What Can We Do To Improve Young Adult Mental Health?

My first year writing students are 18-19 years-old. Here’s the prompt for their first paper:

     Irvine argues that people often lack a “grand goal of living” and a coherent philosophy of life because our culture doesn’t encourage thinking about specific reasons for living; instead it provides them with an endless stream of distractions. He contends you’ll most likely squander your life without a guiding philosophy. He adds that even if you have a “grand goal in living” and can explain its importance, it’s unlikely you will attain those things in life you take to be of greatest value if you lack an effective strategy that specifies what you must do as you go about your daily activities. Explain why you agree or disagree with Irvine’s assertions. Also, explain a few things you want out of life and why.

Irvine proposes an updated version of Stoicism as a guiding philosophy. Most of my writers find meaning in some stoic concepts, like the trichotomy of control, but generally aren’t down with Irvine’s thesis that they need a “grand goal of living”. Most argue they’re too young to have formulated very specific life goals, let alone one “grand” one. Often, they thoughtfully point out that a highly detailed roadmap doesn’t make sense given life’s unpredictability.

When it comes to what they want out of life, an increasing number want improved mental health. It’s difficult to overstate the extent of young adults’ anxiety today. When I listen to them describe their anxiety and depression in class and read about it in their papers I have two reactions. Overwhelming empathy and curiosity as to what the hell is going on.

The third episode of the Happiness Lab podcast with Laurie Santos, “The Silver Lining”, might provide a clue. It’s about our tendency to compare ourselves to others who we perceive to be the most well liked, the most social, the most wealthy, the most together, the seemingly most happy. The episode’s title comes from research into Olympic athletes that suggests bronze medal winners are much happier with their medals than silver medal winners because silver medal winners are focused on not having won gold while bronze medal winners are focused on everyone that didn’t medal at all. This concept, “point of reference”, partially explains why happiness can be so illusive.

A Cornell psychologist in the episode contends social media compounds this problem because everyone carefully curates their online image to appear artificially happy. Among other remedies, Stoics advocate for internal goals to counter our self-sabotaging “point of reference” tendencies.

The gravity of the situation has me convinced that there’s no one explanation to “what’s going on”. Another factor could be the pressure my (admittedly selective) students feel to have their adult lives figured out just as they’re beginning them—whether to go to college, how selective a one, how to pay for it, what to study, what internships and other resume building activities to pursue, whether to go to graduate school, which career path, which grand goal for shits sake.

Parents, intensely worried about the vagaries of the economy, and desperate for a return on their considerable college investment, think that if their young adult children just pick the right thing to study—nursing, engineering, and other pre-professional fields—and develop a detailed plan, their college graduate sons and daughters won’t end up living in their basements.

This was what I was thinking about when struck by a related idea during a recent run. This time of the year, in North Olympia, Washington, it’s pitch black when running before work. Most of the streets are not lit, sometimes there’s fog. My uber-headlamp provides about 20-25 yards of visibility.

North Oly roads roll with a constantly changing mix of gentle ups and downs. Picture ocean swells, the Palouse in Eastern Washington, or the Norwegian countryside. Normally, I realized during the run, seeing roads ahead tilt upwards plays with my mind. At least a little. “Here it comes,” I think, “this is gonna take a little more effort.” And then, “Okay, almost topping out, hang in.”

But on this pitch black, foggy, autumn run, there was no such internal dialogue because I COULDN’T SEE AHEAD. The only way I knew I was starting a climb was my breathing became more labored. “Oh, okay, climbing now.” Because I couldn’t see the road tilting upwards ahead of time, my mind was free of that small, subtle nagging dread of having to work harder. As someone whose prone to look too far down the road of life, I was digging running in the moment. Don’t tell me what’s ahead, let me just be present.

Freed of anticipatory dread, my mind turned to my students. They lament how their teachers, beginning in middle school, ask about their life plans. And how it continues through high school. And how their parents too often pressure them to have a plan.

Some of them end up crafting faux-plans just to stop the insanity. As a placeholder of sorts. Some, like a previous writing student, declare nursing upon entering college only to realize in the middle of our first semester seminar that they didn’t really like science.

Maybe we should give our high school graduates headlamps and encourage them to focus at most on the year ahead especially since life is fragile and no one is guaranteed a long life.

What if our message was this.

In the next year, while working, traveling, or going to college; focus on improving your health; nourishing your spirit; investing in new friendships; finding one way to make others’ lives better. Don’t worry unnecessarily about the mountains and valleys that lie ahead in the distant future. You’ll be okay. And if not, let me know how I can help.

Young adults’ mental health might improve.

 

 

 

 

Avoiding The Pointless, Downward Negative Cycle

I’m in the Trump Trap. I doubt I’m alone.

It’s impossible to ignore the President, but paying attention to him only feeds his narcissism and seems to make matters worse. To ignore his lies and race baiting is to condone both. I argue with a friend when he says “Obama was worse,” but that doesn’t accomplish anything. How to escape this pointless, downward spiral of negativity?

My friend, while totally exasperating on things political, has redeeming qualities. Among others, he’s committed to his family, he’s funny, he cares about those he works with. Why don’t I just focus more exclusively on those attributes?

There’s a direct correlation between how people feel about themselves, more specifically how secure they are, and their propensity to see the best in others and affirm them. If you don’t feel very good about yourself, if your insecurities win the day, you’re unlikely to sing anyone else’s praises. You don’t send thank you cards. You don’t risk any awkwardness by directly and specifically telling others what you most appreciate about them.

As if life is a zero-sum game. That there’s only so much positivity or praise to go around.

We can focus on the good in others, and name it, without any cost to ourselves. At all. Focusing on the good in others, and naming it, creates positive momentum that makes political disagreements less consequential. My friend’s politics are whacked, but he is not the sum of his politics.

One can be a good teacher, nurse, or executive, and liberally celebrate other teachers’, nurses’, and executives’ excellence. One can be a decent human being and routinely celebrate decency in others. We’re apt to recognize and publicly declare the redeeming qualities in others to the degree to which we feel okay about ourselves, the degree to which we like ourselves.

A few weeks ago, I made eye contact with another driver as I pulled into the Trader Joe’s parking lot. She was an acquaintance from church who smiled at me. “Finally,” the introvert in me immediately thought, “I’m going to get a chance to tell her how much I enjoy her blog.” Sure enough, halfway through my appointed rounds, she walked straight up to me and asked if I’d eat some fancy shmancy blueberry desert that she was thinking of making for a party. “Yes.” I assured her, and then said, “Hey, I’ve been wanting to tell you how much I enjoy your blog. I’ve been enjoying cooking more and I’m amazed at your creations. And you’re really funny.” For good measure I added, “You’re a very talented writer.” To say she was touched is an understatement.

Her blog deserves a wider audience. When that happens, I will celebrate her success. Because it will not detract from this humble blog.

With respect to the President and my friend, my inclination is to ignore the President. My vote will be my proof that I’m not condoning his calculating and inflammatory rhetoric which will only get worse once the campaign begins in earnest. As for my friend, I’m going to focus more on his redeeming qualities and our common humanity.

 

 

What Parents Get Wrong

Since my “What Engineers Get Wrong” post went viral I figured people are anxious for me to overgeneralize about other groups. Thus, a series is born. This is the second, back-to-school installment. The full title, “What Parents Get Wrong about Their Children’s Teachers”.

I received this letter from a teacher friend who was seeking my advice with in her words, “my current least favorite set of parents”.

The Least Favs wrote to my friend:

I am encouraged to read your statement in the newsletter that arrived today, that students “shouldn’t be afraid to say something if they need help,” because “C” does. He needs more challenges than you have been providing.

C is still not challenged in math.  From talking to him and following class work through homework, nothing seems to have changed since we brought this to your attention at the first parent teacher conferences and during two subsequent meetings. C still says “It is not that I know the material, but after we learn new stuff for a day or two it is pretty slow.” If you changed anything in the way you challenge the faster learners in your class neither C nor we noticed.  We do not see that you implemented any ideas we talked about, like more challenging text problems with the same underlying pre-algebra for the faster learners, or different homework options like the link to [another school] we sent you.

We would like to again explore solutions to make sure that C will be challenged for the final trimester. For us it is sad to see that his former favorite subject rarely make his eyes light up any more. The one time you offered alternative math homework, C had so much fun and walked us through his thoughts and discussed approaches with us. This is what we asked you about and are looking for! We are hoping that maybe drawing on others experience with highly gifted education and the curricula used at other schools will help us find solutions. Also, we would appreciate [the principal’s] mediation to this time come to a clear understanding about next steps.  We feel that after our last conversations, other than changing C’s class placement, which we appreciate, you did not follow up with us on letting us know which other options you explored.  This lack of communication leaves us with the impression that nothing has changed.

We would like to emphasize that C likes you as a teacher and that the way you explain things seems to work well for him.  It is solely the lack of challenges and the speed of learning that we perceive as a problem as well as the lack of communication with us as parents.

I’m giving the Least Favs a “C-” in teacher partnering and problem solving. It’s a flawed letter, but parents like this trounce ones who are asleep at the wheel. At least they’re engaged. I’m also giving them a few points for some positivity in paragraphs three and four.

My teacher friend was wrong for not communicating better with the Least Favs after the previous conference. The problem is the Least Favs use that against the teacher in a way that clearly suggests, “We’re in the right and you’re in the wrong,” instead of “Let’s find a way to meet in the middle and move forward together.”

Also problematic, the parents assume their child is gifted and yet their son admits “It’s not that I know the material. . . .” The student feels the pace is a little slow, but the parents don’t ask the teacher, “Is it possible to increase the pace?” They’re focusing exclusively on their child, who they believe, rightly or wrongly, is gifted. In contrast, the second year teacher is attempting to do her best for all of the students in the class. That’s one important thing parents get wrong, they assume secondary teachers, who typically interact with 100-150 students a day, are able to know their child well and individualize their curriculum and adjust their instructional pace for them. The very best can and do, but they’re the exception to the rule. Most teachers, especially new ones like my friend, teach to the middle to the best of their abilities.

Most problematic is the tone of the letter. Granted, as taxpayers the Least Favs pay the teacher’s salary, but teachers are human, and therefore parents are most effective when they seek common ground with teachers. Like trial lawyers, the Least Favs seem intent on winning an argument without any feel for what “winning” will cost in terms of the teacher’s sentiment towards them, and possibly their child.

Take aways or how to partner more effectively with teachers:

1) When communicating concerns with teachers, start positively. I suspect the first two paragraphs were like body blows; consequently, the positive points in paragraphs three and four were probably lost on my friend. Everyone is more receptive to constructive criticism after positive feedback.

2) Create good will by conveying reasonableness. Before pressing a teacher to differentiate their instruction, acknowledge that it’s “probably not very easy” to account for individual differences in background knowledge, skill, and aptitude.

3) Create positive momentum by honoring the teachers’ experience by asking “What have you or colleagues of yours done that’s worked in situations like this in the past?” The implication being “You’re a professional who can resolve the dilemma or partner with other teachers to resolve it.”

4) Create good will by conveying reasonableness. Instead of demanding follow up communication, say you’d appreciate some sort of follow up in the next few weeks. Increase the odds of a quick response by acknowledging that it’s “probably not very easy to communicate promptly with every parent every time something bubbles up.”

5) Ask what, if anything, you can do at home to also help improve the situation.

Aaron Schwartz—What Made Me Different From the Other Kids

Via Ronaldo Lemos in Brazil.

When I was a kid, I thought a lot about what made me different from the other kids. I don’t think I was smarter than them and I certainly wasn’t more talented. And I definitely can’t claim I was a harder worker — I’ve never worked particularly hard, I’ve always just tried doing things I find fun. Instead, what I concluded was that I was more curious — but not because I had been born that way. If you watch little kids, they are intensely curious, always exploring and trying to figure out how things work. The problem is that school drives all that curiosity out. Instead of letting you explore things for yourself, it tells you that you have to read these particular books and answer these particular questions. And if you try to do something else instead, you’ll get in trouble. Very few people’s curiosity can survive that. But, due to some accident, mine did. . . . Curiosity builds on itself — each new thing you learn about has all sorts of different parts and connections, which you then want to learn more about. Pretty soon you’re interested in more and more and more, until almost everything seems interesting. . . . I feel like the only thing I’ve really done is followed my curiosity wherever it led. This isn’t easy. . . but it’s always worked for me.

Continuous Improvement

A bullshit workplace notion. Midway into artistic or athletic activities, jobs, careers, relationships, life, we plateau. Shortly thereafter, energy ebbs, and our performance erodes.

We improve for a bit, we plateau, we decline.

I observed a good second year math teacher today at the independent middle school. Then we conferenced. After listening to him reflect on the pre-algebra lesson, I listed his many strengths. Then I made a few suggestions. Call on Ben as soon as he puts his head on his desk. Give Robin your marker, take her seat, and have her teach everyone her prime factorization method by illustrating it on the board. Have two more students explain and illustrate their methods and then ask, “Which is most efficient and why?” Let the kite string out a bit and “guide from the side” for awhile. Remember, the educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them.

He told me he likes it when I observe because he’s reminded of effective teaching methods that he has let slip. He’s a good second year teacher who has started to plateau because he’s rarely observed, and rarely gets to observe other, more accomplished teachers.

A small number of the very best teachers, artists, athletes, and people continue improving considerably longer than their peers by seeking out expert, critical feedback; by investing progressively more time and energy; and by surrounding themselves by other positive, hardworking people, who are trending upwards.

And the wisest teachers, artists, athletes, and people have a sixth sense for both when they’ve plateaued and when their performance has begun to decline. And then the wisest, most selfless, most financially secure of them, step aside to provide the next generation opportunities to improve, plateau, and decline.

The Art of Science Teaching

Legions of teachers do amazing work with an incredible mix of young people every school day. Very few people are aware of just how amazing.

I’ve been hired by an independent middle school to help nine faculty strengthen their teaching, develop individual professional development plans, and map the school’s curriculum. Groovy stuff.

Last week I observed a former public high school science teacher who has a reputation for spending an inordinate amount of time in his classroom. A pro, who probably outworks every critic who think teachers have it easy, he spends his summers with other teacher leaders at a midwest university writing case studies and teaching other science educators how to teach them.

The class I observed was sublime. The unit is “Osmosis and Diffusion.” The case, based on true events, was titled “Agony & Ecstasy”. It revolved around three college friends who took their fourth friend to the emergency room after she started foaming at the mouth and shaking uncontrollably the morning after a party. The students assumed the role of the medical intern who had to figure out what was wrong with the sick woman. They thought of important questions to ask the friends, first by themselves, then with a partner, and then as a group. Had their friend been behaving oddly before the party? What was her prior medical history? Did she use alcohol or drugs at the party?

Eventually, the students learned they used Ecstasy at the party the previous night. After a short explanation of brain cells during which the teacher used his fingers, hands, and arms to illustrate how neuro transmitters work, the students logged onto Mouse Party, a University of Utah website designed for middle and high school students to learn about how drugs affect the brain. Using information found on Mouse Party the students filled out a data table on how Ecstasy works and listed what else they needed to know in order to figure out why the young woman was so sick.

Next the class will examine her blood work and learn about why salt/water imbalances lead to tissue and brain swelling. In the end, they’ll learn the young woman drank a tremendous amount of water to blunt the drug’s impact and suffered from hyponatremia.

This brief description of the class doesn’t begin to capture the teacher’s skill. He brilliantly tapped the students’ prior knowledge without getting bogged down on too many tangents, he grouped the students so that they’d work well together, he continually checked in on how each group was doing, and he modeled continuous learning by saying things like “I don’t know” and “You know what I’m curious about”. And he used technology so effortlessly that you may not have even thought about it had you been observing.

Best of all, he really wants my help in getting even better. And there’s always ways to improve. Every class, every day. Among a couple of other ideas, I suggested he “sell” the case better by putting one or more of the students names in it and by explaining that it’s an emergency situation so they have to work especially hard to solve it within two class periods. The only limit to enlivening it, I said, was his creativity. His eyes widened and he started talking excitedly about working with the theater teacher and incorporating props.

I had to wait to conference with him because Claire’s lizard had died the night before. He listened patiently, and repeated, “I’m so sorry.” He and Claire discussed the bad things that happen in lizards’ stomachs when they eat sand. He told her he was going to bring a lizard to the classroom so that her friend and her could have a positive experience. “What kind?” she asked. “A gecko lizard,” he explained.

She left without thanking him, but that didn’t ruffle his feathers. He’s used to it.

Why Close Friendship is Elusive

A friend of mine was irked because his partner didn’t want to send out Christmas cards this year. Nothing to do with the expense, the time, anything, turns out she just didn’t feel like it. “We didn’t deserve to receive any,” he reflected.

A year off is no big deal, but this understandable tension illustrates a foundational idea that explains why close friendships are elusive—they depend upon reciprocity.

Zuckerberg has zucked up our understanding of terms like “acquaintance,” “friend,” and “close friend”. If you’re like most people, you have many acquaintances, maybe a handful or two or three of friends, and very few close friends. This Daily Mail article says most people have two close friends, down from three 25 years ago. I’ve seen similar U.S.-based research numbers. What distinguishes friends from acquaintances and close friends from mere friends?

Friends spend more time together than acquaintances. Acquaintances are people we enjoy when we occasionally end up at the same place at the same time. A large proportion of Facebook “friends” are acquaintances. With an acquaintance, you can go weeks or months without any face-to-face contact. You don’t really know what makes them tick and they’re clueless as to your inner life. In contrast, friends do things together more frequently—whether writing back and forth, talking, helping one another, working out together, eating, traveling, etc. Time together gives friends a feel for each other’s daily activities, hopes, fears, and thoughts more generally.

What distinguishes especially close friendships is both people initiate a similar amount. Communication; invitations to do things; and the degree of honesty, transparency, and trust are balanced. There’s a natural, shared reciprocity. That sounds more simplistic than it is. In actuality, no friendship is ever perfectly balanced. Close friends can weather a slight imbalance (10-15%?) at any given time, but more than that and closeness is inevitably sacrificed.

How to apply these ideas? Most people would trade several acquaintances for a friend and a handful of friends for one especially close one. Quality trumps quantity. All of us have friends we wish we were closer to, but they don’t initiate as much as we’d like. This is why life for middle schoolers is so filled with drama, the social imbalances wreak havoc. When it comes to unrequited friendship, most middle schoolers are not self-confident or secure enough to say, “Your loss.” We never completely escape the complexities prompted by social imbalances.

Think about your social constellation. Who are your acquaintances, friends, and close friends? Odds are you have acquaintances or friends who you wish would initiate more. I shortchange my long-distance friends because I’m allergic to telephones. I shortchange local friends because I’m similarly allergic to cell phones which means, like a modern day Rudolph, I can’t join in all the texting fun. More important than telephone calls and texts is a willingness to be vulnerable enough to allow friendships to deepen.

Consider using the changing of the calendar to tell a friend or two through your words and/or actions that you’d like to spend more time with them. If they don’t initiate any more than normal for whatever reason, don’t push it or dwell on it, life’s too short, close friendship can’t be forced. If need be, accept the limits of that particular friendship and invest your time and energy in another friend who may be waiting for an invitation to spend more time together and to be more vulnerable.

Here’s hoping your 2012 is filled with meaningful friendships.

Of related interest, here’s a 2008 post on how the limits of time force friendship making trade-offs.