By Kristin Schultz
The crowd was sparse at the third and final installment of N-CAP’s intergenerational forums, Talking With Your Teen. While school and community officials were well represented, including high school principal John Rickert and school social worker Allison Nunez, only a couple of parents attended. The evening’s topic was substance abuse and mental health.
“I’m disappointed with the lack of parent participation,” said Margaret Brennan, N-CAP’s volunteer program director for prevention. “But I thought the event went very well and I was very impressed with the student participation and feedback.”
Around 10 high school students from community youth groups like N-CAP’s BASE club attended to offer their views on communicating about mental health and substance abuse.
“It’s important not to have a stigma attached with mental health issues,” said senior Jess O’Reilly.
While students may not talk with parents or adults about their mental health struggles, senior Jaqui Thomas says honest conversations are happening among peers.
“We definitely hear about mental health being an issue,” she said. “It’s common for us to talk about those things.”
Donna Bradbury of the state’s Office of Mental Health kicked off the meeting with the sobering statistic that one in five students ages 13 through 18 live with a diagnosable mental health issue. Additionally, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by the time a child is 14 and 75 percent by the time a person is 24.
After Bradbury’s presentation, attendees broke up into three small groups to discuss the issues in greater detail, and share personal experiences.
The students talked about the link between self-esteem and social media.
“People want to be liked,” said senior Conor Graham. “Literally and figuratively liked.”
To avoid the ups and downs that social media can produce, the group talked about instead participating in events or activities that tap into what makes a person tick.
Students also mentioned having friends who seemed to be “addicted to college,” talking about and obsessing over the prestige level of their college options.
“We forget to just breathe and be mindful,” said Nunez.
O’Reilly told the group she has found yoga and meditation to be helpful for her mental health in dealing with the pressures of high school, but also said there is no formula that works for everybody.
The forum lasted approximately two hours and participants reported a positive impression of the evening. One of the parents in attendance, Michael Hehir has a daughter in Van Antwerp Middle School and another daughter at Hillside Elementary school.
“I have a teenage daughter,” Hehir said. “It’s important to talk with her and stay ahead of some of the issues.”
Hehir also said he was very surprised to hear that one in five teenagers has a diagnosable issue. “It sounds like a huge number,” he said. “And it’s normal.”
He was also impressed with the high school students who were part of the discussion but wondered about the kids and parents who did not show up.
“How can you not be interested in this topic?” Hehir asked. “There are 1,400 kids in this school. Why would you not show up?”
While it may have seemed like preaching to the choir, Hehir was glad he attended and would be open to attending future workshops. He felt reaffirmed in his commitment to keep communication open, not only with his own children but with their friends and teachers as well.
“There’s a lot of parent denial,” said Brennan. “We don’t talk to each other and we don’t know where to go for reliable information. There are enough resources here to get help but we can’t just think that we’ll fix a kid and that’s it. Everybody needs to get help.”
N-CAP presented two other workshops during the 2016-2017 school year.