Thursday 8 September is R U OK? Day. The occasion reminds us that checking in with friends and family is one of the most important things we can do to help a person who may be dealing with mental health issues. If something does not seem quite right, or we have noticed changes in behaviour, taking the time to reach out and ask the right questions can make a difference.
When done well, these connections help get perspective in a difficult time. It is important to listen and not to judge someone’s distress. Reassure people that we are there to listen and to help them get through the struggle. Allow time and space for them to respond in their own way. Ask open questions that give them agency to respond eg I notice … I am worried about you. R U OK?... How can we get you the help you need to find other ways to cope? Is there someone you trust who can help with this? Just having someone listen can increase our sense of belonging and we all need to feel that we belong. There is more information on www.ruok.org.au
Contrary to what we sometimes think, most young people are well. Most manage and regulate their emotions well. Young people are more at home with showing affection. There is some data that this generation is more moral, generous, brighter, and relational than earlier ones. Young people and families receive a lot of education about mental health issues. Many know the signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety. Most realise that experiences can be overwhelming and the way we reflect on them and the advice we get influences whether we use good or poor ways to cope. This affects how we recover from stress.
Children do have developmental challenges which are a normal part of growing up. A good sense of belonging and secure attachments contributes to wellbeing. This is true for all of us students, staff and parents. Most people have good attachment styles. There is small group who are avoidant who tend to be self-reliant and avoid intimacy. There is another small group who are insecure who tend to need more reassurance and are likely to experience anxiety and jealousy more readily than others.
Lots of families struggle with relationships and most manage to hold together and to tend, mend and befriend. Bullying affects a person’s sense of attachment. Schools and families need to be havens of care and connection where trust, forgiveness, integrity, hope and compassion are key values.
Positive psychology supports wellbeing and seeks approaches that enable young people and their families to flourish. It is a move away from responding to illness and crisis to prevention and early intervention. Being grateful and respectful are essential aspects of wellbeing. Gratitude enables us to see things as blessings and as gifts. Respect involves appreciating others’ strengths; no matter how different they may be to our own. This is closely related to inclusivity and hospitality. Acceptance appreciates the different stages that people go through in their way and at their pace. Respect also involves taking people seriously enough to challenge their perplexing choices so they make better ones. We cannot accept the unacceptable.
Some adolescents go through a stage where they think everyone is against them especially teachers and parents. They may find it easier to blame, excuse and deny; the journey to ownership, accountability and responsibility is a serious one. They may be hostile. At these times, adults need to remember to be supportive and to bring out the best side of the child rather than react to his or her prickly behaviour. They have to disentangle what a person has done from who they are.
Male adolescence can see brief periods of acting out with risk taking, substance experimentation, disobedience, non-compliance to norms, increased tribalism and the like. In socio-biology terms, this is pseudo plumage behaviour. Some say up to 40 percent of Year 11 and 12s experience a level of anxiety on occasion. For most it is a transient experience and they recover quickly. Exercise, good diet, sleep, humour, genuine conversations, fun sports, and caring for others are helpful protective factors.
The brain matures gradually and the frontal lobes where judgement and planning occur are not fully developed in adolescence. There can be impulsive decisions without the proper checks. The young brain is still working out who we are. Most adults make decisions about risk in terms of how dangerous something is and what is the pay off. Developing brains inflate the pay offs and take risks that wiser heads would not.
Much online behaviour does not have wiser heads to guide and protect. This is a generation that is information rich but experience poor. It is easy to retreat from reality, and to hide in screens.
Jesuit pedagogy makes much of the relationship between experience and reflection. Taking the time to feel, to be aware, to track what is happening, to concentrate, to be mindful, to plan, to work out priorities, to discern with others are so necessary to process the emotions that go with intense experiences.
Fr Peter Hosking SJ has been Rector of St Aloysius' College, Milsons Point, NSW, since 2011. This is an edited version of an article that appears in this week's edition of the college newsletter, The Gonzagan.