the regular blows to self-esteem life tends to give teenagers), and almost certainly would have created anxiety about whether I was living life the way I should. And, not to mention, my embarrassing moments are left to history and memories, and maybe the odd photograph, but never to be captured by a phone in hand and uploaded immediately for all my friends, and strangers, to see.
And that point segues nicely into the fact that cyberbullying is a real issue for Gen Z. The suicide statistics for young people is alarmingly high compared to previous generations. It’s much easier for some people to hide behind screens and use that to their advantage for their sick games or to build up their own fragile egos. When you’re not face-to-face with someone, it makes it that much easier to say hurtful things, not to mention the power of the anonymity of being a faceless person behind a screen.
Twenge talks about depression in Gen Z, and the links between increased screen time and mental health. She points out a study that shows a direct correlation between teens who spend more time online reporting that they are more likely to feel unhappy than happy, and those who spend more time away from the screen report that they are more likely to be happy. More time on social media sites equates with teens feeling more lonely, which isn’t at all surprising, because even though you can connect with other people online, there’s so many factors like, do you know the other person is who they say they are, or are they just saying what you want to hear to manipulate you? Or you may know the person, but there is no question that without an in-person meeting you lack more of a meaningful connection, not to mention those basic pheromones that being by another person create, of feeling happy, safe or excited.
There were 46% more suicides by teens in 2015 than 2007. The percentage of teens reporting they feel left out, lonely, can’t do anything right, or do not enjoy life are all higher than ever. We all know what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd. More than ever, teens are turning to suicide as the answer, and even more heartbreaking is those as young as nine years old have reached the same conclusion.
So with the reports that mental health issues are at their highest now, it’s easy to relate it to screen time, but what about other factors? It could be that it’s more talked about now, with less of a stigma, so younger people feel more comfortable talking about their anxiety and depression. It could be that medicating young people for anxiety is the answer for parents, rather than looking at the root causes, like their home life, environments, and coping skills. There’s no question that our young people are more sheltered, which is something I talked about in my previous podcast. And without being taught how to problem solve and understand your feelings, anxiety issues can easily develop. In the late 90s into the early 2000s, so many kids were labeled ADD or ADHD and medicated to solve a problem, which in some cases didn’t exist. We’re not far enough removed now, and in no way am I suggesting that young people are being improperly medicated for mental health these days, but given how history repeats itself, it’s something to keep over on the side burner to be able to look at to see if it’s an issue or a non-issue. And then of course there’s just the possible reality that there is indeed an increase in poor mental health these days. And that’s a totally simple and real answer when we all live in a world where our day-to-day reality is so inundated with seeming reality.
Anxietycentre.com has an article called “Why Is Mental Illness On The Rise”. (https://www.anxietycentre.com/FAQ/why-is-mental-illness-on-the-rise.shtml) It starts out asking why there’s an increase in mental illness today if life is considered to be much easier than in the past. A study by NYU Langone Medical Center stated that more Americans than ever suffer from serious psychological distress, or SPD. SPD combines feelings of sadness, worthlessness and restlessness that are hazardous enough to impair a person’s well-being. The National College Health Assessment by CACUSS (Canadian Association of College and University Student Services) found that more students report being in distress than four years ago, that one fifth report feeling anxious, depressed, or struggling with another mental health issue, and eight per cent fewer students felt their health was good or excellent.
All these figures are disheartening, and when you look at why, the article breaks down the realities like increased parental pressures, increased use of electronic media, increased performance pressures, social media pressure, reduced face-to-face social interactions and supports, poor sleep, and overly protected children and less expectations of young people.
Now, when you put it all together like this, it looks pretty gloomy for Gen Z, and I can see how it could be taken as maybe pointing fingers or focusing on what young people may lack compared to previous generations at their ages. But as I pointed out in my Confessions podcast, our young people today are a product of the world we created. If they don’t have the same coping skills, it’s because we didn’t give them the tools to create them. If they turn to their screens too much and avoid the real world, it’s because they’ve been given a reason to find solace there. There’s no doubt that our young people are dealing with stresses and life in a way that many find difficult to cope with, but if we’re letting them continue while only providing band aid solutions, than we’re likely headed straight down that path to broken future societies like in Station Eleven, or a world where the wrong thing is labeled as the infection, like in Fahrenheit 451.
“Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt. No one delivers fuel to the gas stations or the airports. Cars are stranded. Airplanes cannot fly. Trucks remain at their points of origin. Food never reaches the cities; grocery stores close. Businesses are locked and then looted. No one comes to work at the power plants or the substations, no one removes fallen trees from electrical lines. Jeevan was standing by the window when the lights went out.”
In Station Eleven, in the present, as the outbreak is happening around him, the character Jeevan reminisces about how interconnected the world really is without us always connecting the dots. And it’s true when you start to think about it. I get to work because someone else got up and went to work to drive a bus, and someone else went to work to make that bus. I work where I work because 142 years ago a university was founded, and for the next 142 years students came to study here, and people came to work to support the students, and professors got PhDs to teach the students at this very university.
And while I’ve talked about social media and technology mostly in the way they can be harmful, we all know it isn’t all bad. The fact I can FaceTime and message with my little nephews warms my heart, because when I was their age, I’d only have had the phone or writing letters as an option, both of which aren’t great options when you’re a kid. And, quite frankly, it blows my mind that to them seeing people who live far away on a screen is the only reality they’ve ever known. Social media is a great way to keep in touch with family and friends far away, and while it’s not necessarily the best source for breaking or truthful news, it is a fun and useful news source.
Chip Heath and Dan Heath wrote a book called The Power of Moments. In it they talk about how to make the most of moments in your life, and how to make moments for others (which makes the title of their book bang on). They break down ways to make moments memorable and meaningful, and break the book up into Moments of Elevation, Moments of Insight, Moments of Pride, and Moments of Connection. I won’t get into them, but their names kind of give it away. For moments of insight, the chapter starts with an awful moment, but turns it around to how the realizations and transformations in life can deliver the best insight and meaning to help you.
If you regularly read the SA-Exchange, then you may remember a post from September 2018 titled “The Maslow/Blackfoot Connection”. We all know Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, with the pyramid levels of needs of physiological, safety, love or belonging, esteem and self-actualization. What I never knew before I read this article, was that Abraham Maslow visited some anthropologist friends at a Blackfoot reservation in Alberta before publishing his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” with the pyramid we all know, but never acknowledged the Indigenous influence on his work. This revelation floored me. On one hand, and I hate to say it, there’s no surprise in some ways that he never credited the Blackfoot teachings that influenced what became such a widely popular theory, but, on the other, here was something I’d known so well, and referenced many times, and it was kind of a fraud. And not only that, once I knew the Blackfoot teachings started with self-actualization at the bottom of the pyramid, followed by Community Actualization in the middle and Cultural Perpetuity at the top, I realized Maslow was wrong. I mean, clearly he was wrong to take the teachings uncredited and make them his own, but, he focuses on the individual, whereas the First Nations perspective is community. And, not to say that a roof over our heads and being loved isn’t important, but, if you start by knowing yourself and your place in your communities, and how to contribute, if we all lived that way, I think we’d be a happier world on the whole. Because if you know yourself, only then can you know your communities and where your talents best lie, and how to promote positive teachings and self-worth.
Maslow’s world, at its core, is what could lead us to a world like Guy Montag’s, or the future in Station Eleven where there are false prophets feeding their own needs and egos. Just like in Mandel’s novel, our past weaves together a narrative for our present, and our present is weaving together the threads that build our future.
The Here and Now
So, what do we do? Mental illnesses are at all-time highs, our young people are struggling, and we can’t get away from our screens unless we all go off grid en masse, which I think is safe to say isn’t going to happen….. Unless of course a virus wipes out most of the world and we are forced to go back to the most basic of basics like in Station Eleven.
Well, we can start by checking in on our loved ones. Even the people who look like they have it all together may not. The Robin Williams’ and Anthony Bourdains of the world put on a happy face, but inside they are lost and alone. And, hey, even if you check in with someone and they are perfectly fine, then there’s zero harm in that. Ask how someone is, and if you sense their ‘ok’ or ‘fine’ isn’t truthful, if you’re close enough, let them know you’re a safe place to let it all out if they don’t really feel like that. Or go more subtly and ask how a project they were stressing over is coming along, and open up a space for dialogue.
If a friend repeatedly turns you down to hang out, don’t take it personally or make them feel bad about it. I know, for me anyway, it just leads to feelings of guilt and feeling worse about myself because I feel I let a friend down.
For our students, ask how their classes are going. Offer resources or to sit and chat if they mention they’re stressed or struggling with a class. And, from experience, I can tell you there’s pretty much always a class causing some trouble, or some stress happening, whether it’s in balancing classes, classes and work, or just life in general. Get to know some of the students you encounter the most. Even if things are perfectly fine with them, the benefits of getting to know some of our students always exist. Speaking from experience, I’ve gotten to know some pretty amazing students over the years.
In moments of anxiety or feelings of being overwhelmed, try a few on the spot relaxers like ‘Name It, Claim It, Tame It’. This is a shorter version of something I’d been doing that my counsellor taught me – name the feeling you’re having, accept you’re feeling it, and let yourself know it’s ok to feel it. Know the feeling can’t hurt you. Know it’s a passing moment and breathe through it. Know it comes from a place of fear or sadness. Sometimes, and I know this may sound weird, but I’ve named the bad thoughts. In fact, I’ve named them Becky. Now, no offence to anyone named Becky, but it was the first name that had come to mind at the time and I told Becky to screw off. And it worked at helping calm me.
Another one I’ve tried is taking in deep breaths, and with each exhale picture a colour you’re breathing out, and keep doing it until no more colours automatically pop into your head with each exhale.
There’s the Five Things – using the five senses, count down starting with five things you can see, and working down to one thing you can taste.
Now, I get some flak for this next one, but there’s often a method to my madness. When I need to wind down at the end of the day, ridiculous television is something that helps me ‘turn off my brain’ as I say, and I fully admit, there is no greater show to turn your brain off to than The Bachelor. And for the men listening, I say, give it a try! You may find your peace in it like I do. But if you know the show will only enrage you (and trust me, I get it), then find another silly show to watch.
The Power of Moments also points out that caring and validation go a long way to making a moment. And, hey, that’s common sense really. Validate people’s fears and worries. You may not understand them, but if someone you know and care about is hurting than isn’t that what really matters? Be kind to one another. And be kind to yourself. As someone with depression I can tell you this is sometimes the hardest thing to do. I have eaten many of my emotions over the last year, and have a bunch of clothes I love that don’t fit to show for it, and, in all honesty, that just makes me feel worse about myself, especially since I’d lost a substantial amount of weight seven years ago. So the cycle continues. We all need to be kinder to ourselves and know our faults are not who we are, and to try our best to find, and keep, the tools that will help us reach that light more often than not. And as educators, we owe that to our students.
And we all need to be kinder to one another. That’s a given seeing the hate and anger in this world. For those of us in post-secondary who work with students, we can educate ourselves to see the signs of distress, and reach out in appropriate and helpful ways. There have been times I’ve shown kindness to a student who clearly was struggling, and have shared my own stories of struggle, and done my best to give them an opportunity that could help. And with those students I’ve seen them shine years later. It’s an amazing feeling, but for that student, maybe it was the difference they needed, or maybe just a step that led to another that helped.
We don’t need to have Guy Montag’s future. We don’t need to be isolated communities that fear false prophets like in Station Eleven. We can evolve into a more loving society, without misplaced fears. It’s a lot of work, but if we start with kindness, and helping our young people connect in person, experience meaningful moments, and providing them the tools to manage their lives to put anxieties and depression and other mental illnesses at bay enough to function and have a life that is more often happy than unhappy, or filled with love rather than loneliness, then, those little steps are what will build our future and weave our present threads together into a whole.
Thank you for listening.
Music by OMFG and Benjamin Tissot
Special thanks to the University of Manitoba campus radio station, UMFM, for once again helping me record my podcast. Check them out at umfm.com.