Issues of teen stress and anxiety, suicide, bullying, drug use and internet safety are top concerns among parents today. Sheri Gazitt is the founder of Teen Wise, an organization that provides life coaching, workshops, presentations and one-to-one coaching for middle and high school students. We recently spoke with her about these topics and what she’s seeing and hearing directly from teens.
Question: The latest Healthy Youth Survey conducted by the Superintendent of Public Instruction and other state agencies revealed an increasing percentage of students in Washington experience significant anxiety or have contemplated suicide. Do these numbers surprise you? Are they consistent with what you are seeing and hearing in your work?
Answer: These numbers are sad but not at all surprising. Anxiety and stress often go hand in hand. Anxiety and stress seem to be something that we have accepted as the norm for our youth these days. It also starts much younger than in the past. In my coaching practice, which focuses on stress, I see girls as young as eight years old. They are worried about tests, homework, friendships, fitting in, and living up to the high standards that we are setting for them.
The numbers that we need to be most concerned about, though, are the number of teens with a suicide plan and who have attempted suicide. The numbers are staggering and brought tears to my eyes. The thought of a young person with a life of possibilities and choices ahead of them feeling so helpless that they want to give up is devastating.
Unfortunately, mental illness begins to emerge during puberty, which is the same time that they are going through so many changes and experiencing so much confusion. At a time when we should be lending them more support in all areas of life, we actually expect more from them and expect independence to emerge overnight.
Question: What can our schools do better to help address the significant mental health challenges we are seeing in teens today? Also, what are some promising practices that you are already seeing in our schools and would like to see more of?
Answer: The schools and teachers cannot be the primary source of mental health triage for our teens. However, the school environment could make changes that would increase the likelihood of teens reaching out for help if needed. The same changes would decrease stress and anxiety for our students. That one change is to create an atmosphere where our youth feel their overall well-being is just as important as grades. This doesn’t mean that teachers can’t be demanding in their standards of excellence or that they should coddle the students. It means that they understand that their students are people. They aren’t machines or robots that trod through life unscathed by demands. It means that teachers understand that there is life outside of school. It means encouraging questions and divergent thinking. It means staying above the fray of student life. In my book, teachers are heroes and have boundless energy to be in a classroom all day in front of their students.
Although paraphrased, this is a real-life example of how a teacher recently introduced a new assignment.
TEACHER: [The teacher chuckles as she says this.] “Now this is a tough assignment. In the past, a lot of students have had trouble with it. They came in to ask me questions and I told them they had to figure it out on their own.”
This tells the students that they’ll struggle, they won’t get help, and the teacher thinks it is funny. The teacher could have said “This next assignment is really tough. You might struggle with it, but I know that you can handle it on your own. You might have some questions but I’d like you to try and work it out for yourselves. If you get stuck, though, you can come and talk to me.” This is bolstering the students’ confidence and growth mindset rather than setting them up for anxiety. Because when students feel that teachers care, they put forth more effort in that class.
Another important change is to have the counselors interacting with the kids on a more regular basis. I don’t mean in the form of more lectures or class presentations. Instead, more class discussions and dialogues. The counselor can come into the classroom and start a discussion about stress or sadness or homework load. Starting these discussions gives the students a chance to talk about it and to hear support and compassion from the counselors.
Right now, from what I hear in the trenches, students don’t see the counselors as approachable. Students are concerned about confidentiality and getting in trouble, and they don’t feel the counselors will make much difference. There is also an issue of counselor availability. When a student comes to a counselor about a problem, it’s taken forethought, contemplation, and courage. If they get to the counselor office only to be told to come back later, that moment of courage is gone. This is a shame because I know that counselors care.
One approach that has been making a huge difference in schools is Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). Ironically, it seems that the biggest difference comes when it is embraced by the staff. It’s almost like the teachers and staff are given permission to show compassion and empathy for their students. Rather than punishing it becomes teaching. Rather than showing annoyance by missing homework they ask “why”. When a student acts up, they can consider the emotions involved rather than automatically reaching for the detention slip. One thing that I hear teens talk about quite often is that they feel like they aren’t supposed to show any emotions in the halls of school. SEL shows our youth to embrace, acknowledge, and understand their emotions rather than suppress them.
Question: What about parents? If you could give parents just a few quick tips on how to get started – to help them better understand the emotional climate our teens experience – what would you tell them?
Answer: Our youth are stressed to the max which can lead to so many other issues-anxiety, suicidal thoughts, depression, withdrawal. Much of the stress comes from academic pressures and expectations that are put upon our children from society, teachers, parents, media, and from within. From a young age, we have our children in extra tutoring, extra coaching, lessons for sports, extra testing to get into better programs, tutoring for testing, music lessons, etc. It’s a self-induced rat race.
Maybe parents can’t change society, but they can set the tone in their own household. Don’t buy into the notion that your child needs to be the best of the best at everything. Don’t buy into the notion that being stressed out, sleep deprived and miserable is just a part of being a teenager. And don’t buy into the notion that your child won’t be successful without a 4.5 GPA, 200 hours of volunteer work, 15 AP classes, and five sports championships. Grit, passion, creativity, and the willingness to learn and grow are the essential qualities of someone who will be successful. Become an ally in your child’s growing up process. Encourage learning, failure, and growth rather than expecting perfection. Ask about your child’s well-being before asking about their grades.
Question: A recent Netflix series – “13 Reasons Why” – had received a lot of attention and viewership. Some mental health experts have expressed serious concerns that the show may pose a risk for some teens, particularly those thinking about suicide or self-harm. Are you concerned? What do parents need to know?
This series brings up so many issues- consent, suicide, popularity, sexuality, violence, fitting in, and gossip just to name a few. These issues are intense, the scenes are graphic, and the overall message is one of hopelessness.
For teens who are currently considering suicide, this series can put them over the edge. The character that commits suicide in this show is getting revenge on the people who wronged her, she’s controlling people’s action post mortem, and the whole school is talking about her. It glorifies suicide and, because of flashback scenes with her, it does not show the finality of death. Her suicide notes create almost a game-like scenario with her classmates visiting certain locations around town and doing certain things she tells them to.
My biggest concern is that students are watching this unsupervised and with no follow up discussions. It isn’t just a discussion about suicide either. It’s a discussion about the other issues in the show. Perhaps what is the most dangerous about “13 Reasons Why” is the message that adults are helpless, clueless, and unsupportive. Every time an adult was involved, nothing positive came of it. The counselors were non-direct and aloof. The parents were demanding and not understanding. The school made no changes. All in all, the viewers walk away with the sense that teenage life sucks, adults are completely unaware of the challenges, there is no way to get help, and you are helpless to make any changes.
I would suggest that parents find out if their child has watched this show. Start a conversation about it (not a lecture). Ask them their thoughts, their feelings, their takeaways. Let them know that they can come to you no matter what difficulties they are having. Let them know that they would not be in trouble. And let them know that you love them fully and unconditionally.