Monday, September 23, 2013

Teen Depression from a Teen's Perspective

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 11% of adolescents will be diagnosed with a depressive disorder by the time they reach 18 years of age.

I came across this Ted Talk that looks at this topic from the perspective of a teen who has dealt with depression throughout his life.  He describes what it is and isn't, and what it feels like to him.  The statement that struck a chord with me, though, was when he speaks to the fact that as a society, we would treat physical illness in children and teens with the utmost sense of urgency, not resting until we had made the kid well.  However, with mental illness like depression, we can have a tendency to blame rather than support the person afflicted.

For more information, watch the full video below:


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Hunger Games

We all have those teachers that we remember because they supported us in extremely important ways that we are really only able to fully appreciate now, as adults.  Mrs. Cooper was one of my 7th and 8th grade teachers.  I adored her--she was dressed to the nines every single day and it was always clear that she loved her students and really wanted them to do well.  She whole-heartedly supported my aspirations of someday becoming a fashion-designer, and constantly encouraged me to learn more about the field and to continue my drawing, which I had taken to doing during most of my classes.  I even remember that she called my mom one night to remind her that there was a 48 Hours special about the fashion industry on that evening and to make sure that I watched it.  Only later in my life would I appreciate this acknowledgement and encouragement of who and what I was as a middle-school boy in a mid-size town in the middle of the Midwest.

Needless to say, I did not become a fashion designer.  But at the time, I was obsessed to the point of watching and reading everything I could get my hands on related to the industry.  Style with Elsa Klensch was regular Saturday morning viewing, and shows such as Designing Women held me in thrall, not only for the sassy wit and repartee, but for the clothes.

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Recently an item appeared in my Facebook and Twitter feeds from a variety of sources that has continued to trouble me.  A school district in New Jersey sent a letter home at the opening of the school year that stated:
"If a student goes through the food service line and it is discovered that the student does not have the required funds for a meal, the Chartwells Food Service representative has been instructed by the Willingboro Board of Education to withhold the meal from the student, with the understanding that such meal cannot be re-served and must be discarded." (source: www.willingboroschools.org)
This caused enough of a stir that a national morning news program had a segment about it that featured two panelists, a parenting blogger and a school-counselor & therapist.  You can read about and view the segment here, as well as read a follow-up response by the parenting blogger.  The school counselor states at one point that if a child goes to the register with his/her lunch, is unable to pay, and the lunch is taken away and ultimately thrown out, that this is a "teaching moment," presumably for the child and then for the parents when the child goes home complaining of hunger and humiliation.  The school counselor appears to be in agreement with the policy of the school district in that it will help to hold parents accountable and make them responsible.

This whole exchange is concerning to me on many fronts.  First, we know that hunger has a direct impact on academic success in schools.  It can be simplified even to Maslow's hierarchy of needs--if kids are hungry, they are not going to be able to focus on instruction or higher-order thinking and they will lack the fuel and energy to process information and critically apply it to the work at hand.  In an era where teacher, administrator, and school evaluations are tied to standardized test scores, this link between nutrition and achievement is key.  It makes strong academic sense to make sure that children are fed and thus able to have productive learning days in school.  Secondly, because, as school counselors, we are trained in child and adolescent development and are tasked with keeping up with research, we should be one of the voices at the table speaking for the importance of maintaining programs that support the steady and reliable nutritional needs of our students.  We are ethically tasked with removing barriers to academic success for our students.  If we know that hunger in children is correlated to academic success, then do we not have an ethical obligation to share that knowledge with our stakeholders and advocate for our students?  Further, the concern in the letter from the schools system as well as from the school counselor in the news segment is that the parents are not filling out the required forms to qualify for federal free/reduced lunch.  Yet, this policy ultimately does not effect the parents.  Rather, it has an immediate impact upon the child, both in their lack of a meal and in the social-shaming experience of having food withheld, possibly in front of their peers.  In a very basic sense we are putting the kids in the middle in order to try to get their parents to comply.

The school counselor in the segment goes on to say that while he thinks this policy may provide "teaching moments" for students, he does not think that any child will really be forced to go hungry, and that he himself has paid for many meals for students.  At best, this is sending mixed messages.  At worst, it only shows the school district policy to be a punitive scare-tactic that is not really meant to be enforced, almost as if we are playing "hunger games" with students and families.  In an era of positive-behavior management and responsive (and responsible) intervention, we should, as school professionals be practicing what we preach.

I am not naive--I understand that school districts around the country are facing extremely difficult financial challenges as federal and state funds are reduced and deficits increase.  Any expenditure and line-item in a school system's budget is going to face more scrutiny, and very tough decisions will have to be made.  I am not questioning the reality that this is probably a very real financial concern for this school district, who are more than likely trying to keep as much money as possible in areas that directly support instruction.  However, as school counselors we should be advocating on behalf of our students for solutions that go directly to the parents and the concern that forms are not being filled out, rather than a policy that publicly punishes the student for something they may have little to no control over and that moreover we know also impacts academic achievement.

In our counselor trainings, we are taught to look beneath the surface of statements and behaviors in our students to try to ascertain what the true issue may be that is causing distress.  This is no different.  The value here would be to examine why the forms are not being turned in by parents and guardians.  If there is a language or cultural barrier, perhaps community outreach is the answer.  This can be done through establishing parents liaisons to communities, going to homes and families that there is concern over directly, or perhaps visiting community centers or faith organizations to share information about the importance of the federal free/reduced lunch program and to offer assistance in completing the paperwork on the spot.  Additionally, if the concern is getting parents into the school to complete the paperwork, sponsor a back-to-school fair and include a meal to entice participants or perhaps drawings or give-aways.  My experience has always been that local businesses are very often willing to donate gift-cards or meals for such events--it helps them with their community-engagement work, and it allows schools to entice families to enter their doors and begin partnerships to support children.

Beyond this initial push, once the deadline for forms has passed, schools can target those families who are unable to purchase meals yet who have not yet completed paperwork.  Schools could develop teams to divide up to go to parents and families directly to complete the forms, and perhaps again work with local businesses and Parent-Teacher-Student-Organizations (PTSO's) to develop a support fund to help defray the cost of meals while teams were working with families to get the paperwork completed, something that I have seen work first-hand.  If communities have been able to rally to such causes as Blessings in a Backpack that discretely supply food to students and families in need on the weekends, perhaps the community of this school district would be able to work collaboratively towards a solution to this particular issue that does not leave kids missing meals.

There is a statement made by the school counselor during the television segment that I whole-heartedly agree with--we are one of the wealthiest nations in this world with an abundance of food to go around.  In fact, we waste almost half of our food, according to recent studies, which brings me back to Designing Women.

As a middle-school boy, dreaming of my future catwalks and runway shows, I distinctly remember one episode of the series entitled "They Shoot Fat Women, Don't They?" in which one of the main characters goes to her high-school reunion and is humiliated because she has gained a lot of weight since she last saw most of her classmates.  During the show, she meets a young boy from Africa who is touring the country sharing his story of hunger and the loss of his family due to starvation.  In a speech that the character makes upon winning the award for "Person Most Changed," she shares that she met this boy and realized the absurdity that she spent the day upset because she had too much to eat while there were people in this world dying and worrying about where their next meal would come from.  That one part of that speech has remained with me all of these years, making me cognizant of the fact that I have never had that worry.  However, for many people, including many of our students, this is their everyday.

As school counselors, we possess the skills, knowledge, and political savvy that allows us to build bridges that can help our students who do not always know where their next meal is coming from.  Let's use it.