Depression and suicide are things that still plague our teenagers (our society in general really), and until more resources are devoted to mental health that is likely to continue. For some, the problem seems so large and it feels like there is nothing they can do. One artist is taking a swing at making a difference, using the platform that he knows best, music. Check out this video by Logic:
The video is a story of a young man struggling with his sexuality, which is appropriate as suicide among LGBTQ+ teens is higher than among their cisgendered peers. It is well worth your time to watch, talk about with teenagers in your sphere of influence, and to consider how you can make a difference. Regardless of your ideological take on issues of sexuality, each person that attempts to or commits suicide is someone’s son or daughter.
How do I make a difference?
- Have conversations with teenagers about loving their neighbors and peer advocacy. Check out the Trevor Project for ways to support LGBTQ+ teens
- The song’s title, 1-800-273-8255, is the National Suicide Prevention hotline. Scan their resources.
- Pay attention to changes in the behavior of teenagers around you. They may be crying out and need an adult to simply hear their cry. Need to know what to look for? Start with this artcle from the National Institute for Mental Health
- Consider hosting a Mental Health First Aid training in your congregation, school or community.
It started as a small cough and developed into acute bronchitis. Brock has never been prone to illness beyond the occasional cold, except when he was little. Although as an infant he did keep us busy with ear infections. At the doctor, when being diagnosed and treated for this bout of bronchitis, Brock also had an ear infection. His first since day care days.
Why am I writing about his health? The doctor asked this great question in her office, “Brock are you stressed out? You seem really tired, like, beyond the sickness.” A deep exhale from him confirmed that.
I have always had a romanticized view of Senior year and all the excitement that came with it. In fact, I bought into the story about how Junior year is the hardest and most pressure packed. A few tasks from Senior year might indicate otherwise:
- College applications
- Senior year classes
- Extra curriculuar activities
- Scholarship applications
- Financial aid conversations
- Decisions about where to attend college…all making for a stressful Fall in our home.
We should probably include “freaked out, but trying to act like we are holding it together” parents. Don’t judge. A few thoughts for youth ministers about Seniors.
- Many students are overwhelmed and don’t know how to handle it. You don’t have to fix this for them. Just let them know that you are in their corner and praying for them.
- Give them opportunities for places to just be, not where there is something expected of them.
- Share prayer practices that help them find peace and readjustment because of whose they are.
- Please don’t make them feel guilty when they miss a program or event. Do let them know they were missed.
- Remind them that the celebration is coming!
When I first shared my experience with the blue haired girl and friends, I noted the deep hurt I was hearing, but also the beautiful community created for two weeks. Then Brock challenged me further with his reflection.
For many, the image of home evokes love, acceptance and security, but not for everyone. It may be easy to comprehend a situation that is intentionally hurtful, but what about those “accidentally ostracized” by their family? Where do they find a place to be loved as they are? Isn’t that what home should be?
Jesus calls out to the hurting and marginalized. In fact, every time he is with someone marginalized, he stands with them in love and kindness. He welcomes them to the Kingdom. He welcomes them into his family without conditions. That seems like a good home to me.
Brock said to me, “Once a person is turned away from the church, asking them to believe there is a better way of knowing Jesus is much harder.” In Luke 13, Jesus is admonished by religious leaders for healing a woman on the Sabbath. After responding to the hypocrites, Jesus tells the parable of the Mustard Seed to describe the Kingdom of God.
He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches. Luke 13:18-19, NRSV
A mustard seed that someone sowed in the garden, that grew to become a tree, is now where birds make their nests. The kingdom is like a seed, when tended with care, provides a home to the fragile. It provides security and shelter to all comers. It produces more seeds that produce more trees that provide more homes to the fragile. That is a vision of the kingdom I can get behind, one that replicates love and acceptance without condition. The tree never says to the bird, “You can make a nest here, but first you have to change, or that I even expect you to change.” We might hope people strive to imitate Christ, but that is not up to us. What is up to us?
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” adapted Mark 12:28-31, NRSV
Our teenagers need us to show them a place where freedom is shared, self-expression is welcomed, and love is not a sin. We need to answer the call the other 50 weeks of the year to welcome our teenagers, all teenagers, home.
NOTE: This post was written by my 17-year-old son after a conversation we had to unpack an experience I had (as described in a previous post, the first in this three-part series). I asked him to write about how he experienced the camp. It is written here, without comment or edit from me…that’s next in the series.
A few days ago, I got home from a summer camp for middle and high school writers. It’s more than just a writing program, though—for many of the campers, it’s the only opportunity they have to be themselves. More on that in a moment. At this camp, every day, we had a readers’ forum, where campers could sign up to read some of their work. Due to the welcoming, open-minded nature of camp (and the two-minute time limit), these readings often took the form of emotionally charged slam poetry.
One day at the readers’ forum, I was struck by several pieces in which the authors seemed to believe that God, the church, and Christians in general, hated them for being themselves.
It made me kind of mad. What did they mean, God hates them? He loves everybody, according to my half-remembered children’s hymns and Sunday school lessons. What made these people so special that He couldn’t be bothered?
I kept listening and later talked to a few of them. As it turns out, they learned different things in Sunday school. Their parents and their ministers had very particular definitions of ‘everybody.’ These kids were used to sitting at the dinner table and listening to their parents discuss the moral infirmities and inevitable damnation of groups of people that, unbeknownst to them, included their own children. One girl who still hasn’t come out to her family told me a story about how, over Thanksgiving, her parents and relatives shook their heads over the folly of these strange people who identified as ‘pansexual.’ She narrowly resisted the urge to look up and say, “You rang?”
Humor was her escape from her family’s accidental ostracism. Not everyone was able to be so cheerful. On the last night of camp, a transgender girl was in tears at the prospect of returning to her strictly conservative town, a place she described as “essentially, a theocracy.” Other campers had similarly restrictive places to return to, places they didn’t call home. Camp is home; those places are just where they live.
Among many of my peers, the church is a place where freedom is stifled, where self-expression is denied, and where love is a sin. They’ve been embittered by the atmosphere in which they grew up, and they cannot see the church that I want to imagine: a place where everyone is welcome, where ministry is kindness, and where love is salvation.
Maybe there are churches like that; I don’t know. I hope so. But to the people who have seen the worst Christianity can offer, those churches might as well not exist. They want nothing to do with this God or the people who claim to be doing His will. In a time when they need more guidance than ever, they are least able to find it. They don’t trust their parents, or their churches, or their schools. They trust this camp. For two weeks out of the year, they feel safe, welcome, loved. For the rest of the year, I don’t know what they do.
Keeping up with Joneses is a trap that frequently captures many of us. Whether it be a new car, kitchen renovation, kids sports program or a job promotion, the trap is out there. You know who else falls into it? Teenagers. Social media has now given us the opportunity to peer into the lives of far more Joneses, and they are living awesome lives. The rest of us, probably not as great as our Joneses. And now it is time to end social media envy.
You have probably found yourself with the familiar sense of jealousy looking at one too many pictures of those friends and their perfect kids skiing in Wyoming or Colorado, while you are just lucky to get a sled out for an hour on the icy streets of your town this winter. Sadly, for teenagers who naturally struggle with fitting in and figuring out who they are, this creates a whole set of “needs” to look or act the part of normal. Maybe the bigger issue is that we have lost our sense of normal because we spend so much time looking at the perfect moments posted on Facebook or Instagram.
What’s a teenager to do as they see all of these things? What is an adult to do? There are a few good places to start:
- The Curtain: Remember that you are not seeing behind it. You are seeing the “best of” in many instances. If I’m in a tropical paradise, I want to show lots of the great stuff I’m experiencing, but I am also using it to capture the memories for myself. I am not as likely to capture the moments when stuck in traffic driving to soccer practice or coming home to a cold dinner and cold shoulder because a meeting ran long.
- The Mirror: When you look at your own moments, imagine how others view them. You might be creating moments of which others are envious. Be grateful for your moments.
- The Moment: This is the key to remember whether you are posting from paradise, scrolling through other’s lives or just sitting in traffic in your car. Be present in the moment. Be thankful that you have this vacation. Be thankful that you have friends with whom you want to stay in touch. Take advantage of that moment driving to soccer when you can sing, laugh or just chat with your kid. Make a moment that builds a great relationship; one that a snapshot cannot capture.
With your teenager, talk about it when you feel that sense of envy. Let them know it can be hard to see all of the other things that you wish you could do too. Then teach them to reflect on their own moments. Being grateful for those pleasures, no matter how big or small, is a choice. Being mindful of those same sized blessings is an important skill for our kids to learn. More often than not they learn this behavior watching someone else…you.
Note: Timely, after writing this and scheduling the post, an email showed up from Fast Company about the very same topic as it relates to adults.
I’ve never been a fan of anonymous letters or anonymous comments on a blog. It stands to reason that I am also not a fan of social media applications that allow users to interact anonymously (I’m looking at you ask.fm). It really has nothing to do with the intent of the app creators, or even most of its users, but rather with those who show up with the intent of doing harm. Whisper is a bit different in that regard. Let’s talk first about what Whisper is.
Whisper is an app that encourages people to anonymously share their secrets. You enter your secret and it posts the secret over an image it finds using key words. For example, if you post something about bacon, there is likely a picture of bacon that will be the background of your secret. I wonder if any vegetarians secretly confess to sneaking bacon? Reading through the postings is generally entertaining, especially if you stick to those which are trending. While many are harmless fun, you find that some are true cries for help, propositions for companionship, and those who just felt a need to share a secret. Beyond the trending posts, users are also able to search posts that are nearby (within 10, 5, even less than 1 mile away) if they are using location services on their computer or mobile device. In fact, Whisper encourages users to have these services enabled. This, combined with their tagline of “meet new people,” is a clear indication that the app is not meant for users to remain anonymous to one another, but rather to make a connection.
Generally I believe most of what is on Whisper is relatively harmless, yet there are red flags, even for this non-alarmist.
- When you post, people are allowed to comment in response, and anonymously. Again, while most people respond appropriately, there are those who find entertainment in being mean. Even as adults, the criticisms are often what we remember. For teens this is far more impactful on their identity development and self-esteem.
- Whisper allows you to search for nearby whispers. Again, generally harmless, but certainly something that can be exploited because whisper offers a Private Messaging function that allows users to send messages to one another. I have a friend in the security industry who says “never underestimate how smart the bad guys are.” This is one of those moments where one should be leery as a parent. A person who posts something about feeling disliked, unaccepted, etc, can certainly be manipulated by others posing as “a friend.”
- There is no filter on Whisper. As users can upload their own photos or images they have downloaded from the Internet, you can be exposed to explicit content, both in words and images.
Let me again state, I think most people who use Whisper want to use it for fun, maybe even cathartic reasons, but ther are those who ruin the experience. If your teenager is using Whisper, here are my recommendations.
- Talk about about it. What do they like about it? What do they dislike? How do they use it? How do they treat others, even anonymously?
- Are they aware of the things that concern you? You can have age appropriate conversations with your teen to express your concerns over their settings (location services, messaging notifications), how they process what they see and how they respond.
- How would you like them to respond if they are contacted or mistreated?
- Make a decision about Whisper together. You can dictate that they delete the mobile app, but it still has a web interface, so denying access is virtually impossible, and trying to do so will all but guarantee they continue using it. Each family and teenager is different and your response to Whisper should be what is right for your family.
If you are uncomfortable with them using Whisper, encourage them to download Over and create their own fun messages over pictures that theycan share with friends and not have to worry about the other repercussions.
If you are comfortable with your teen using Whisper, have regular check ins about it. Create your own account just to see what is being said near you and to what your teen has access. Do not just assume that everything is good…or bad. Talk about what you see.
Frankly, an opportunity exists for you to have a great conversation with your teenager about why people feel the need to express secrets, even painful ones, to such a public forum, and why others respond so negatively. Perhaps the conversation we should be having with our teenagers is one about them feeling safe to share their concerns and problems with us, their parents…not the Internet.