Well, term 4 starts tomorrow and it is Mental Health Awareness Week. I was wondering what wisdom I could share as a counsellor working in a school. By that I mean, what can I say that isn’t already googleable (no…that is definitely not a word).
Maybe that’s a good point to start with. There is sooooo much information online about mental health and unhealth/illness, that sometimes I wonder if young people actually come and talk to me with their diagnosis already sorted for them thanks to some online questionnaires. Not that this is bad or wrong but I get the feeling sometimes EVERY bad feeling or upset is being searched and the worst case scenario picked out. But I also acknowledge how distressing feeling intensely anxious, depressed, or hopeless can be. For some people it is a daily struggle to keep going and I know they are often the ones not talking to someone, not reaching out and quietly suffering.
I think it’s important to realise feeling sad, angry, upset, worried, anxious in themselves is not a mental health diagnosis. Stress is also really normal, and freaking out over exams, feeling overwhelmed by stuff is part of the roller coaster of life. Sometimes I wonder if the happiness bar has been set too high, everyone expects to be feeling good, happy, ecstatic, sweet as. But I reckon a more accurate description of a good mental health indicator is if you feel ‘meh’ to ok-alright. That’s kind of the base-line for most people, but for some reason people start freaking out if they aren’t happy, joyful, excited and loving life 24/7!
So I want to put some balance back in the picture of mental health. Freak outs about speeches, exams, performances, other things like that are common, normal things. Feeling tired, worn out and mentally fatigued after a term of manic internals is understandable. Breaking down, being devastated, upset, by things like death, illness, any sudden grief or loss is healthy and natural.
My hope for this week is that the conversations about mental health acknowledge the vast range of normal emotions – including the not so pleasant ones, because without them we get out of balance and that is where the trouble begins. Dealing with abuse, bullying, harassment, significantly impacts on mental health. Worry about gender or sexuality as well, so if you are worried about any of those things yourself or about a friend – talk to someone, try a school counsellor – just take one for a couple of test drives and see how it goes. Or contact someone like youthline.
Hope everyone has a great first week back.
Today I talked with four different young people about some pretty big stuff. Three guys in a row were trying to figure out how to talk to family about what there were going through. One had already tried and had been told they were ‘wrong about themselves’. Another had shared parts and the third was wondering about how to ease Mum and Dad into the bigger picture.
Seeing a counsellor at school can be pretty daunting, so it was really great when one guy said ‘wassup bro’ as he left in a friendly acknowledgement to the other guy waiting to see me. It was a simple transaction of recognition that left me feeling at peace and sad that others might be out there without a support network.
The thing is I’m working at an ‘all girls’ school and these guys are all on their own unique journeys of gender identity but all of them see themselves as male. It is interesting listening to what their main needs and concerns are about school, compared to what I hear teachers and parents sometimes naming as the ‘big issues’. Sometimes they overlap but I’d like to share just a couple of simple things that have come through generally from school students. This is by no means a checklist but might help as a starting point:
- Understand that how someone identifies in terms of gender/sex does not determine their sexuality. Who people are into might change, it might not. There is no ‘formula’ for balancing it all out into some kind of common expression.
- Asking personal questions about people’s bodies and ‘parts’ and whether they are going to have (or have had) surgery is not cool – neither is trying to ‘feel’ what’s down there! Looking up horror stories online and sharing can be traumatic and upsetting. Asking what pronouns or names people prefer is a more respectful and easy way to show acceptance and support. You can also look at supporting someone to talk to a GP about options, for example, getting onto hormones that help the body change gears and become more like the preferred sex/gender.
- Recognise they are the same person so, if they come out as trans*, they do not get some other downloaded identity and show up the next day a completely different person. Keep calm and carry on what you talked about the day before – also respect their privacy – do not tell people unless they have said it’s ok – but I’d still be careful.
- Get some GOOD information – go to the RainbowYOUTH website or check out whatever local LGBT+ support services you have. Remember, if you go to overseas sites for information, it might not apply to New Zealand.
- Finally – for parents: Young people want to protect parents from hurt and upset, but they also want your support and it’s ok to be confused, not understand or not know how to respond. Something I encourage any parent to do is to notice the clues young people give about the sexuality or gender and not to dismiss them. ASK: ‘Are you questioning your sexuality?’ ‘Are you questioning your gender?’ Hugs are a good response and so are tears – hugs also allow you to talk while not looking at the person, a handy and often overlooked benefit. Get support, again RainbowYOUTH has excellent resources. Maintaining privacy is really important. In my role as a counsellor, one of the biggest differences to the well-being of young trans people is parent support, and there IS support for parents.
While big changes like bathrooms and uniform options are important, it is in the daily trans-actions we have with each other that respect and support are generated.
Have you ever sent or posted a picture of someone (possibly yourself) and then wished you could jump in a time machine and go back and tell your past self ‘nooooooo don’t do it’. What about someone hacking your account and finding those ‘awkward’ pictures then threatening to post them? Maybe you haven’t personally experienced either of these but I talk with lots of young people who have found the digital world can be pretty unforgiving when it comes to personal stuff.
I don’t think I have any pictures of me at parties as a teen. I don’t think I could have focussed the camera all that well while dancing. My youth is secretly stashed away in a photo album at my parents house, lucky me. But a lot of young people have very personal, intimate and what many older people might consider ‘private’ pictures shared online. Up until recently the law said very little about what made for offensive harmful communication online. We have finally caught up and there is a new Harmful Digital Communications Act that has been passed. I’ve also been chatting to the police a bit about what they reckon are some of the important ways young people can keep safe in the digital world. Here is what I think are the key points.
• Once you send an image of yourself to anyone or post it anywhere online regardless of your expectation of being private you lose control of that image – it can go ANYWHERE
• Your facebook profile pictures are easy to ‘take’ and use elsewhere
• If you send any picture of someone under 16 and they are naked, partially clothed – ‘sexualised’ it might be considered sharing child pornography – regardless of ‘consent’
• Taking pictures of someone in public while technically not a crime – if those pictures are used without someone’s consent it might be considered a harmful communication
• There are places you can’t film or take pictures because people might reasonably expect privacy (bedroom, bathroom, changing rooms)
• There are 10 points that make a digital communication harmful – it must not:
a. disclose sensitive personal facts
b. be threatening, intimidating, or menacing
c. be grossly offensive to a reasonable person in the same position
d. be indecent or obscene
e. be used to harass
f. make a false allegation
g. contain things published in breach of confidence
h. incite or encourage anyone to send a message to someone to purposely cause harm
i. incite or encourage someone to commit suicide
j. put someone down (denigrate) for their colour, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability
I think it’s great that people’s right to dignity, respect and mana are being considered when it comes to our online lives. But having laws probably wont stop all harm, just like having drink drive or speed laws doesn’t make the road safe. If you do get stuck or are not sure what to do, talk to someone at school or contact netsafe. They can guide you as to what to do. If you know someone is feeling stressed or worried about any of the above support them to get help coz we can all make mistakes right? I really like this website ‘share this instead’ as it gives some great ways to respond if someone is putting the pressure on to send nudes. Check it out.
I like the grandparent test myself – if you wouldn’t want your grandma/kuia or grandpa/koro to see or read it then do not post it!