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Julia Steiny:  Brains Need To Be Healthy To Learn

Friday, December 28, 2012


For me, it's all about mental health. And by "it" I mean improving education, and a thousand other aspects of kids' lives.

What does a kid learn with? Well that would be her brain. And if you're thinking that such a statement is a total well-duh, why aren't we talking a lot about kids' brains, since that's where their mental health resides?

Consider: Kids (or adults for that matter) who are asthmatic, obese or constipated don't shine on the local sports team or dance floor. Their conditions undermine their performance of common physical feats. Furthermore, social handicaps brought on by poor physical health make them feel emotionally crummy. They're short of breath, picked last for teams and teased. Many act out or search for escape.

But somehow we expect that kids (or adults for that matter) who are worried, overwhelmed, over-stimulated, sad or in a jealous rage to meet high performance standards. If they don't, they're vulnerable to disapproval. After a while, vicious cycles of feeling crummy develop, which is to say, poor mental health.

One problem is that when people refer to "mental health," they usually mean mental illness. The discussion about mental health now raging in the press centers around Adam Lanza, whose massacre of 27 people and himself clearly indicates mental illness in excelsis. "Mental health" is associated with extreme illness, which still carries stigma, alas. But no wonder no one wants to get caught asking questions about their own mental health.

For a clear, positive definition, the Search Institute offers a set of characteristics they call the 40 "developmental assets." Interestingly, most researchers tend to call mental health something else; you'll also encounter "resilience" and "social-and-emotional skill."

But even more simply, for our purposes today, the mentally healthy are those people who feel able to identify their own needs and issues, and can negotiate for themselves civilly, within the context of a community. Kids and adults alike must learn to take responsibility for their daily moods, feelings and the nasty messages they allow their heads to tell them. (Like: "I'm too weird to have friends.") Those who can't manage feelings on their own need to talk to a friend, a mom, a professional.

But talking takes time. And to professionals, time is money.

When kids aren't using pro-social ways to meet their needs, doctors often prescribe psychoactive drugs to manage the unwanted behavior. While I generally hate the impulse to pass laws to legislate every little thing, giving a kid psychoactive drugs without talk therapy really should be illegal. Drugs can't get to the bottom of a problem or teach a kid pro-social skills. Drugs can be hugely helpful by supporting people in the throes of therapy, unpacking painful experiences. But too often drugs are just excuses to avoid the harder issue of helping kids form the strong, caring relationships that are an everyday safety net.

I am no paragon of mental health. On my desk is a list of people to call when I feel overwhelmed, which the voice in my head calls "crazy" or "stupid." Sometimes I pick up the list and keep calling until someone has a minute to hear my story and give perspective. I reciprocate, of course. But I don't have time to be lost in such mild forms of mental illness, like a mood cold, anger constipation, or a paranoid flu.

Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups also have lists and strongly encourage their members to call their sponsor or someone else, rather than act out, or take up drinking again. Talk. Make connection. Get perspective. Learn to listen well.

Sad fact: 21.4 percent of our youth 13-18 have a "severe mental disorder." That's a huge portion of our teenagers. The way we treat our kids is adversely affecting their mental health.

Every kid in the world deserves to have at least one person in their lives who gives them the message: "I'm right here. I've got your back. Your interests are mine, and whatever goes wrong, we'll work it out together. No, you may not indulge yourself in anti-social behavior; you will learn to be civilized. I will help you. You're not alone. I am interested in your issues. I care."

But if you think such a message is normally pumped into kids' lives nowadays, you're crazy.

So my wish for the new year is that we move mental health to the center of our concerns for kids. Leaving it at the fringes is doing none of us any favors, but least of all the young people we're supposed to protect. Even if it's only the sniffles, we attend to illness. Why put up with so little attention to feelings?

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building demonstration projects in Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903. 


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