Nova has been a popular addition to the blogs. Her first offering was so well received that over 95% said they wanted her to write a regular contribution. So, after a restful holiday season, Nova has told me she has some new insights to share. She even said she was willing to talk about a bit of her trauma history.
Holidays are a time for giving and receiving gifts. But sometimes the best gifts are in the unexpected surprises of any celebration. Jumping in and out of a gift bag brings joy and surprise to everyone. Nova wants to encourage everyone to try and find joy in the unexpected.
After all the holiday celebrations, when all the decorations are put away and the house is cleaned, rest is important. Nova wants to remind everyone that scheduling in a good period of rest is healthy.
Nova became an orphan early in her life. She was born at a car dealership sales lot, and her mom was hit by a car only a few weeks into her life. She was quickly whisked away into an adoptive home. Nova still has periods of sadness when she thinks about her loss. But she wants to remind everyone that waves of grief are a normal part of coping with loss.
Hiding might be either good or bad. If we hide to bring surprise, that joy might be good. Of course, our impulsive leaps might scare someone and prompt an unexpected yell. This might cause the second type of hiding: covering up from shame. But if we hide out of shame, we must work on our vulnerability. Nova likes the work of Brene Brown, who suggests one of our tools for healing our shame is reaching out, “Are you owning and sharing your story? We cannot experience empathy if we are not connecting.”
Nova asks, “Do you have a safe place?” Where do you go to process your experiences and feelings? Do you have a space, like a comfy bed, or do you go to a place in your mind? Nova recommends having a safe space. Nova’s is a comfy bed by the window, which is especially nice when the warm sun moves across it in the morning.
In marriage therapy work, one of the listening and connection skills we practice is sharing our feelings/experiences and validating our partner’s experiences. This is a fundamental building block of relationships, and it can lead to significant communication complications when it breaks down. Let me give you some examples of how it can break down.
Husband (H): I am upset and angry that you spent so much time on the phone with your mother when we had plans to go out with friends. It made us late. I hate being late. I guess you care about your mother more than me.
Wife (W): I hear that you are angry. You just don’t get it. My mom needed me. You have never liked her anyway.
H: Now you are just turning this on me. Always blaming me and never apologizing.
W: I might try to apologize if you were nicer to my mother and me. Don’t you remember how you treated her last Christmas?
(The conflict escalates here as the couple no longer discusses the original problem).
Here is a second example.
Wife (W):I felt alone and rejected last Tuesday when you got home so late. I had no idea that you planned to watch the game with friends. I had supper ready for us, and honestly, I was planning to watch the game with you after we ate.
Husband (H):I can see being lonely. But what do you mean rejected? I am home with you every night. I have not been out with friends for over two months. It was Steve’s birthday. Maybe I should have texted you to remind you, but I told you about these plans on Sunday. It makes me angry that you are accusing me of rejecting you.
W:You never told me about these plans on Sunday. I was out with the kids most of the day, so we were never really together on Sunday. You think you communicate, but you don’t.
H: You never listen to me. We were standing right there in the kitchen. You even told me to have a good time. Honestly, your accusations make me not want to spend any time with you because I can never get it right.
(You can also imagine how this little exchange only gets worse).
I want to present a model for how to have these conversations calmly, improve your connections, and reduce the intensity of conflict. In the example above, the couples do an excellent job of starting with sharing their feelings. These are good “I” statements. And the response of their spouses begins well. You might even say they were validating because they at least “parroted” back what their partner said. “I can see being lonely,” or “I hear that you are angry.”
But each partner quickly switches into a defensive mode of blaming or playing the victim. These words of accusation and victimhood undo any sense of validation between the couple, and it severs their connections. At this point, it becomes a tit-for-tat explosion.
Validation requires two components:
Make sure your partner feels heard. Use your own words.
Taking ownership of the problem or offense. Admit what you did that caused the offense.
Let me show you a better validation from each of the examples above. In the first example, it could have sounded like this:
W: I know it made you mad for me to spend so much time on the phone with my mom. Being late has never been your favorite thing and it probably made you embarrassed that all our friends were there waiting on us when we arrived. (The wife has been on the phone for a long time, and she summarizes her partner’s feelings in her own words.)
In the second example, the husband could have started here:
H:I regret that you were lonely and even felt unimportant when I didn’t come home. I want to spend time together, too. I thought I had told you it was Steve’s birthday, but somehow, I failed to make sure you knew about these plans. It might have helped for me to text you during the day to make sure we were on the same page. (Again, he used his own words but also offers a bit of what he wished he had done differently).
So these modifications are suitable, but often, in any problem, there are two perspectives. The partner who offers validation can end up asking in their mind, “Well, what about me? When does my partner understand me?”
This is where the often missed step of “Taking a Breath” is omitted. If you look back to the original examples, the spouse who got defensive was using their failed validation as an attempt to present their viewpoint/feelings/perspective. This is a “cart before the horse” scenario. Breathing is the secret to reaching a point where both partners are heard.
Here is how it works. Imagine that each partner in the examples above gives the improved “edited” validations I offered. After saying those validations, they want to get confirmation from their partner that they feel understood. They might say something like, “Yes, thank you.” Or “I appreciate your understanding.” There might be some nonverbal confirmation of a smile or relaxing sigh. If you are unsure if your partner feels you “get it,” you can always ask, “Do you think I understand?” If you receive confirmation, you can take a breath and offer your feelings/perspective.
So, let’s rework the above conversations with the Validation-Breathe cycle and see how they improve and how both partners feel heard and respected.
Husband (H): I am upset and angry that you spent so much time on the phone with your mother when we had plans to go out with friends. It made us late. I hate being late. I guess you care about your mother more than me. (This last statement is a criticism and not appropriate. But if the spouse does the validation, it will help settle any anger).
Wife (W):I know it made you mad for me to spend so much time on the phone with my mom. Being late has never been your favorite thing and it probably made you embarrassed that all our friends were there waiting on us when we arrived. (The wife owns being on the phone for so long, and she summarizes her partner’s feelings in her own words).
H: You are right; I was embarrassed. Thank you for understanding.
W:I felt trapped that night. I knew we needed to be leaving, but my mom was really struggling with a serious problem. I know my mom is difficult, and I don’t even like dealing with her all the time, but she is my mom, and I am the only support she has right now.
H:Trapped. Like you were feeling pressure from both me and your mom?
H:I can see that. I am not sure how we could have solved that situation better, but from now on I can try to be more understanding of how hard it might be to have to be the only source of support for you mom.
W: Thank you.
Wife (W): Last Tuesday, I felt alone and rejected when you got home so late. I had no idea that you planned to go watch the game with friends. I had supper ready for us, and honestly, I was making plans to watch the game with you after we ate.
H: I regret that you were lonely and even felt unimportant when I didn’t come home. I want to spend time together, too. I thought I had told you that it was Steve’s birthday, but somehow, I failed to make sure you knew about these plans. It might have helped for me to text you during the day to make sure we were on the same page.
H: (a bit unsure of what his wife is feeling) Do you think I understand what you are trying to say?
W: Yes. I am sorry. I appreciate you hearing me.
H: I was a bit confused today when you brought this up since I thought I had communicated with you. Again, I may have not give you the message clearly. I appreciate that you wanted to spend time together because I want the same thing. Can we try again and find a time to schedule?
W: I agree we somehow missed each other in communicating plans. Can we just plan for this next game night to be our time to watch the game together?
H: Yes, I cannot wait.
Pausing and taking a breath are a couple of small ways to enhance validation and connection in your marriage. Those “little things” create a space of safety between the two of you. Pause and breathe, slow down the process, and keep you from rushing into sharing your feelings/experiences. Intimacy requires both partners to feel understood. Love chooses not to rush the process – “It [Love] does not insist on its own way.” (I Corinthians 13:5, NRSV)
Nova, the #TherapyCat Nova is the current pet resident (therapist) in our home. We have had many pets in our home through the years, but none have been more interested in the therapeutic happenings of our home than Nova. For many of you who have been in therapy sessions with Dr. DeYoung, you have sometimes witnessed her joining me for our sessions. Please know you have no worries about her breaking any confidence, and she is entirely HIPAA compliant. She has received all the necessary training and certifications to ensure the trustworthy handling of your stories.
Nova is relatively young. As of this writing, she is only 18 months old, but she is a fast learner and has developed quite a few therapeutic insights that might be a bit wiser than her years. She asked if she could offer some occasional tidbits of wisdom about mental health on this blog, and I agreed to give her a shot. She is on a bit of a “short leash” (cats don’t like leashes), so if this first effort goes well, we might let her come back with a few more things to say.
So here she is, Nova, the #TherapyCat.
Here is Nova observing her world from a perch high above. Nova says you sometimes need to rise above the chaos to see things more clearly. She also recommends waiting patiently in this new space before reacting. We all need time outs.
Nova is a firm believer in getting her rest. There is nothing wrong with finding the most comfortable spot while you recharge.
Nova is a trauma survivor. She is not quite ready to share the details of her early life traumas; she has learned something about threats. Sometimes, when assessing a threat, it is essential to change your perspective, seek a new vantage point, and recognize from your new viewpoint that the danger is not so threatening.
Though Nova is an indoor cat only, she highly recommends the outdoors and getting exercise for your mental well-being. She soaks up the rays from the outdoors every chance she gets. Nova says being in the sun and getting some Vitamin D is good for your emotional well-being.
Lastly, Nova recalls the work of the renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. She says play increases her experience of Flow. She encourages us to play more because it is good for our bodies and minds.
My work with couples involves frequent discussions of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the “decision not to make the offender pay for the offense.” It is a decision made in a moment but lived out over time by treating the offender as having no debt. There are volumes of books written on this topic, and this little blog cannot address all the facets of this challenging choice. But I want to focus on a little moment in the forgiveness process. I want to look at the initial moment of the decision. I want to zoom in microscopically on the brief microseconds in which the decision is made.
There are a few assumptions I am making when writing about this process.
There are two types of forgiveness: one where reconciliation is impossible and one where we work toward reconciliation. Reconciliation is the restoration of the relationship and the granting of mutual trust. When this cannot happen, the decision to forgive is personal and only for the benefit of the person experiencing the injury. Therefore, we will focus on scenarios where reconciliation is the goal, which can only occur where…
The offender has taken complete responsibility for the offense. We cannot offer trust where the offender has not accepted ownership for the injury or betrayal.
Both parties commit to making sacrifices to make the relationship work and function in new ways—protecting the relationship from future injury.
Now I want to zoom into the brief microsecond time in which the injured person decides to forgive and move into the stages of reconnection and reconciliation. It is a moment of birth and new life being given to something approaching death.
I want to use a relatively minor injury as an example. I use this example because it occurs in most relationships. So we can all easily understand, I am also using gender-neutral language in the model so we don’t get distracted by our gender biases.
The forgotten commitment. The weekend is approaching, and this married couple is discussing their schedules and expectations for the weekend on a Thursday evening. Unfortunately, this Saturday is not looking to be very restful for either of them. One agrees to take the children to their soccer games in the morning, while the other plans to run shopping errands after mowing the grass early. One of the kiddos has a friend’s birthday party that afternoon while the other younger child needs to nap. The parent who agreed to stay home needed the parent to pick up an essential gift for their evening plans. This spouse (staying home) was responsible for organizing the retirement gift for their boss, who was retiring after 20 years. The gift was ready for pickup this Saturday, and the partner out at the party agreed to pick up the gift. As the couple was getting ready to leave for the retirement party that evening, they both realized the gift pickup had been forgotten. A massive argument ensued. “You are always forgetting…you never seem to care about what is important to me.” “You never reminded me…I never wanted to go to this stupid party because I hate your boss and coworkers.” Feelings of hurt and betrayal lingered through the night and into the next day.
Imagine being a fly on the wall as this couple attempts to process the argument from the night before. In an ideal world, the hurt spouse would share their feelings and experiences. The offending spouse would validate and take ownership of the injury and offer a corrective action plan for future events. But these discussions could be better, and I want us to recognize that it is most likely related to what happens in a fraction of a second decision. In those twinkling moments, we need to decide–what will we do with POWER?
In the case of our story above, the spouse whose important gift was forgotten has gained the leverage of power. Their partner needed to remember. This created a debt that needed to be repaid. Obligations create power differences. This spouse holds power over their partner and now must decide what to do. There are many ways to make the perpetrator pay–Rejection, criticism, shaming, reminding them of this, and past failures. The list could go on. But the decision in the blink of an eye is whether to sentence the offender or surrender the right. Forgiveness is a surrender that takes the tension out of the room. Power becomes peace.
In my book, Revolutionary Marriage, I share how experiencing moments of forgiveness is like staring into the vastness of eternity. Living in the burdens of this world and time constraints, we often feel pressured. There is tension. Forgiveness releases these weights for even a moment, and we can experience the breath of an eternal, truly free reality. There is no freedom when power is applied. Obligations pile on top of each other, and we keep score.
So when the offended spouse says, “I forgive you. It is all right that you forgot, and we will solve this problem.” They sacrifice their power, offering freedom to their partner. Freedom breeds new life.
But what does the offender do with that freedom? They also have a decision to make in a flash. Do they use their new life to usurp power and continue to take advantage? Should the perpetrator use this gift to their advantage? Maybe they feel entitled, “You need to forgive me because of all the things you have done recently.” Perhaps they feel defensive, “You need to forgive me because you are always making too big a deal of things.” Freedom creates the opportunity to have power over others. But just like their offended partner, they must sacrifice their power. They must submit.
So the offender says, “I am thankful for your forgiveness. You are my priority, and I should not have forgotten. Next time you need me to remember, I will write myself a reminder to help ensure I don’t forget.”
By abandoning power, both partners take a significant risk. The offended spouse risks future injury. Forgiveness loosens the chains of control and contempt, and by offering freedom, their partner may hurt or fail them again—the perpetrator of the injury risks failing in the future. Through submission, they make themselves accountable for change.
It is in freedom and change that new life is born. In a flash of forgiveness, a breath of life-sustaining air is given to the marriage.
Postscript — This reminds us of our assumptions earlier in this blog post. This risk of forgiveness and submission only works in the context of a marriage where there is a commitment by both partners to maintain trust and reconcile their commitments to each other. There have to have been patterns of reciprocal sacrifice. Suppose there is long-standing contempt, threats of divorce, substance abuse, violence, ongoing affairs, and any other significant betrayal. In that case, getting those addressed in a safe therapeutic environment is essential. Seek counsel with a qualified mental health professional. Allow the hard work in that context to create fertile soil for healthier practices like the one described above.
May is mental health awareness month. And to contribute to our collective awareness of mental health, I want to discuss a current crisis. I honestly don’t use those words flippantly. The mental health of our preadolescent and teenage students in our country is in severe decline. I want to share with you some statistics that show this drastic decline and challenge us to rise as a community to support our most fragile groups.
In February 2023, the CDC released a shockingreport about teenage suicide in America. Suicide rates reached an all-time high in 2018, and though there was a slight decline in the next couple of years, in 2021, rates jumped again to reach an all-time high. Of particular concern is the level of hopelessness among our younger generations. Just a few statistics from that report:
60% of teenage girls reported feeling persistently hopeless in 2021
1 in 3 teen girls had seriously considered suicide
1 in 5 teen girls had experienced sexual violence in the past year.
14% reported being forced to have sex. Please stop and ponder that number. Over 1 in 10 girls reported being sexually assaulted. Remember, the vast majority of sexual assaults go unreported. Also, boys are the perpetrators of these assaults. What is going on with our young men that this seems to be more of normal behavior and expectation for them?
In a global survey of over 400,000 teens, only 22% reported being close to their family.
When we see statistics like that, many want to jump to conclusions about the cause. Please don’t be too quick to blame COVID or social media. Most experts in this area say COVID was a stressor that split open cracks already well formed in our society. However, some fair blame can be directed toward smartphones, screens, and social media.
Jonothan Haidt, a psychologist, has begun publishing data that strongly implicates social media with the rise of anxiety and depression in teenagers, specifically teen girls. His work is extensive, and I would point you to this website for a deeper review. But, the most significant conclusion from his work is a definitive turn in mental health among our teenagers with the introduction of the front-facing camera on smartphones (we can now take endless selfies) and the rise of Instagram. These both happened around 2012. The data is obvious, and though Dr. Haidt has faced pushback on his data analysis (this is part of science), the skeptics need more stable ground in their arguments. So, we can put some blame on screens and social media. But from my perspective as a therapist, we continue to mishandle this problem. Our first mistake has been that we adults have drowned ourselves in social media as adults. We could have been better examples. Our kids witness us scrolling, posting, and commenting as frequently or even more than they are engaged with their social media apps. Children learn from watching their parents. No child development expert would disagree with that statement. And we need to be honest. We have been bad examples. We should work on setting better boundaries with our use of social media. I would love for such a cultural movement to abandon social media so dramatically that the billions these companies are raking in from selling us as a product dries up. It is a bit of a pipe dream, but I can dream, can’t I?
Secondly, as parents, we have attempted to manage the phone, screen time, and social media through a punishment/reward system. My bias is that punishments/rewards as a primary form of parenting are ineffective. They can have short-term value, but there are far more effective ways to parent. We need to stop taking phones or relying on router parental controls as the sole means to manage our child’s screen time. Instead, we need to be having conversations about screen time. It starts with a relationship. Why does your kid like TikTok? What videos do they enjoy on social media? Do you watch them together? Do you have a relationship with your child outside of TV and other screens? Do you go on walks or eat meals without screens? Do you play games (not video games) together? If you want to read a classic about this kind of relational parenting, read Dr. Haim Ginott’s Between Parent and Child.
Let me suggest a bit more controversial source of this mental health crisis. GUNS. School shootings have significantly increased.* In the 1970s, there were approximately 60s deaths nationwide from school-related shooting incidents. We are currently on track to have over 400 school-related shooting deaths this decade. These numbers have only increased since the 1970s. Lockdown drills are common practice for all ages in public schools. Young elementary children know that lockdown drills are designed to keep them safe from an active shooter on their campus. Many express significant fears and anxiety, knowing this is a constant reality.
My wife is a public school teacher. If I had the time and space to explain the procedures, rules, and expectations they must keep in mind for these lockdown drills, it would overwhelm all of us. Teachers are evaluated in their handling of lockdown drills. During drills, people go around wiggling locked doors. Children hear what it will sound like if a gunman is walking the halls. This is practiced stress and trauma. Now look, we used to have fire drills in school. The fire alarm would go off, and we would celebrate a break from our work while we walked outside. But during those drills, we were not walking through simulated smoke, seeing fire trucks, or feeling the heat of an actual fire. But in gunman lockdown drills, children are pressed to “remain silent” so they are not heard, and then in the silence, a door is wiggled, attempted to open. For all children, this is stressful, but for a sensitive child, this repeated lived-out terror.
As I write this blog, I feel inclined to write a much longer blog about guns and mental health. That will come in July 2023. But let me say for this post that our cultural obsession with firearms harms us. The late game theorist Anatol Rapoport illustrated that conflict will always escalate in games where there must be a winner and loser (we call them zero-sum games). We are witnessing this before our very eyes. Exercising your right of gun ownership to keep an arsenal of weapons in your home only contributes to the cultural escalation of violence. Weaponry reduction and inviting whole communities into conversations for creating safe and peaceful spaces in our cities is the right direction.
Our children witness this escalation. They genuinely fear that their school is next. I fear that the school down the street is next. This is not a far-off problem we can dismiss as “their problem.” Our children see it, and their mental health is suffering.
So what do we need to do?
We need to stop doubling down on solutions of the past. Stop saying this worked for me in my family or growing up. The world has fundamentally changed. It is time for new and creative solutions, even if they make us uncomfortable.
Stop pointing fingers of blame. Instead, engage in dialogue with those in your community. Talk to people who look different from you, are in another generation than you, vote differently, and go to another church of faith. We are better united than divided.
Connect with a young person. Love them. Please support them. Encourage them. Listen to them. Don’t worry about correcting or fixing it.
If you want a Christian faith view of mental health. Check out this YouTube channel from The Hills Church. Pastor Rick Atchley is doing a multi-week series on mental health. It started a few weeks back, but all the messages are titled “Let’s Talk about Mental Health.”
April is spring and more importantly it is the season of Easter. This is the time we celebrate new life and the new life given through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We see grass, plants, and trees blossoming as they waken from their sleep. And as part of this season of resurrection, I want to share some connections with marriage.
One of the most “revolutionary” ideas in my book, Revolutionary Marriage, was the idea that resurrection is part of marriage.
Marriages unfortunately experience death. Not only do partners die, we grow apart. We injure each other and even kill the marriage through divorce.
But I suggested a primary goal for marriage was to bring new life – resurrection. The most obvious way this occurs is through conception and childbirth. But spouses also bring new life to each other by our actions and how we live together. In this blog I am wanting to identify some specific ways you can bring resurrected new life to your spouse.
In my book I wrote the following: I have often struggled with those marriage retreat weekends that seem to offer quick fixes for marriages. Their recommended solutions present often illusory experiences that offer emotional highs but don’t resolve the underlying disconnection and relationship decay. They too often feed the myth that excitement and joy are signposts of a successful and vibrant marriage. For example, most retreats suggest the importance of regular date nights. I support that idea, but too often they are superficial acts that cover over a lack of grace and goodwill in the marriage. Date nights are nice, but the small and ordinary acts of grace will keep love alive. The veneer of financial success, great vacations, and well-behaved children can be very thin. It does not help the husband and wife who are celebrating their 25th anniversary, but haven’t slept in the same room for 10 years. Wives promote the success of their children, but secretly resent their husband and his work. Husbands earn sales awards and build huge retirement funds, while having no desire to share retirement years with their wives.
Those examples are marriages where the interior of the relationship is rotten and dying. Our goal in marriage needs to develop a rich, fertile and vibrant interior of the relationship. It is from that space each partner can grow and flourish.
Today I want to recommend four ways to bring new life into your marriage and your spouse.
Speak words of life.
I address this topic in Revolutionary Marriage. The wisdom of Proverbs tells us that “the tongue can bring life or death”, Proverbs 18:21. Or in Proverbs 15:4a, “The words of the godly are a life giving fountain.” Your words either brings life to your spouse or in the worst of circumstances your can speak death. Our words are powerful and we should be careful with them. Above all we should avoid criticism. Let’s spend far less time correcting each other pointing out what we did wrong. We should validate. We should compliment, and speak words of admiration to our spouse. We need to express our gratitude for our spouse’s gifts (skills). Our spoken thankfulness is like watering the garden of our spouses spirit.
Listen in ways that makes your spouse feel understood.
Listening empathically is a core ingredient of intimacy and connection in relationships. From a mechanical standpoint this means being able to parrot or repeat what our spouse says. This is a good start but it will never be enough. Listening must be a matter of our heart where we give ourselves over to hearing what our partner is saying. It means putting aside your own personal agenda. It means hearing and accepting your spouse’s feelings even if you don’t agree. It means asking them questions so you can expand your understanding. You should have a heart of curiosity. It means hearing what is not being said and reading between the lines. It means connecting with something in your own experience that shows you can identify with what they are describing. There are so many tools and ideas for being a more empathic listener. Google “empathic listening” and find a few articles. They will all be of help. This is the fertilizer that sustains healthy growth.
Serve them in small sacrifices.
We want to do the big stuff in marriage that makes the big splash. Fancy dates, big vacations, and extravagant gifts. But a happy marriage is not built on these things. If you are hoping for more of these things to make you happy, your are setting yourself up for disappointment. Because the thrill will be so short lived and it will never be enough. You need to find joy in providing and receiving the small sacrifices. What little chores can you do to help around the house? Can you take care of bath time? Can you be the one to get up and do night time feedings? Can you fix that broken appliance that you promised to take care of six months ago? It is doing these little things, without looking for rewards that brings life to marriage. These things are the seeds of new growth.
Eliminate contempt from your marriage.
I mention this idea in Revolutionary Marriage. But I speak at length about this topic in my marriage conference for couples (It is available online here). Contempt according to Dr.’s John and Julie Gottman, is “fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about one’s partner, and it arises in the form of an attack on someone’s sense of self. Contempt, simply put, says, ‘I’m better than you. And you are lesser than me.'” Contempt is fatal assault on the identity of your spouse. Contempt has no place in marriage. Expressing contempt is committing an evil against your partner. Why? Because you are denying their image bearing goodness. Love builds up – it never tears down. You will bring life to your spouse when you help them be their best image representation of Christ. Encourage and support them in this endeavor. This is the process of pruning for fruitful growth. It must be done with tenderness and love. Contempt condemns the plant as worthless. Love prunes the plant to produce its life-giving best.
The statistics are quite staggering. The rapid rise in depression, anxiety and suicide are evident when we look at changes of mental heaIth in the past 20 years.
Between 2009 and 2017 rates of depression among 14 to 17 year olds increase 60%
The suicide rate per 100,000 people has risen steadily from 11.75 in 2009 to 14.2 in 2018.
Suicide is now the 2nd leading cause of death for individuals aged 10-34
The suicide rate has increased 35% since 1999.
Nearly one-third of adolescents will meet the criteria for anxiety disorder before the age of 18.
Teens today are twice as likely to see a mental health professional than in the 1980s.
We need to respond to these changes with careful evaluation and realistic adjustments. Technology is here to stay. We can’t throw out our iPhones and return to simpler forms of communication. We need to learn to adapt and help our youth develop adaptive skills. There is even some evidence that younger generations are already adapting and demonstrating better boundaries with technology that those much older. There is hope.
There seems to be two significant factors that contribute to increased mood disorders when it comes to technology.
1. Increased information and therefore social comparison.
Social media and the internet gives us access to vast amounts of information with easy access. This information can come so quickly that we struggle with processing and testing it truthfulness. This is an obvious problem with conspiracy theories that abound on the internet, but it is also a problem when we read of our neighbor’s party down the street. Seeing pictures of neighbors gathered together at an event that we were not invited to can lead to all manner of assumptions and reactions. Without social media we would not have even been aware of the gathering other than maybe seeing a few cars. Now we see their smiling faces and can’t help but think everybody has more fun and is more likable than ourselves. There is some information that it is better not to have.
2. False sense of connection/relationship and limited use of social graces in expression.
Engaging in comments on a social media post gives us a false sense of having a true dialogue. We have to infer tone of voice and meaning of certain words without the facial expression behind them. Research shows that all of us are far more prone to type things that we would never say to someone’s face. These two limits on social interaction just lead to escalating conflicts. Rather than being more connected, we feel increasingly polarized.
We can improve our management of technology and eventually our personal mental health if we learn to set some limits and change our use of technology. Here are just a few recommendations that might offer some help.
Recommendations Set time limits on your use of social media and devices. All of the social media companies have admitted that they are designed to get and keep your attention so that you will keep scrolling and clicking. Take back your power over the app by setting clear time limits for your use. Notice your emotions as your scroll. The moment your shift into a negative space, stop. Leave the app. Allow yourself time to recover. Never reply to someone’s post in anger. Keep that off the internet.
Intentionally create opportunities for meaningful face to face contact. Remove technology from those spaces. Be present. Listen. Be vulnerable. Real face to face engagement is necessary for our overall health.
Intentionally have times to quiet your mind. Meditate. Allow your mind to process all the information you are having to manage. Don’t feel pressured to make immediate decisions. You need at least 15 minutes of quiet a day. That is a minimum.
Set boundaries around the people you engage on social media. You have the option to “hide” or even block certain individuals. Boundaries on social media apps can help you filter the type of information that is presented to you. Don’t let the social media companies be the filter. You take charge of filtering your own exposure. That being said, engage with people that are diverse and different from you. If at all possible make those engagements personal and face to face. Don’t block or set limits to the point that you are only hearing and seeing a narrow part of the world. Social media has a way of funneling us that direction. The world is a beautiful place that you can only discover if you open yourself to its diversity of humanity. Do not engage across a distant screen where assumptions are easily made. Engage someone different from you in a real face-to-face relationship.
The mental health arena is rich with references to the stages of grief that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced us to way back in 1969. The final phase of her model is acceptance. When bad stuff happens, we deny, get angry, bargain, become depressed, and according to the model ideally reach a point of acceptance. Yet increasingly much of our culture refuses to accept grief and pain. We choose to alleviate our pain-loss-disappointment with various strategies. Acceptance (as defined by Kubler-Ross) is unfortunately an important emotional skill our culture seems to have abandoned. We have become addicted to making ourselves feel better. We don’t like hurts, and in fact we do our very best to avoid it.
Why has this happened? Can we really do anything about it? How do we develop a culture of Acceptance versus the need to alleviate or avoid pain? Attachment theory and its perspective on early childhood development might offer some insights.
In attachment theory we talk about how an infant protests and tantrums to express a need. Things don’t feel right, and the child is uncomfortable with their circumstances (hungry, tired, hurting, gassy, etc.). Their expression of discomfort is a cue that the parent needs to respond. In an ideal world this happens almost perfectly, but the world is not really ideal. As much as parents (even the best parents) diligently attempts to understand their child’s needs they sometimes fail. When this happens in the context of a healthy parent child relationship, the child actually learns to develop a sense of acceptance (grace, benefit of the doubt) of their parent’s failure. Though they may not feel great about the parent’s lack of responsiveness and they may actually be disappointed, they accept it. They even develop a resilience and tolerance for waiting the next time there is a need. Ultimately leading to an ability to recall times past when the parent was responsive and met their needs and so the occasional failure can be endured.
The problem comes in our culture’s obsession with alleviating pain. We want so bad to be free of discomfort that when frustrations, losses, or disappointments occur we scramble as quick as possible to respond and escape the pain. We don’t want for ourselves or for others to hurt, so we rush in to fix.
Parents overprotect their kids. Legislators curry favor with disadvantaged groups. Therapists entitle rather than empower. Corporations peddle pleasure to solve your woes.
The results are people who take wide swaths to avoid challenge and engage in tirades rather than tolerance.
If we don’t like something we protest, we boycott, or we belittle.
If we see something upsetting, we post about it on Facebook or write a blog – we passionately believe the lie that the world is really going to hear our voice if we put it on a public forum.
If an employee of a company treats us disrespectfully we quickly fire off an often contemptuous email to corporate headquarters.
We soothe our hurts with all manner of drugs, bad habits, and sugary carbohydrates. We spend more money than we have. We gorge our stomachs. We inject our bodies with toxins.
We use social media to self-promote our “best life” so we can convince ourselves that things are not that bad. We obsess with “likes” and emojis believing the falsity that the more “thumbs up” we acquire, the more consensus we have from our online friends.
Using attachment thinking, if the parent were perfectly responsive the child would never develop perseverance. So our culture, refuses to accept that a better day is coming. We cry out and hope our outburst will alleviate our suffering and disappointment. The child survives the parent’s slight by recognizing and accepting that circumstances will improve. The secondary benefit is that the child might come to empathize with the parent’s failure. The parent never intended harm by their oversight. The child can develop a sense of grace in their misfortune.
Maybe there is value to a quiet reserved acceptance of our stance in life. Look – bad stuff happens. No one has the ability to escape all difficulty. There seems to be a value to suffering. Seems like our culture needs a little toughening up, rather than persistently tantruming like two-year olds. We could shoulder the weight of some discomfort, and possible help ourselves become stronger. Acceptance does not make the pain go away, but it clarifies what is important and helps us develop empathy for others. So grow your tolerance muscle. Accept your sorrow. It is likely your next door neighbor knows something about what you are dealing with. Note: Severe failure by a parent is neglect and we would identify such a mismatch in the parent child relationship as abusive and for the sake of this discussion, it is not a type of failure I am referencing. Rather I would suggest that a normal part of relationships means there are going to be mismatches and disappointments in the meeting of needs. Please remember I am not referencing overt situations of assault or abuse that cause pain. Those are completely different circumstances that require swift and clear boundaries to protect the innocent parties from any injury.