Sunday, February 2, 2020

Facing the Tipping Points of 21st-Century Stress

            Last week’s helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others is a horrible tragedy for the nine individuals who died, as well as for the many who are mourning their deaths. While Bryant’s life and legacy are both inspirational and complicated in different ways, it’s also true that he was 41 years old and in the prime of his adult life. The death of someone so vibrant and active, who was just starting the second act of his life, strikes at the heart of anyone in touch with their own mortality.
            This particular tragedy may have also served as a tipping point for some, as they may have experienced so many stressful events in their communities, country, world and planet in recent years that they had trouble handling yet another.
            We all have personal stressors in our lives, and there are times when those stressors become true crises that profoundly impact our day-to-day lives. But even when there’s no crisis, and the stressors are manageable, there seems to be this underlying layer of despair in the world today. This can make it even more difficult to handle the personal and community struggles – because we look around and see so many problems tearing at the fabric of our social, political, ecological and cultural institutions.
            Those who have been marginalized in society have felt this underlying stress every day of their lives. Those who are in positions of privilege may be able to look back on certain decades, such as the 1980s or ‘90s, with some degree of nostalgia. But the present century has brought with it so many widespread challenges to all of us: September 11. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Deadly hurricanes, from Katrina to Sandy to Maria to Harvey. Other climate-related disasters, from rising sea levels and record temperatures to massive wildfires and flooding. A global financial crisis. Mass shootings. The presidential election of 2016, and the pronounced polarization that has followed it. Mass migration, and the debates over immigration throughout the world. The shootings of unarmed people of color. Sexual harassment. Deadly viruses. A widespread lack of civil discourse.
            Someone who is stressed about a loved one’s illness, while also dealing with daily personal, domestic and work challenges, might still find room in their life to take on a couple of these communal crises: Perhaps they are engaging in some environmental activism, and also reading about all the presidential candidates, in preparation for voting this year. They’re full to the brim with things to worry about, and are using their own version of the Serenity Prayer to stay on top of it all. And then, one Sunday afternoon, they hop online and see that, of all things, Kobe Bryant is dead. It can feel like one too many stressors, enough to bring us to a tipping point.
            When Malcolm Gladwell authored The Tipping Point in the first year of this century, he ushered in a new era of social science books dedicated to helping us figure out how and why we do the things we do. With that book, Gladwell studied what he called “social epidemics,” and what causes a series of smaller changes to reach a point where a larger, more systemic change takes place. Two decades later, we are nearing a point at which our collective psychological well-being is near a tipping point.
As educators, one of our challenges is to help students and communities find a way to transcend and avoid that level of despair. Education can inspire us in that way. Social and emotional learning can inspire us in that way. And building communities of lifelong learners can inspire us in that way. We can’t control the overall stress levels of our students, but we can help them search for a way through the stresses by learning, processing, sharing and growing together.
            It’s no coincidence that in this time period, many have turned toward the words of beacons of light such as Fred Rogers, Freddie Mercury, Michelle Obama, Bryan Stevenson and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The same mind that identifies overwhelming stress seeks out ways to manage and overcome that stress. We feel the despair in the traumas that surround us. But we also search together for ways to identify and feel hope in the midst of that despair.
            During this century, no athlete has impacted the sports world more than LeBron James. Now a Los Angeles Laker, James found himself standing before the crowd at Staples Center on Friday in the Lakers’ first home game after Bryant’s death. As he held the microphone and spoke, James’ words applied both to this specific tragedy and to so many of the crises we all face.
            “We’re all grieving, we’re all hurting, we’re all heartbroken,” he said. “But when we’re going through things like this, the best thing you can do is lean on the shoulders of your family.”
            When that tipping point arrives, James seemed to be saying, we don’t have to handle it alone. We never have to handle it alone.

Our Mental Health Moment

            Since I began teaching more than 20 years ago, I have seen three seismic changes in education. Early this century, the passage of No Child Left Behind ushered in both standardized testing and the role of analytics in education. Seven years ago, the shooting in Newtown, Conn., led to a series of wholesale changes in school security. And over the past decade, the increase in mental health struggles among our students has become a constant presence in our schools.
            The movements toward data analysis and school security are established components of education today, and many schools have spent years fine-tuning the ways they address these issues. As for mental health, many schools are still grappling with how to address the increased numbers of students in need. In the past few years, many schools have emphasized student wellness as well as Social and Emotional Learning, and schools also have deepened their partnerships with outside agencies that focus on mental health. Students have spoken up publicly about their struggles, and teachers have taken leadership roles in helping students who are struggling with stress.
            The causes of this trend are still up for debate. In her book iGen, psychologist Jean Twenge draws a correlation between tween and teen smartphone use and adolescent mental health struggles. Many others have agreed with this theory, but other studies have refuted this connection between device use and anxiety or depression. Some point to the pressure of today’s college admissions, and the many advanced courses and extracurriculars that students are taking to impress universities. But there are many students struggling with mental health who are not taking advanced courses. Mental health illnesses also are less stigmatized today, leading to the possibility that more students are admitting their struggles without fear of being ostracized.
            In all likelihood, there are multiple reasons for this significant increase. In the meantime, schools are working diligently to address the struggles our students bring with them to the classrooms and hallways. I see this every day in my life as an educator, and also in my life as a parent. I work with students and parents to address issues of stress, anxiety and depression, and then come home to a teen who is struggling each day with those issues. My wife and I communicate our daughter’s struggles to the school, just as many parents do with me. We also support her at home and connect with outside therapy and agencies, just as many other parents do. We have made mental-health support a primary part of what we want in the college she attends. And we try very hard to help her take life one day at a time.
            As a parent, it’s enough to wear you down some days. I carry this experience with me into school, reminding myself that those parents and students with stories similar to my family’s are likely doing the best they can. As parents and educators, we don’t yet have clear-cut solutions to the mental-health struggles of teens. But we know that the one thing we can’t do is give up.

Writing Less (And Learning More)

            For the past year and a half, I have written much less than in any time period since I switched careers from newspaper reporter to teacher. From the time I left the newsroom for the classroom in 1999, I kept my fingers close to the keyboard, writing free-lance magazine stories, blog posts, and even manuscripts. But since I made the transition from teacher to administrator 19 months ago, I’ve done far less writing.
            And the reason is simple: I have so much to learn.
            I’m a veteran educator with plenty of experience and points of view on the subject of supporting high school students and teachers. I put my experience and perspective to work every day in the challenging job that I have. But I’m also paying attention to the many areas of education that I now view from a different vantage point. As I focus on this learning, I want to allow for as much growth as possible. To me, that means opening my own mouth (or blog site) less and spending more time reflecting and processing.
            There have still been experiences I’ve found well worth sharing. After all, I enjoy using my communication skills to engage in educational dialogue. But it’s also important to understand the true nature of the dialogue before entering into the conversation.
            I hope to serve as an educational leader for many years, and to support as many lifelong learners as possible. But first I need to focus on the learning, and grow with this job. I’m doing my best, and keeping my eyes wide open.