One in five Canadians lives with a mental illness according to statistics from the Canadian Mental Health Association. In my experience, the rate at which people struggle with mental health issues of some kind is much higher. Most people suffer in silence. Statistically speaking, we are all connected to someone struggling with mental illness. While you’re reading this, look around you. I guarantee someone you just saw is struggling with mental illness and/or a mental health issue of some sort. It’s guaranteed. Are you surprised?
I remember the first time I knew what it meant to feel sad and not know why; and the time I realized that I felt this way a lot of the time, and still didn’t know why. I was six years old. It confused me deeply. I had loving parents, we had a house to live in and food to eat, I went to a good school, I had a good community of people around me. I still felt sad. A lot.
When I was a kid, nobody talked about mental illness, mental health, or anything in the middle. It simply wasn’t something that was a part of the dialogue. As I contemplated what I was going to write this morning, I realized that actually, I don’t recall any public conversations about mental health growing up, whether it was elementary school years, or high school. And while I like to joke that I’m getting old, it wasn’t that long ago that I was in high school.
It wasn’t for lack of experiences that could lead to a discussion either. I had friends who had very difficult home lives, knew people who lived through tragic accidents, I’ve lost friends to suicide, and more, never mind the statistics we now know about the rate at which mental illness affects the population as a whole. I’m not sure why it was not talked about, it just wasn’t.
Now that I’m older, and in the mental health field, I’m glad that there is more talk about mental illness and mental health management. What I find now, however, is that I can grow tired about simply talking about it and creating awareness, probably to a fault. Awareness is very important. I can only imagine the difference it would have made for me, or friends I now know struggled in childhood, if we could have heard about mental health and had discussions about it. The discussions, however, leave me asking the question, “So now what?” Many of the discussions I hear sound hopeless and don’t offer many solutions. As a professional, I’m also well aware that the solution isn’t simply more professionals and more mental health services.
Let’s Talk Hope
One of the things I’m known for, and is written all over my bios on various websites, is that I don’t believe in hopeless causes. It is one of my fundamental beliefs that there is hope in every situation, even if we can’t always see it when we’re in the middle of it. Last year, I connected with Connie Jakab who formed National Hope Talks and we collaborated on a conference in Calgary this past January. The conference is all about hope.
This time around, in January 2020, the conference will be hosted in Edmonton and Calgary, and together with 140 Sports, we’re bringing it to Delta. It’s time we went beyond talking and start acting like we believe that there’s hope.
What Is Let’s Talk Hope?
Let’s Talk Hope is a conference, or perhaps an unconference where we bring together students, teachers, parents, mental health workers, business people, non-profit leaders, and more to talk about Hope. We’ll have some speakers with lived experience and unique insight into mental health. This will set the tone for the day, and give some valuable information about what some of us are seeing in the community in terms of mental health. We’re also going to have workshops that incorporate different art forms and help build skills to manage mental health in our own lives, the lives of our community, and beyond.
The peak of the experience at Let’s Talk Hope are the incubator sessions. In these sessions, we get into small groups where people are mixed up to have at least one teacher, student, business leader, mental health worker, non-profit leader, etc. Each person gets 2-3 min to share their perspective and what they are noticing about mental health. Each group then writes down what was commonly shared and what could potentially be the solution.
We know we aren’t going to solve mental illness in one day. What we are going to do is create hope, and get creative, and talk solutions. Solutions that will come from every part of our community, not just the professionals.
Join us in Bringing Hope to Delta in January 2020
I can tell you that the first Let’s Talk Hope conference this year was one of the most powerful, encouraging, and hope giving experiences I’ve had in my work in mental health. It helps bring the message of hope in mental health forward, knocks down silos between providers, clients, and the community, and gives us a renewed sense of connection, of togetherness in this fight for mental health in our own back yard.
Does this sound like something you’d like to be a part of? We need to hear your voice and have you as part of the solution to bring hope to our community.
Join us on January 18, 2020 for a day of community, celebration, sharing each other’s stories, and talking solutions.
Writing these blog posts is one of the easiest parts of my job to put off until later. They require some unstructured thinking time (which is fertile ground for distraction), are unstructured themselves, and there always feels like there is something more important (read: easier and less personally exposing) I could be doing with that time.
Recently I read a fantastic article in the New York Times on exactly the process I’m describing. Most people call it procrastination. I really, really think you should read the article now because if you’re reading this one already, chances are you’re putting something else off.
If you don’t feel like doing that, the basic idea is that mainstream science has come to embrace an idea that makes intuitive sense to many of us: procrastination has much less to do with laziness, lack of self-control, and disorganization, and much more to do with emotions. For example, it is often the case that the task at hand will bring up a disquieting uncomfortable feeling that we often barely notice. Therefore, procrastination is about protection: we keep ourselves safe from feeling (for example) our own self-doubt or shame by doing something unrelated, whether it is productive or not. This has the effect of a short-term boost in good feelings (TV is fun!) but is often counterproductive in the long term. For example, these blog posts give me some anxiety, because I never know who is reading them and what I might be sending into the public eye that might not be good enough, or that I might even end up disagreeing with myself a year from now. So I often find something else to do.
Along these same lines, there is a much more complex system of underworkings at play in our decisions than we think. We in the mental health field love to talk about the brain (how its fear center causes us to react in response to stress, for example), but according to good recent research, there are mini “brains” around areas such as our heart and gut that make them function as powerfully as our heads at times. Daniel Siegel is a big proponent of this, and you can also read more about this at Heart Math here.
To return to the article (here’s a link to it again!), it encourages self-compassion, which we counsellors also love. Having grace and compassion for our own mistakes is one of the best tools out there. The article offers three other, very simple tips for when you find yourself the victim of procrastination:
- Be curious. Take a breath and allow physical sensations, emotions, and mental processes to come and go, observing them like you were watching a new TV show. Notice what happens to the sensations, feelings and thoughts as you observe them. What are the feelings that might be bringing up unpleasant feelings?
- Hypothetically imagine the next step: “If I were the version of myself that wasn’t procrastinating right now, what would be the next thing I would do?” Just thinking about this might make you more likely to take action despite your feelings. Many pros agree that motivation often comes while doing something, and not before, so you might need to kickstart things a touch.
- Make temptations more inconvenient. Hide the TV remote, put a screen time blocker on your phone, etc., etc. This also increases the timeframe for you to become aware of what’s going on, and makes your reward for procrastinating less immediate.
I would add a few of my own tips as well:
- When you feel temptations arise, take a deep breath and allow yourself to be tempted, noticing the temptation to do something gratifying at the moment. This is called many names, but I learned the name urge surfing: you are riding the wave of your temptation and letting it run its course without trying to push it away or make it less intense. This fits really well with tip #1 from the article (Be curious!). Often, the urge will go away in 10-12 minutes, if not much less.
- If you must, try to give yourself more productive ways to procrastinate. For me, I take a few minutes and stretch. This often makes me feel a little better about myself physically, mentally, and emotionally, and makes me feel better equipped to take on the original task. You might also choose to journal about your inner experiences at the moment, which will help you understand and articulate them (this removes some of the power those impulses have).
- Building on #2, you could also call a trusted friend and chat about the fact that you’re putting something off. This will help in a number of ways. It will give you a sounding board for your thoughts and feelings, normalize your experiences, and make you feel generally supported (little motivates us as well as reminding ourselves of our supportive relationships).
Lastly (as I say with most of these articles), you can always feel free to talk to a professional helper, as they are often equipped with specific skill sets that can help you tackle something like the above, or help get you in position to tackle it. These include professional counsellors like us at Alongside You, but can also be something like a pastor, priest, social worker, or support group. Investing time in caring for yourself the right way has the best interest rate of any investment (by a huge margin). If you have questions about this process, please call our office, and you can even email me directly through my profile by clicking here – I will take the time to respond as best and as soon as I can.
Good luck, and now that I’ve written this, I’m off to do something fun.
How many times over the past month have you said that you feel stressed? Once a month? Once a week? Once a day? Three times a day? Is even thinking about this question stressing you out? If you answered yes to any of those questions, this article is probably for you.
We talk about stress all the time! So often, in fact, that the word stress has almost lost its meaning. So, what exactly is this thing we call stress?
Stress is an undifferentiated name for the impact emotions have on our bodies2 In other words, it’s a bunch of feelings that are stuck in our bodies and lead us to feel exhausted or irritable or high strung, etc. There are two main different types of stress: Acute Stress and Chronic Stress.
Acute stress is a normal part of everyday life. It happens when a stressor is short term and has a clear beginning, middle, and end. An example of an acute stressor may be giving a presentation at work or at school. Your heart starts pounding and you notice you’re sweatier than normal under your armpits and you maybe even feel like jumping up and down. The key here is that you give your presentation, it ends, you feel pretty okay about it, and you rest. The stress is over.1
We experience chronic stress when we’re exposed to a stressor for a long period of time. Examples of chronic stress might be working overtime for many days in a row, or working high-stress jobs in general. Other examples may be long term emotional or physical abuse, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In all these cases, our bodies respond to the ongoing stress by continuously secreting stress hormones that eventually negatively impact our mental and physical health.2
Sounds a little bleak right? You might even be a little mad at your body for reacting in such a way when you just need to work a little harder this year to get that raise, so if your body could just quiet down and stop with the tantrums, you could get this done…. or maybe that’s just me. When I learned about our body’s survival mechanism (the Fight/Flight/Freeze response), I became a little less mad at my body. It turns out that without that stress response system, we wouldn’t survive. Maybe if you feel the same way I did, you’ll be able to forgive your body too.
Fight Flight or Freeze: Your Body’s Survival Instinct
Your body’s first priority is always to keep you safe. Its ability to ensure your survival rests on its “Fight, Flight or Freeze” system within your central nervous system (CNS). In response to danger, your body mobilizes to either fight, escape (flight), or freeze. This process occurs faster than we can consciously think, it’s an automatic threat protection system built into each of us.3 4
Fight can also be thought of as our rapid anger/fear response. When we are in danger or when someone we care about appears to be in danger and it seems like we could overpower that source of danger in order to stop it, we go into fight mode. This is what happens in those moments when you might feel like you’re in a “blind rage.” You might react by punching or yelling because your central nervous system (CNS) has determined you are in danger and you need to fight your way out. 3 4
An everyday example of the fight response for many people is driving in heavy traffic. Someone cuts you off and you feel your heart pounding, your face gets hot, and you may start yelling in very colourful language from within your car (maybe you even gesture with your middle finger out of your window, the universal North American sign for “I will fight you!”).
This can be thought of as the fear/anxiety response. Your CNS determines that the source of danger is too frightening to face head-on, so the best chance of survival is to run. Your heart pounds, you get a burst of energy and your digestion slows down as the blood from your stomach gets transferred to your legs and arms, so you can move quickly. 3 4
In terms of our driving example, you might notice this feeling when a car has veered out of its lane and is coming toward you. There’s no time to think about your next course of action so your body mobilizes and you either slam on your brakes or you veer onto the shoulder to get out of the other car’s way.
You go into a state of “freeze” when your CNS determines that the source of danger is too terrifying and too powerful for us to be able to successfully run from or fight. The emotional and/or physical pain is also too intense for you to take in the moment. Instead, you freeze, which allows you to not feel the intensity of the pain. In Freeze mode, our bodies become stiff, our minds go blank, and our brain becomes so overwhelmed, it stops recording memories. For some, this may feel like an out of body experience, for others it may feel like complete numbness. 3 4
Going back to our driving example, freeze is most likely to occur we you actually get into a car accident. This is why many people feel disoriented afterward a car accident and may not remember what happened.
How this Relates to Stress
“Stress” is another word for the fight/flight/freeze response. Chronic Stress a long-term feeling of fear/anxiety/anger that elevates your stress hormones to constantly mobilize you for fight or flight. 3
If every day you’re driving in intense traffic, you may feel constant fear/anxiety about potentially being late for work, compounded with anger at the person who’s driving too slowly in front of you. Then you get to work, and you might have a big project due and you feel fear/anxiety about whether you can get it done on time, you might also feel angry because it feels like the expectations placed on you are too high, oh and also your co-worker is a jerk. Then you drive home, same traffic issues (anger, fear). And then maybe you get home late from work, you have kids to feed and a spouse who is mad at you for working so late (you can fill in the blanks here with the anger/fears that come up with all of that). Then, you try to sleep but your brain is running around trying to solve the day’s problems, and you wake up not feeling very rested, and… repeat. This dizzying cycle of stress that is so common in our culture is too much for our bodies to take! No wonder we all feel so exhausted, irritable, and stuck.
Luckily, there are scientifically proven ways for us to become unstuck and to move through stress. It involves allowing our bodies to complete the stress response cycle. In my next blog post, I’ll explain what the stress response cycle is, and how we can use the steps of the cycle in our everyday lives to keep our minds and bodies healthy.
In the meantime, if you’re recognizing some of the signs and symptoms above, give us a call, we’re here to help!
- Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS). (2017). Acute vs. chronic stress. Understand Your
Stress. Retrieved from https://humanstress.ca/stress/understand-your-stress/acute-vs-chronic-stress/
- Greenberg, L. S. (2015) Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching clients to work through their
feelings (2nd ed.) American Psychological Association: Washington, DC.
- Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex
life. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY.
- Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books: New York, NY
“Properly practiced, knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit either.”
― Elizabeth Zimmerman
For the past few years, we’ve hosted a Friday Night Knitting Club at Alongside You. Held once a month at our art studio from September to June, we’ve had people of different ages, stages and abilities gathered together to share in a common interest. The idea grew out of community interest and was borne out of a reading of the novel The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs. What’s been fascinating about knitting groups is that everyone has a story of how they came to knit. Some of us have been knitting from a young age, taught by a family member or friend; others have taken up knitting to cope with chronic pain or illness, or have used it as a way to help those less fortunate. Some knit more regularly while others pick it up after long periods of rest.
I fit somewhere in the middle. Knitting has always been in and out of my life. My twin sister and I learned how to knit from a family friend in our neighbourhood when we around 6 or 7 years old. Because of my sisters’ short stature, a lady from my parent’s church handmade and measured custom knitted outfits for her to wear. Though both of us began knitting at the same time, my sister has kept it up more consistently. She is a little more skilled and comes to my rescue. Though I liked the idea of knitting my first-born a blanket, I had a difficult time finishing it. During the early stages of labour, I thought it was a good idea to attempted to knit. I put so many holes in it that my sister took all the stitches out and refinished the blanket just in time to wrap our daughter in the blanket. She has made both of our girls’ blankets that they cannot, I repeat, cannot live without. That’s the beauty of a knitted item. So much time and effort are laced into a piece that is well treasured. Since then, we have been the happy recipients of well-loved knitted baby clothes, children’s sweaters and blankets by friends and family that are true keepsakes.
How Can Knitting Help Us?
Here are a few things I have learned about knitting over the years.
1. Knitting has a long history all over the world.
Whether the piece is from England, Ireland, Scotland, Latvia, Japan, Australia or Peru, only to name a few possibilities, each is derived with their own styles and techniques. The history behind each garment and each stitch made makes my head swirl!
2. Knitting has major health benefits.
Because of its repetitive nature, knitting keeps your hands busy, produces relaxation, and teaches mindfulness as you tune into each stitch. It can also provide tangible results and garner a sense of accomplishment. It is these very attributes that have increased the use of knitting as therapy in addictions and recovery programs, and dealing with things such as eating disorders, drug and alcohol addictions, and chronic pain and illness management. Knitting is not simply a creative activity, it is constructive as well; activities using both your body and brain, like knitting or crocheting, actually promote the development of neuropathways that aid in memory retention and stave off symptoms of Dementia, strengthen hand-eye coordination, and offer exercise in joint movement, decreasing symptoms of arthritis. Knitting may as well be known as the “new super craft” just as cauliflower is known for being the “new superfood!”
3. Knitting requires skill.
Because knitting requires a certain amount of knowledge on everything from how to make yarn, dye it and craft it into something using an array of colours, yarn types, stitches and patterns, you need to learn it from an experienced teacher, relative, friend, or nowadays, YouTube! Knitting is truly a skilled art form that embraces the efforts of knitters with a variety of skill levels. I’m still at the square dishcloth, or scarf stage and hope to move into creating large blankets or shawls! Though historically a woman’s craft, knitting is now being accepted as an activity suitable to all.
4. Knitting for others in need has been and continues to be a huge part of knitting.
Knitting, for the most part, is made to be functional. Knitted items such as socks, sweaters, scarves and even undergarments are made for regular use and warmth. Historically, hand knitted socks, scarves, sweaters, hats and mitts have warmed soldiers, farmers, the elderly, children, and even those in hospital.
For instance, last year, our Friday Night Knitting Club received over 70 knitted scarves to be distributed at the Union Gospel Mission’s Women’s Shelter. This year, we received over 60 knitted items (hat, scarves, socks, mitts) and over $300 of grocery cards to be donated to Azure House, Delta’s new transition for women and children seeking refuge from domestic violence. This is run by W.I.N.G.S. (Women in Need of Gaining Strength). Similarly, The Knitting Sisters, a local group made up from women in both South Delta and Richmond, have made it their mission to support local and international charities with their knitting. Whether it is knitting items for a friend or family member, infants in the Neonatal Care Unit, the homeless, or even women’s shelters, many knitters carry on that sense of purpose.
Want to infuse knitting into your life?
Here are some ideas on where you can start:
- Alongside You hosts a Friday Night Knitting Club once a month for those of any age and ability. We share stories, skills, knitting projects and refreshments. Basic instruction is available. The evening is by donation to raise funds for our Step Forward Program, that helps subsidize our services for those needing financial assistance. Everyone brings their own supplies but we also sell a selection of yarn and needles on site. So far, donations and yarn sales have raised over $2000 for the Step Forward Program and have donated numerous items to women’s shelters. The next one is February 22nd from 7 – 9:30 pm. To register, please visit our Facebook Page.
- Knit and Stitch is a knitting group that meets at the Ladner and Tsawwassen Libraries. Bring your own projects and share ideas. For more details, contact your local library.
- The Knitting Sisters are a group that meets at McKee House. They also focus on knitting for others. Here’s a great story about them.
- Check out Meetup, a popular site devoted to connecting people with similar hobbies and interests. Look by location or by craft.
Where can I find knitting supplies and inspiration?
There are shops all over the Lower Mainland that have beautifully crafted fibre arts for sale. Fibre Art Studio on Granville Island offers classes and have an extensive collection of yarn in vibrant colours and textures. You can also visit stores in Vancouver such as Three Bags Full, Wet Coast Wools, and in Delta, Crafty Fibre.
Want more inspiration? Check out Etsy for knitted items and patterns.
What Is The Takeaway?
Knitting is fun. It’s good for your health. It can be used to help others.
Meet the new take on graffiti or street art…YARN BOMBING! Public spaces are adorned with knitted and crocket items: Trees, statues, lamp posts, and even fire hydrants. You never know where you’ll see knitting coming into your life…it may be just around the corner!
You know when you meet someone for the first time and you just “click?” So do I. Meg and I just got back from a whirlwind tour of Calgary to go do something with one of these people. We flew out Tuesday morning and got back late last night. Driving back home, Meg even said, “We were here yesterday, it seems like such a long time ago!”
You see, this was a new experience for us. There were a series of firsts – the first time we’d sponsored an event in another province; the first time we’d travelled out of the province to provide a workshop together; the first time we’d tried to bring an art studio with us on a plane; the first time we did any of this with someone we’d only ever met once. All of this, because when we were told about the project and asked if we’d help, we said, “How can we help?”
The event was Let’s Talk Hope, with our new friends at National Hope Talks, and was a part of Bell’s annual Let’s Talk Day. Aside from being a sponsor for the event, our role was to talk about what we’re noticing in our context with regard to mental health and to lead a workshop on resilience and hope and human connection and how to use art as a vehicle to bring hope to ourselves and others.
One of the focuses of the conference was getting beyond talking, and figuring out what to do about mental health, from all perspectives; from professionals in mental health to artists and creatives, to those struggling, and everything in between. All perspectives are welcomed and valued, and solutions are sought – even if they seem like pipe dreams.
I came home on a bit of a high (albeit an exhausted one) because I was so inspired by the crew we joined to make this conference happen, and by all of the over 200 participants and what they brought to the table. Writing this article today, however, is bittersweet for me because today marks the anniversary of a close childhood friend who we lost to suicide. A friend who was immensely talented, had personality in spades, left a child and family behind, and who I assume, could not see a way out or a way to have hope.
This is why hope matters. Mental illness is not just a clever advertising campaign or something for us to feel good about when we do something one day out of the year to raise some awareness. Mental illness can be a matter of life or death.
When we held conversations at the conference about what brings hope, the overwhelming common thread that was repeated time and time again, was the connection. Human connection trumps any other intervention in the books. I want to suggest three ways we can get beyond talking about mental health, and move toward action and creating a hope movement in our communities.
1. We need to get over ourselves and out of our comfort zones.
We’re all here, because we’re not all there, and that’s ok. There, I’ve said it. As someone who has struggled with mental health since the age of 6, I’ve known for a long time that something was different about my brain and body and how that showed up in terms of mental health. I’m now at a place where most days are ok, but this has not always been the case. In fact, there were many years where this was not the case.
Here’s the thing, if we have a mental illness and our belief is that we have to be okay, then we stop connecting with others and cut off the best “treatment” we’ve got. We also stop connecting with each other, which is an invaluable resource and a vital part of our community. If we push this further, even if we don’t struggle with a mental illness, we won’t connect with someone else who is hurting if we aren’t feeling 100% good ourselves for many reasons, not the least of which being our belief that it’s not ok to not be okay, and we can’t possibly help anyone else if we’re not at our best.
Let me tell you, there would be no mental health professionals in this world if this were true, myself included.
2. We have to stop believing that mental health professionals are the only ones who can help someone who is struggling with a mental illness.
Over and over again I was reminded of this while at the conference this week. On our team of presenters and organizers, we had rappers, hip hop artists, spoken word poets, dancers, motivational speakers, visual artists, brain scientists, pastors, business coaches, and more. Guess what? I learned a lot. Some of what others brought out were things that either I wouldn’t have thought of, or really needed reminding of.
Meg presented on using art and journaling to bring resilience and hope, and let me tell you – the feedback was phenomenal. We had one woman come up to us after and explain the role that journaling played for her in her recovery from abusive relationships; moving from wanting to burn all of the entries, to now using them as reminders of where she’s come from, the victories she’s had, and the hope she now has with her new life. It was unbelievably powerful to hear her story and those of many others.
3. We need to remember that there is not a single thing on earth more powerful in recovery from mental illness than relationships and healthy human connection.
This is one of the things that I have been reminded of over and over again in the past few weeks. We now have over 20 years of research proving this, much of it coming from the scientific studies of marriage and relationships from the likes of The Gottman Institute, ICEFFT and Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, as well as the trauma research from people like Besel Van Der Kolk.
If we want to give people hope who are struggling with mental illness, we need to be willing to connect with them and be a safe relationship for them. We need to be willing to get down in the mud, or as I often say to clients, jump into the foxhole together. We have to be willing to not be okay with them, and even to suffer with them. This is the core of empathy, which drives connection and healing.
Now, I never said any of this was going to be easy. Being with someone in their hardest times is sometimes incredibly difficult. In fact, sometimes they won’t let us. But we have to keep trying. Our lives and the lives of our loved ones depend on it. We need each other.
One of my new friends reminded me this weekend of a very important principle that can help us with this. She reminded me, after being reminded by a mental health professional in her life, that when someone is hurting, we need to bring them closer, not push them farther away.
If we can all remember to bring the hurting closer, and be willing to suffer with them, and walk alongside them, then we can bring hope. We can give them, and ourselves hope. We can make a difference.
Normally we publish articles every Thursday, pretty much like clockwork. We write articles that we hope are helpful to readers, often sharing information on different aspects of mental health, physical health, treatments, services, and more. We do this to be helpful to the community, to educate and increase awareness on different topics and clinical treatments and let’s face it, as a part of our content marketing and search engine optimization plan to make sure people know who we are and how we can help.
This isn’t one of those weeks. On Tuesday evening, I drove downtown for a meeting with Fred from 140 Sports and Connie from Movement With A Message. We had a wonderful time sharing dinner, brainstorming ideas, and finding ways for us to work together to do some good in the community around youth mental health and resilience. I came away excited and encouraged. I love what both of these organizations are doing, and I’m excited to partner with them going forward because I think we can do a lot of good together.
And then I received an email that broke my heart, again. Another youth in our community took his life. It never gets easier hearing the news. In our professional training as a Registered Clinical Counsellor, we hear over and over the importance of “keeping a professional distance,” and “not taking work home.” While I think this is an important principle, it’s also ridiculous to think that we can do this much of the time. I certainly couldn’t with this news. I sat down multiple times on Wednesday and yesterday to write an article, and I couldn’t find the words. I couldn’t decide on a topic. I couldn’t get past the first sentence.
The sorrow and heartache involved in losing a youth to suicide affect me deeply, even if I’ve not had any contact with the person. In a recent workshop, I stole the slogan from Point Roberts, WA to explain why I and many of my colleagues are in the field – that is, “We’re all here because we’re not all there.” I became a Registered Clinical Counsellor because I know what it’s like first hand to struggle with mental health. I also know what it’s like first hand to struggling with suicidal thoughts and wanting out.
This is why I can’t just keep a professional distance when I hear that yet again, we’ve lost someone in our community to mental health and ultimately, suicide. There are no perfect solutions, there is no magic pill, and no 5-step plan to prevent this. It simply isn’t that easy.
When I went to bed last night, still struggling to make sense of this awful situation, the words, “Parents, hold on to your kids,” came to me, and I wrote them down. Now, I’m not sure if it’s because Dr. Gordon Neufeld and Dr. Gabor Maté wrote a book together with this title, or because as a parent, I’m very aware of the important role we play in our kids’ lives. But it stuck. And this is what I want to focus on today.
Parents, we need to hold onto our kids. The struggle is real, and it’s not because there’s something wrong with this generation. It’s not because they don’t care, it’s not because the schools aren’t doing their jobs, it’s not because we’re terrible parents. It is, however, because the world has changed, the demands are higher, the expectations are higher, and our youth are struggling big time.
The truth is that there isn’t a single form of therapy, a pill, a school program, or otherwise that can replace the need for attachment between a parent and a child. This isn’t about parent blaming, or shaming, it’s about understanding the importance of our role as parents, and the powerful effect we have on our kids. Parenting is difficult. The demands on our time, our money, our energy, and more, are huge. With the housing market being what it is, most families need both parents working outside the house Monday to Friday to make ends meet. This is our reality.
Somehow, however, we need to make sure we find the time to invest in the attachment with our kids. Our kids will not feel safe enough to talk to us when they’re struggling if the relationship isn’t there, and to be perfectly blunt, we can’t rely on our schools, the public mental health system, or any other service to monitor our kids for us. We have to do it ourselves.
I get it. It’s daunting. It’s scary. We don’t feel equipped. Now, I suspect some of you may be thinking, “He doesn’t get it – he’s a mental health professional who has the education and background to make sense of this,” but I assure you, while in some areas this may help, in other areas, it’s actually worse. I may be more equipped in some instances to help my kids, but I’m also more likely to feel like a failure. If my kid is struggling, the first thought in my head is, “I’m a Registered Clinical Counsellor, with over a decade of experience and training, and I can’t help my kid.” Let me tell you, that’s not a good feeling. That’s when the helplessness sets in, which I think most of us parents have as a shared experience at one time or another.
But here’s the beauty of it. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to know it all. We don’t have to fix it. We can’t. I remember when I was a teen, at the worst of my depression, I was sitting on the end of my driveway in California crying my eyes out. I still remember, it was 10 pm and everything was dark. And then my father walked out, lifted me up, and held me. For an hour. Not saying a word. I imagine, mainly because he didn’t know what to say and probably felt completely helpless.
It’s exactly what I needed. There’s a reason I still remember that night over 15 years later. The truth was that my father couldn’t fix. There were no words that were going to make it better. There really was not anything he was going to do to “fix” my depression or the suicidal thoughts I had daily at that time. What both he and my mother did, and did well, was making sure I knew that they were there to talk to me anytime, even if they didn’t understand. They were there to hold me when there were no words to say, nothing that would make it better. The truth is, they didn’t even know how bad it was because I didn’t tell anyone and I didn’t ask for help.
This is why I do what I do, and why Alongside You exists. I was that kid who didn’t ask for help, and I had every advantage in the world growing up. I had two parents who loved me deeply, I had teachers who mentored me and cared for me, I played sports my entire school career, and I had music that is still one of the main things to keep me steady in life. Looking back, it would have been immensely valuable for me to see a counsellor, probably take some medication, and so many more things, but I didn’t. Not because I couldn’t have, but because I didn’t ask, and I had a very low barrier to ask for help.
You know what did help? My parents. They weren’t perfect, because none of us are, but they were the best parents I could have ever asked for because they tried. Because they did the best they could with what they had, and when they didn’t know, they looked to resources to find out. I still remember my Mom bringing me to a workshop by Dr. Gordon Neufeld on parenting and attachment when I was a kid. They knew how important their relationship with me was, and they were intentional about it.
This is something all of us can do as parents. When you look at the research, what it will tell you is that it’s not the amount of time we spend with our kids that matters, it’s the quality of the time that matters. So, if you’re having to work 60 or more hours a week, or you’re travelling a lot for work, or you’re separated or divorced and you don’t get access to your kid as much as you’d like, don’t lose hope. As far as outcomes, it doesn’t matter that you’re not with your kid as much as you think you should be. It matters how you make that time count. Be intentional, and when you’re with them, focus on them and build the relationship and the attachment.
As I write this, it’s Friday and the end of a long week for many of us. I hope that what I’ve written is encouraging to you as a parent – that is most certainly the intent. What you do matters, and what you do can make a difference. Be intentional this weekend about being with your kid. Spend time with them, share in their enjoyment in what they’re doing, cheer them on as they play their sports (and stop yelling at them, the coaches, and the referee), listen to their music with them no matter how awful it sounds to you. Love them, and connect with them on their terms. Put away the work, the devices, and the stress you’re carrying from the week, and be with your kids. This is the single most preventative thing you can do when it comes to their mental health, and only you can do it.
If you’re struggling as a parent, reach out for help for yourself. If you don’t know how to connect with your kid, or you don’t understand mental health, or you feel helpless, please ask someone for help. There are a number of resources in the community that I’ll list below, and we are certainly here for you at Alongside You. This is why we exist – to help you do your best with your kids because even if we get to work with them, we probably get an hour a week with them if we’re lucky. If we can help you do your best when you’re with them, it’ll be far more effective and powerful.
Remember, we don’t have to be perfect. We just have to care and do the best we can with what we have. We don’t have to be perfect parents, we just have to be good enough.
Other Youth Resources in Delta
Boys and Girls Club
Child and Youth Mental Health
Youth Crisis Resources