Honesty and the Youth Mental Health Epidemic
One of many contributors to the current youth mental health epidemic is OUR inability as adults to deal with OUR difficult thoughts and emotions. Because of this, we often lie to ourselves and our kids. We try to coddle and shield them from the difficult realities of life so we don’t have to feel uneasy about their discomfort.
Yes, there’s a serious issue with youth access to mental health services, but the core of the problem is in us, the adults in their lives. We’re not good at telling the truth and we’re not good at dealing with the irritations of life. If we were better at this, many of our young people’s problems wouldn’t manifest into the widespread anxieties that plague them today.
We need to stop believing that life ‘should’ be different and face it how it is. If we accept this, then we can work towards the changes we’d like to see most in young people.
Many wonder why suicide is the #1 cause of death (outside of accidents) for young people in the western world and why young people are such a mess.
A huge part of it is on OUR shoulders. We must stop externalizing the problem onto the ‘health care’ system or the government or whoever else we’d like to blame.
If we take responsibility for our baggage and face the world with honesty, then we have a chance to address the current youth mental health epidemic. If not, we’re doomed to unfathomable misery, the consequences of which we can’t imagine.
For a start let’s face these 3 realities.
- Life isn’t fair, it’s not supposed to be, nor should we try and make it so.
- Life isn’t supposed to be easy nor are we supposed to be happy all the time or even most of the time.
- Life can be enjoyable, happy, and meaningful, but, only when we face the truth and don’t protect our kids from painful experiences.
Remember, not everyone is going to like you or your kids. You’re going to fail at things… A Lot! Which is good, because it’s one of the best ways to learn. People will be mean, deceitful, vengeful, and they will lie to you and your kids… A lot!
The best thing you can do to build resilience and navigate through these moments is, to TELL THE TRUTH, and open to the bitter realities of life.
I want to clarify the difference between telling someone something because you want to hurt them and not telling them. These are self-serving truths you might think or feel, but they serve no purpose and aren’t helpful. Telling someone something from the past that has no bearing on the present isn’t helpful either. This is a tricky subject and has many nuances. This is my best attempt at discussing the idea from an ideal perspective.
WORKING WITH KIDS AND THE TRUTH
Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help you god?
Have you ever considered why this question is at the core of our legal system? In our society being under oath is serious business. In a court of law, people’s lives are saved or ruined by our adherence to this oath.
What does this say about our society? It says many things, for this blog I will focus on two.
- We value the truth
- We’re not good at telling it, specifically when the stakes are high.
With these things in mind, we should ask ourselves what happens when we leave the courtroom?
Our moral attachment to telling the truth becomes arbitrary to our emotions and what we want in the moment.
Is truth a valuable commodity in your family? Do you bend the truth to suit your parental needs or to ‘get’ your kids to do what you want them to do?
Either now or after reading this blog, please reflect on that question. Don’t justify your choices or actions, just reflect on how that question applies to you and your family.
If you care about mental health or if you have family members who live with mental health challenges, I’d say speaking truthfully is the most important task you have. Some people say, NO! The most important thing is unconditional love and support. I say if you’re lying to someone because you don’t want to deal with the mess of difficult emotions and life circumstance that you’re doing more harm than good. You are ‘destroying’ love if you lie in the name of ‘compassion’. Lying to protect people isn’t love, it’s deceit, and a cop-out on your part… because… you can’t handle the truth!
There are age-appropriate ways of communicating with our kids. To navigate this fine line, you can reduce the explanation to basic terms. If your curious 5-year-old overhears your conversation and presses you to tell them what you’re talking about, you can use the language they might understand, or you can say
“Daddy had some yucky things happen when I was younger and that’s what I’m talking about.”
“I’m not comfortable telling you and maybe I will when you’re older.”
You might say, “I’m not sure how to explain it to you. I will work on figuring out how, although right now I’m not ready.”
A common example between siblings is: For whatever reason, one child gets something the other doesn’t. You don’t want one to feel slighted or whine:
That’s not fair, she got one and I didn’t.
That’s not fair, he got more than I did!!
That’s not fair, why does she get to stay up late?
That’s not fair, …..
How many times have you heard that one?
Instead of launching into a ridiculous explanation for why one kid got a treat and the other didn’t or why one gets screen time and the other doesn’t, sometimes it’s ok to say, “life isn’t fair.” I don’t mean to do this condescendingly or with arrogance. You can say it confidently because it’s the truth and they’ll often have to learn to deal with situations like this.
Then you can help them deal with the frustration, anger, resentment, whatever thoughts and feelings that arise in from it.
One recent example for me is, I was leaving my house to pick up my son from school and my nearly 3-year-old daughter asked me where I was going. Here’s a moment where I think many people often lie or bend the truth to avoid a difficult situation because they don’t want to disappoint their kids.
I knew she would want to come and I could’ve told her a number of different things to avoid the impending meltdown, but that’s not helpful and it won’t help her develop the necessary skills to deal with future disappointment.
So, I told her “I’m going to pick up your brother”
She said “I want to come”
I said “Sorry I don’t want to bring you because I’m too tired and I don’t want to watch and chase you around the playground”
She melts down in tears and disappointment and I get the opportunity to help her experience sadness and get over it. I also get to work on my own instinct to avoid the discomfort and practice telling her something she doesn’t want to hear.
FACING OUR FEELINGS
The majority of adults don’t know how to deal with difficult emotions either. The compounding effects of continued avoidance are destructive, and it buries our kid’s ability to deal with the difficulties of life. When we coddle them and don’t give them the opportunity to learn, they grow up and are faced with inevitable realities they can’t hide from. Without proper coping skills, many behavioural and addiction problems begin.
When we teach our kids to lie to avoid life, we are teaching them to think “Why should I tell the truth if I can lie to get what I want? Unfortunately for myself, lying, drugs, and alcohol became my coping skills. My mental health slowly deteriorated and I developed a host of cognitive and emotional issues. In my recovery, I’ve learned that honesty is the most important thing in my life as the alternative is misery and despair.
There is a massive contradiction in our education system in how we teach kids to handle hard emotions. On one hand, we say, mental health and well-being is important. On the other, we treat kids like they are helpless, weak, and inept by shielding them from feelings of being left out or not feeling good enough. It’s completely backward! To build courage, resiliency, and respectability, people must learn to face their problems.
When people grow up this way, they naturally can’t look in the mirror for solutions, they don’t know how to be honest and they’re inclined to blame everyone around them for their problems.
CULTIVATING AGENCY OVER OUR FEELINGS
Let’s look at a definition from economics because I think it works well when paralleled to telling the truth and avoiding difficult moments.
Externality – “an external effect, often unforeseen or unintended, accompanying a process or activity.” Resource extraction often doesn’t include the environmental costs of production. The costs get ‘externalized’ onto the environment or the ‘tax payer’ who is left with the bill of cleaning up.
Today, we teach kids that other people, places, and things are responsible for their feelings. This harms them in ways we can’t conceptualize. It denies kids of their agency and often leaves them feeling powerless and hopeless.
Why wouldn’t they feel that way? If we tell them that their pain lies at the feet of other people and its other people’s responsibility to fix them, then no #$%@#$% wonder they’re a bloody mess. It’s backward and moronic.
“You may believe that you are responsible for what you do, but not for what you think. The truth is that you are responsible for what you think, because it is only at this level that you can exercise choice. What you do comes from what you think. ” Marianne Williamson
WHERE TO NEXT?
The best place to start is with yourself. Once you have laid the groundwork for a shift in how you proceed through life, then you can help those around you. Please remember, when you point the finger at others, there are three pointing right back at you. Never forget that change ‘Starts With Me’. When we embody change, we don’t have to tell others what to do. Young people are smarter and more capable than we give them credit for. Let’s shut our mouths and let our actions do the talking.
“If you want to learn more about our work and how we’re bringing these ideas into youth mental health education, attend our annual ‘State Of Mind Festival’ on Tuesday, May 1st | Berkeley Events | 315 Queen St E in Toronto. BUY TICKETS