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    How You Can Help Prevent Suicide

    “What in the world do you have to be depressed about?”

    “Did something happen to make you sad?”

    “Just snap out of it.”

    Susan* has heard all of these statements her entire life from friends and family as she battled clinical depression.

    “Growing up I was a very shy person in a family of extroverts,” says Susan. “My siblings all love being social and funny. I’m the one who just wants to stay home and read. Throughout my childhood I was very moody.”

    It wasn’t until law school when she was waking up in the middle of the night with her jaw clenched that she decided to talk with a counselor. During her first session, the counselor asked, “At what point in your life did you determine it was your job to be the savior to everyone?”

    “It was at that moment that it hit me,” Susan recalls. “Up to that point, I was the person everybody came to with their problems. I learned I needed some serious boundaries in order to stop letting people walk all over me. I also learned I was clinically depressed.”

    Susan knew she had much to be thankful for, but that didn’t stop her from feeling horrible on a daily basis.

    “Living with depression is like this fog that minimizes joys and magnifies hurts and criticism,” Susan shares. “People who don’t have depression see the world in color. People with depression see the world in black and white. I have dealt with suicidal thoughts for 20 years.”

    Susan recalled a time three months before her wedding. She was driving home from work, planning her suicide in her mind. She wanted the pain to be over. Clearly, she did not follow through with her plan. Susan’s fiance was out of town on business, and she could not think of one other person who would know what to do. She got the help she needed to get through that moment, but every day is still a battle. 

    “In listening to people talk about the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I think people don’t understand that when you suffer from depression, it’s like every day on this earth is a living hell,” Susan says. “My depression is so severe, it often interferes with my ability to function. For me, and I think many others dealing with depression, the thought of not having to deal with the pain anymore is very appealing.”

    When asked what people say as they try to help, Susan shared that it isn’t helpful to tell a depressed person to just snap out of it, pop a pill or ask if they had a fight with their spouse. 

    “It is helpful to ask, ‘What can I do?’ or to send a text to check in or call and ask how things are going,” Susan says. “Both my husband and I suffer from depression. He knows that when I am having a hard time, the best thing he can do is give me space and let me be quiet. I know that when he is struggling, the thing that helps him most is to get out and do something.”

    Talking to a friend or family member about their suicidal thoughts and feelings can feel awkward. But if you're unsure whether someone is suicidal, the best way to find out is to ask. You can't make a person suicidal by showing that you care. Giving a suicidal person the opportunity to express his or her feelings, however, can provide relief from loneliness and pent-up negative feelings, and may prevent a suicide attempt.

    If you want to be helpful to a person who you believe may be having suicidal thoughts, here are some things you should do:

    • Be yourself. Let the person know you care and that he/she is not alone. The right words are often unimportant. If you are concerned, your voice and manner will show it.

    • Listen. Let the suicidal person unload despair or vent anger. No matter how negative the conversation seems, its existence is a positive sign.

    • Be sympathetic, non-judgmental, patient, calm and accepting. Your friend or family member is doing the right thing by talking about his/her feelings.

    • Offer hope. Reassure the person that help is available and that the suicidal feelings are temporary. Let the person know that his or her life is important to you.

    • Take the person seriously. If the person says things like, “I’m so depressed, I can’t go on,” ask: “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” You are not putting ideas in their head, you are showing that you are concerned, that you take them seriously, and that it’s OK for them to share their pain with you.

    • Ask them how you can be helpful. They may not be able to immediately answer this question, but asking it encourages them to think about it.

    Here are some things you should not do. DO NOT:

    • Argue with the suicidal person. Avoid saying things like: "You have so much to live for," "Your suicide will hurt your family," or “Look on the bright side.”

    • Act shocked, lecture on the value of life or say that suicide is wrong.

    • Promise confidentiality. Refuse to be sworn to secrecy. A life is at stake and you may need to speak to a mental health professional in order to keep the suicidal person safe. If you promise to keep your discussions secret, you may have to break your word.

    • Offer ways to fix their problems, give advice, or make them feel like they have to justify their suicidal feelings. It is not about how bad the problem is, but how badly it’s hurting your friend or loved one.

    • Blame yourself. You can’t “fix” someone’s depression. Your loved one’s happiness, or lack thereof, is not your responsibility.

    If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, there are a number of websites and organizations with excellent resources for you. HelpGuide is a great place to start, along with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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    How to Encourage a Growth Mindset in Kids

    Carol Dweck is a pioneering researcher in the field of motivation. In her book, “Mindset,” she  addresses why people succeed or don’t, and how to foster success through  the power of yet.

    She tells the story of a Chicago school where students had to pass a series of courses in order to graduate. If they did not successfully pass the courses they were given the grade of “not yet.” Dweck thought that was brilliant. 

    “If you get a failing grade, you feel like a failure,” she says, “But if you receive a not yet, it means you are on a growth track.”

    In an effort to more fully understand how children cope with challenge and difficulty, Dweck gave a group of 10 year olds math problems that were slightly too hard for them. Some of the children said things like, “I love a challenge,” or “I was hoping this would be informative.” Dweck says they had a growth mindset because they innately understood their abilities could be developed. 

    Another group of students thought their inability to solve the problems was tragic. They believed their intelligence was up for judgment and they failed. In fact, Dweck shared that in one study the young students said they would cheat the next time instead of studying more if they failed. They also looked for someone who did worse than they did to make themselves feel better. Dweck refers to these students as having a fixed mindset - believing that personal qualities are carved in stone, which creates an urgency to prove one’s self over and over. 

    In a TED talk about mindset, Dweck asks, “How are we raising our children? Are we raising them for now instead of not yet? Are A’s so important to them that they have no idea how to dream big dreams? Are they carrying the need for constant validation with them into their future lives?”

    Dweck contends that choosing to praise wisely would be helpful to children. Instead of praising intelligence or talent, praise progress, effort, strategies and improvement. This helps build children who are hardy and resilient.

    She also points out that equality occurs when teachers create a growth mindset in their classrooms. For example, in one year, a kindergarten class in Harlem scored in the 95th percentile on the National Achievement Test. Many of those kids could not hold a pencil when they arrived in school. Also in one year, fourth grade students in the South Bronx who were way behind became the number one fourth grade class in New York on the state’s math test. And, in a year to a year and a half, Native American students on a reservation went from the bottom of their district to the top - and that district included affluent sections of Seattle, Washington. Dweck believes this happened because the meaning of effort and difficulty were transformed. Before it made them feel dumb, but now effort and difficulty enable their neurons to make stronger connections.

    “We can change students mindsets,” Dweck says. Every time children push out of their comfort zone the neurons in their brain form new stronger connections. Students who weren’t taught this growth mindset continued to show declining grades, but those who were taught the growth mindset strategy saw their grades improve.

    Dweck received a letter from a 13-year-old boy which said, “Dear Professor Dweck, I appreciate that your writing is based on solid scientific research. That’s why I decided to put it into practice. I put more effort into my school work, into my relationship with my family and into my relationship with kids at school and I experienced great improvement in all of these areas. I now realize I wasted most of my life.”

    Are we raising children in the environment of yet?

    Once we know that people are capable of such growth, it becomes a human right for children to live in places filled with yet. Let’s not waste the time we have with the kids in our sphere of influence. Let’s teach them the importance of mindset, praise their efforts and give them amazing opportunities to grow and become the resilient children we all know they have the potential to be.

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    How to Be More Supportive

    Everyone has bad days and faces challenges in life, and we all need encouragement to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes in our efforts to be helpful and to avoid awkwardness, we say things like, “Look at the bright side of things,” or “Think positive.” While well-intentioned, the words may not be super helpful.

    The reality is, allowing people to be vulnerable, open and honest about where they are can be a real gift. We live in a world where 1 in 4 people struggles with anxiety about different aspects of life. Just telling them to be positive or pointing out what we see as the “silver lining” does not provide a solution or make things better for them.

    What might be more helpful than mere words is your presence as they walk the road. Acknowledge the reality at hand by being there and by saying, “I can tell this is so hard,” or “In the midst of the storm, it is hard to see past all the challenges.” Asking, “What can you do for yourself today that will be comforting as you try and sort things out?” can also make a world of difference in how they view the situation.

    Whitney Hawkins Goodman, licensed marriage and family therapist, posted a graphic on Instagram containing common positive statements that are meant to be helpful, but might not necessarily be beneficial to someone who is really struggling. She contrasted those statements with ones that offer validation and hope instead.

    Instead of saying, “See the good in everything,” Goodman suggests trying, “It’s probably really hard to see any good in this situation. We’ll make sense of it later.” Or, instead of, “Just be positive,” what about, “I know there’s a lot that could go wrong. What could go right?” The truth is, it’s super hard to see the good in anything when you literally can’t see your way out of the pit. With these statements, you aren’t trying to sugarcoat the problem, and you are giving them the opportunity to consider whether there is potential for something good to happen.

    Think about the hard times in your own life. Sometimes it doesn’t feel safe to express yourself because you aren’t sure how another person will respond. What we are looking for in moments like this is empathy. 

    It can be uncomfortable to see someone you care about struggling. What you really want to do is fix the problem, but you can’t and usually you shouldn’t. In the midst of not being sure what to say or do, our tendency is to “Don’t just sit there; Do something.” Perhaps in this instance we should turn the tables and say, “Don’t do something; Just sit there. 

    It’s freeing for both parties if you are able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and get into the trenches with them, even if you can’t fix it for them. However, you can listen, hold their hand and help them find perspective. In doing so, you are allowing them to feel what they feel without inadvertently being judgmental or condescending, and that is powerful.

    Sometimes we underestimate the power of just showing up. You don’t have to have all the right words. Nor do you have to figure out best next steps. It’s OK not to be OK sometimes.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on April 21, 2019.

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    Sons, Sex and Standards

    An interesting study just released in JAMA Pediatrics should grab our attention. The study, a joint effort between Johns Hopkins University and The Guttmacher Institute, raises a warning flag about boys and early sex.

    Two national surveys showed that between 4 and 8 percent of boys reported having sex before they were 13. Black males were most at risk, followed by Hispanic males. In some metropolitan areas, more than a quarter of young, African American men reported having sexual intercourse before age 13.

    Young men having sex before age 13 usually haven’t received the appropriate sex education and services, and we need a better system to respond to their needs,” says Arik Marcell, M.D., M.P.H., senior author of the study and associate professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. 

    “The cultural double standard about sexual behavior in the United States, in which it is OK for young boys, but not girls, to be sexually active, has prevented us from effectively addressing male adolescents’ vulnerabilities and their healthy sexual development,” Marcell adds.

    Marcell explained that he has heard boys and adolescents talking about their first sex encounters in a way that suggests they didn’t anticipate, understand or know what was happening or what’s appropriate and what’s not. It is concerning that such early sex experiences happening to boys could be unwanted and influence their future health. Marcell and his colleagues used the survey data to attempt to get a better look at the scale and pattern of this problem across the nation.

    The investigators underscored the importance of recognizing young people’s perspectives, and also noted that reports of whether a first sexual experience was wanted may be influenced by gender and race expectations, stereotypes, peer pressure and coercion. Parental education also appeared to have an impact. For instance, boys whose mothers graduated from college were 69 percent less likely to have sex before 13.

    As to why there are such variations in early sex rates, Guttmacher Institute researcher Laura Lindberg says, "Adolescent males' attitudes and values about their sexuality and masculinity are influenced by the social context of their community. 

    “Our findings reflect that where you live exposes you to different social norms about manhood," she added. "The variation across settings means that programs for young people's development and health need to be tailored and responsive to the communities they are in."

    In many instances, it seems like massive strides have been made when it comes to educating kids about sex, but this study clearly indicates there is still work to be done. All young people need to receive sex education and parents need to be ready to have open, honest and ongoing talks with their kids. 

    The best time to start talking with children about sex is when they are young. Look for teachable moments, such as when you see a pregnant woman or a peer's new brother or sister, as a natural discussion-starter.

    Focus your conversation with elementary-age children on:

    • the correct names of sexual organs and body parts,
    • explaining sex and reproduction,
    • personal boundaries,
    • pregnancy, and
    • building healthy relationships.

    If they are old enough to ask questions, they are old enough to receive correct answers, but make sure to clarify your child’s question. When you understand the question, answer it briefly and simply. Sometimes kids have questions, but they are afraid to ask. This is why it is important for parents to look for opportunities to discuss these important matters.  

    Talking about sex is just as important as talking about drugs and alcohol, smoking, stranger danger and pornography. If this feels overwhelming to you, you might want to practice talking privately with your spouse or another adult first. The most important thing is that conversations are happening and you are an askable parent.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on April 14, 2019.

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    3 Keys to Deeper Friendships

    Shasta Nelson has spent more than a decade studying loneliness and friendships. Nelson is a healthy relationship expert and author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness and Friendships Don’t Just Happen! The Guide to Creating a Meaningful Circle of Girlfriends. She is currently working on her next book, “The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of the Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time,” to be published by HarperCollins Leadership.

    Nelson surveyed people to find out how fulfilling their friendships felt from one to 10, with 10 being the most meaningful satisfaction. About 60-70 percent respondents rated their relationships five or below.

    Nelson realized that while people might be in friend relationships or marriage relationships, there was a gap between the kind of relationships people want to have and the kind they actually have. In fact, 80 percent of the complaints about friendships centered around wanting more and deeper connection. She found that people know more people than ever before and are supposedly more connected, yet they are lonelier than ever.

    A 2018 CIGNA study of 20,000 people found that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone. Additionally, 1 in 4 rarely or never feels as though people really understand them, and 2 in 5 Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful.

    According to Nelson, modern day loneliness is not because we need to interact more with people; It is due to lack of intimacy. Frientimacy is a relationship where both people feel seen in a safe and satisfying way. When people say they are lonely, Nelson doesn’t believe that answer is to go out and make more friends, but to deepen current relationships.

    “I ask people this question: ‘Do you feel as loved and supported as you need at this point in your life?’” Nelson says. “If the answer is yes, that’s fabulous, but often the answer is no. When that is the case, I encourage them to consider who in their life they would want to build a more meaningful or closer relationship with and then make a list. Start prioritizing those relationships. 

    “Some people say they have no names to put on their list. For these folks, their journey right now is to get out and meet people who have the potential to be future friends. There are a couple of ways you can do this. Going to places you already frequent like school, work, faith-based or civic organizations - proximity and geography matters. Then be intentional about getting to know them better. The second way is to reach out to people you know and ask them if there are people they think you should know. Take advantage of opportunities for introductions to meet new people at their party, book club, discussion group, etc.” 

    Nelson says the more insane your life is, the more you need meaningful friendships. 

    “Often when I am speaking to moms’ groups, I ask them to write what they remember about their mom and her friends,” Nelson says. “A good 70 percent of women have a hard time completing that assignment. I suspect it happens partly because so many moms try to nurture their friendships at a time that doesn’t inconvenience their kids. However, 30 years down the road, your daughters can’t tell me who your friends are. Friendships need to be modeled. Don’t downplay that part of your life. Deep, meaningful friendships make us better.”

    Once you have identified people on your list, Nelson says to then practice the three things that are the basis of every healthy relationship: positivity, consistency and vulnerability, also known as “the frientimacy triangle.” 

    1. Positivity is about feeling supported, kindness, acts of service, affirmation - all the things that make us feel good. 
    2. Consistency is the hours logged, the history built, interactions and knowing there is consistent behavior in the relationship. This is where trust occurs. 
    3. Vulnerabilit is where we share, reveal, let people beyond the formal living room, talk about what is going well and not so well, history, dreams, and where you feel safe to ask for what you need.

    When we have high levels of each part of the “frientimacy triangle,” we feel seen, safe and satisfied, which is what people want and need. We then have the ability to take existing relationships to a completely different level.

    Our bodies are craving this and are literally dying without connections. World-renowned physician Dean Ornish states, “I am not aware of any other factor in medicine (than intimacy and love) - not diet, not smoking, not exercising, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery - that has a greater impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness and premature death from all causes.” 

    According to Nelson, loneliness is as damaging to our bodies as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, the equivalent of being a lifelong alcoholic, more harmful than not exercising, and twice as harmful as obesity.

    "How you answer the question, ‘How loved and supported do you feel?’ will tell us more about your health 15-20 years down the road than any other factor,” she says.

    If your relationships aren’t where you want them to be, Nelson encourages you to take action and do something different. Not only do we have the opportunity to make our own lives richer, we can enrich others' lives with our positivity, consistency and vulnerability.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on April 7, 2019.