Alarm Sounded About Children’s Mental Health

Multiple agencies have declared a mental health crisis among kids in the U.S., tied to the effects of the pandemic.

The causes may include grief from losing loved ones, the stress of parents losing their jobs, the social isolation, the disruptions to routine, the sense of helplessness, the significant increase in screen time, and the struggle to catch up at school after months of attempting to learn via Zoom. Also, maybe the feeling that they’ve been left behind and that there isn’t a bright future waiting (and they still hear quite a bit of pandemic doom-mongering).

Throughout the pandemic, many people have lost trust in various institutions, including the ones currently announcing the mental health crisis. I don’t yet know what they’re proposing as solutions.

Four Mistakes People Make When Writing About Abuse

Abuse (whether physical, emotional, or sexual) shows up a lot in fiction. Whether it’s written well or not depends on multiple factors, but the following are some mistakes I’ve come across when people write about abuse:

They include it just for a bit of drama

Any event in a story can contribute to the unfolding drama. What I’m talking about is when authors seem to not know what to do with the characters or plot, so they toss in some abuse. Because it’s a thoughtless inclusion, they don’t consider the ramifications of the abuse or explore its impact on the characters. It’s just there to add some adrenaline-fueled moments.

They include it just for “sympathy points”

Abuse can make a reader’s heart go out for a character. The problem is when it’s written thoughtlessly. The author wants to make the character seem more vulnerable, and they aren’t sure how to do it, so they add some abuse. They don’t really follow up on it or think about how it might affect the character both short-term and long-term.

They don’t do any research

There isn’t one way to react to abuse. So it’s important to not just find a checklist somewhere and make the character do all the things on the list (like a generic guide to post-traumatic stress). However, it’s still important to research potential responses to abuse and consider the ways in which your character may react. How might the abuse might change them? How do their responses and decisions reflect their specific character traits or psyche?

There are many factors that influence the effects of abuse, including the victim’s age and temperament, the type of abuse, the identity of the abuser, and the influence of helpful and supportive people. Research may also cover things like court trials, custody disputes, or life in a domestic violence shelter. Some authors make the mistake of not looking into these things.

They rush to happy endings or force Forgiveness scenes

Happy or hopeful endings are possible in a story with abuse. But you need to build up to those kinds of endings. Sometimes, authors slap them on to the story, and they seem to come out of nowhere. They’re rushed or otherwise unconvincing.

Another problem is when authors try to push forgiveness. Maybe because they want to send a message that it’s best to forgive. They may also assume, incorrectly, that forgiveness always means reconciliation or a restoration of a relationship. Forgiveness is not a requirement post-abuse; furthermore, how victims experience forgiveness (if they do experience it) varies. Even if an author is very pro-forgiveness, they need to take that into account.

These problems with writing about abuse boil down to not thinking enough – about the specific characters, the situation they’re in, and what it might really be like for them. To make your fiction convincing, you need to get to know your characters. And if you put them through something like abuse, give it thought, so that it doesn’t come across as a gimmick or throw the readers out of the story.

How to Write a “Strong Female Character”

It’s easy! Just follow these guidelines:

  • Don’t bother too much about character development.
  • Give her a lot of the following kinds of dialogue: expository statements about key plot points; echoes of what other characters have said; chiding comments (verging on nagging, but try not to make her nag too much); sarcastic quips in response to something interesting or funny that the hero has done.
  • Toss in some action sequences where she’s beating someone up while wearing tight clothes, short skirts, and/or high heels.

There you go. Behold the strength.

How Personal Should You Get Online?

If you’re setting up a YouTube channel, an Instagram account, or a blog, how much of your personal life should you share? There seems to be an expectation that you’ll share all kinds of details, whether it’s photos of your kids or a discussion of your medical issues. But what’s right for you?

The following are some points consider:

You’re allowed to have boundaries

Even if you decide to post about personal topics, such as your mental health, you should draw boundaries. There are probably a variety of things that you still want to keep private.

You may think, “Of course I don’t have to share everything,” but it can be easy to forget, especially when people pressure you. People become interested in your personal life. They want to know more about your relationships and where you live. Many times, they’re just curious. But some people will dig into your life for worse reasons.

Also, keep in mind that you can reset your boundaries. For example, if you begin to talk about a medical problem you’ve been struggling with, you can later decide that you no longer want to discuss it. It’s up to you.

Resist Posting Impulsively

The click of a button often leads to regret. If you’re about to share something personal, take a break from your computer or phone. Do something else for a while. Consider the ramifications and whether it’s worth it for you to follow through on posting.

Sometimes, you become tempted to share personal information because you know it will get you more clicks, likes, and subscribes. But in the long run, will it be worthwhile for you? Will it harm you? You can’t know for sure how every decision will play out, but you can at least keep the risks and drawbacks in mind.

Ultimately, you may decide to share something personal. At the very least, don’t do it on an impulse. What you post can wind up staying on the Internet for as long as there is an Internet. Even if you delete it, people can make copies and post it elsewhere or use the Wayback Machine to find it.

Consider Your Safety

I’ve watched YouTube videos where you can see someone’s whole house, including entranceways. You can figure out where they live based on what other houses in the neighborhood look like or based on street signs. People also post videos and photos of their kids outside of easily identifiable structures, such as schools and churches.

Speaking of kids – child predators often steal images of children from social media and blogs. These can be ordinary photos, at least to normal people. But they wind up getting exchanged among creepy and dangerous people.

Keep safety in mind when posting online. For example, if you’re posting a short video of yourself, make sure there isn’t an envelope or a prescription bottle with your full name and address visible in the shot. Consider what people can learn about you from your posts. Can they see the make of your car? Are you wearing an ID badge from your workplace? Does the world really need to know your date of birth, your kids’ birthdays, and other identifying information?

Consider the Effects on Other People

Even if you’re fine with posting a lot of information about yourself, how much are you exposing about other people?

There may be tension between what you think would make excellent content and what other people need for privacy. You may want to include your spouse in photos posted publicly, but they may have no interest in appearing online. You may want your kids to feature prominently in your videos, and maybe they seem enthusiastic about it. But do they understand the potential pitfalls of appearing in videos that anyone can see?

How will your content change your relationship with your loved ones? For instance, if you’re frequently filming the time you spend with family and friends, it changes how you interact with them. If you’re sharing sensitive information about your kids, such as their medical history, how will they feel about this when they get older?

What Raising Awareness Sometimes Looks Like

Recently, I wrote a post about how influencers don’t need to be political commentators or activists. Then I came across a funny video by Caitlin Reilly, where she pretends to be an actress who is raising awareness about a serious issue. Enjoy!

Loving Yourself and Loving Others

In recent years, I’ve seen an idea pop up in articles or blog posts about self-love, and it goes something like this: “If you don’t love yourself, you can’t love others” or “You need to learn how to love yourself before you can love others.”

But is this true? I think it’s simplistic.

Even if you struggle to love yourself, you may still be able to love another person. Even if you struggle to perceive your own worth and good qualities, you may still see what’s good in other people. You may be biased against yourself, and blinded to what’s in you. But your perception of other people may be more generous and loving.

Telling people that they can’t love others unless they first love themselves seems hopelessly pessimistic and discouraging. It can make people seriously doubt if they can ever experience the joy and closeness of a healthy relationship, unless they first meet the goal of loving themselves. (Also, loving yourself isn’t “all or nothing.” There are days when you may not be able to stand yourself, and other days when you’re more accepting of who you are and kinder to yourself.)

That said, self-loathing may encourage a loathing of other people. Meaning that a lack of compassion for yourself may also combine with a lack of empathy or compassion for others. This is one of the potential dangers of self-loathing, especially an entrenched and persistent self-loathing.

Another danger of self-loathing is destructiveness. You may be driven to hurt yourself and to damage your relationships with people. You wind up behaving in unloving ways and hurting them.

So yes, self-loathing can be destructive and needs to be addressed. But I still don’t accept the idea that you need to reach a state of self-love in order to love others.

Maybe it’s also useful to distinguish between love as a feeling and love as a set of behaviors. Ideally, the two go together, but actions are generally more important. For instance, I’m not impressed by people who claim to love their spouse or children but then mistreat them. Do you really love the people you mistreat? Love shouldn’t just be something that’s felt “deep down”; it needs to manifest as action.

I do encourage people to behave in loving ways to themselves, even if they’re not feeling much love for themselves. Likewise, treating others with love and respect, even when you’re in a low mood, is something to aim for. Behaviors can also have the effect of strengthening certain feelings and attitudes, including the love you feel towards yourself and others.

Five Ways Social Media Can Hurt Your Mental Health (And Your Character)

Is using Twitter making you feel depressed or chronically enraged? How about scrolling through Instagram? The answer really depends on multiple factors, such as the accounts you follow, the amount of time you spend on these sites, your personality, and your general state of mind.

It’s simplistic to say that social media is entirely bad, when it can give you benefits, such as connecting with people over books you enjoy reading. But it’s also a potential underminer of mental health and character. In what ways can it hurt you?

Helplessness

It’s fine to stay informed about what’s happening in your community and around the world. But it’s impossible to keep track of everything, and there’s a limit to what you can do about the news you hear. For instance, if you’re reading about a humanitarian crisis, you may be able to donate to a reputable non-profit organization or advocate for better policies to prevent future crises. But you can’t physically swoop in and scoop people out of harm’s way.

If you’re on social media for long enough, you’re immersed in updates of terrible crimes, horrific accidents, and large-scale crises, including wars and natural disasters. It’s one thing to stay informed; it’s another to be steeped in tragedy for hours on end.

You also get a front-row seat to all kinds of propaganda and dishonesty. Dishonesty isn’t limited to one end of the political spectrum. Many people are eager to spread any information that appears to confirm their beliefs. You watch in real time how someone’s reputation gets trashed based on a lie or a profound distortion. Any corrections you share can feel like drops of water in a flood of lies.

When faced with this horrible torrent, helplessness is a common response. You begin to focus more on what you can’t do and on how much is beyond your help. You experience despair, or you become more numb and apathetic. You become less inclined to act in ways that are in your power. You adopt an all-or-nothing mentality: “If I can’t fix all of this, I can’t do anything. What’s the point.”

Dissociation

Spending a lot of time on social media can create rifts between your body, emotions, and thoughts. The relationships and activities of your offline existence fade in importance or resonance. You use what’s on your screen as a perpetual distraction from serious problems, such as chronic loneliness. You become alienated from your body, fixating instead on cartoon avatars or painstakingly tweaked and heavily filtered photos. Good health involves an integration of body and brain, and care for both. When you’re dissociated from yourself, you feel less real, less important.

Social Contagion

Various behaviors, emotions, and psychological conditions are subject to social influence. Suicidality and anorexia are two examples. “Tourette-like behaviors” is another one.

On different social media platforms, there are communities that encourage a lack of well-being. Years ago on Tumblr, for example, I saw groups of younger people fill their bios with lists of mental health problems, developmental disorders, medical issues, and obscure identities. Many times, these would be self-diagnosed, and there was a competitiveness to it. A longer list meant that you were more interesting and more authoritative; people had to listen to you, and you could tell them how they should think and feel about a particular issue. Taking steps to become mentally healthier was a sign that you had no serious problems to begin with. It was a sign that you were boring and “normal.” (Nobody in these circles wanted to be normal.)

This type of behavior isn’t limited to Tumblr, but what I saw on Tumblr was an excellent example of unwellness being turned into an identity. If you were depressed, you weren’t meant to think of depression as a part of your life that you treat and cope with. You’d make it part of your more permanent identity.

Perpetual Dissatisfaction

On social media, you can always find people who are better-looking than you, more talented, more intelligent, and more popular. Many also seem to have a lively social life and strong relationships. Are they actually happier than you? Who knows. You’re looking at curated images and narratives. Some people may be genuinely happy, while others smile and pose through terrible pain. Regardless, a steady stream of posts and images can intensify feelings of dissatisfaction with yourself and different aspects of your life. And you may be fixated, stuck on scrolling past image after image of a happiness that appears to be unattainable to you.

Emotional Manipulation

Social media presents a skewed picture of people and life more generally. Posts that are more extreme and lacking in nuance generally get more views, clicks, likes, shares, and comments. The people most active on a site often behave in obsessive or abusive ways, without a sense of perspective.

You get into heated arguments with bots. You feed on a steady stream of what an algorithm sends your way. The stream of information contains lies and distortions, and how much do you absorb without fact-checking or questioning?

Plugging into social media twists your emotions around. You feel angry and outraged for hours. Or you ride on waves of vengeful pleasure. Or your stomach twists into anxious knots, and fear settles cold and heavy in your belly. The emotions stay with you long after you’ve looked away from the screen (and it’s so hard to stay away!). You’ve plugged in and received currents of algorithm-driven feelings, and it’s addictive – the emotions, the potential responses from people to your posts. Do you sense that you’re in control of your social media use?

The E.R. and Society

I was talking recently to someone who works in an emergency room as a nurse, and she told me about all the non-emergencies at the E.R. – among them, people seeking drugs, people sleeping off drunkenness, people with untreated mental illness.

What she described reminded me of this excerpt from a short story, “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977,” by Lucia Berlin (published in an anthology, A Manual for Cleaning Women):

“Fear, poverty, alcoholism, loneliness are terminal illnesses. Emergencies, in fact.”

Influencers Don’t Need to Be Political Commentators or Activists

Should people who have a large online platform comment on political events or become activists for a particular cause? Some would argue yes: Whether you’re amassing Instagram followers or picking up thousands of subscribers on YouTube, you’re obligated to say something about current events and take a stand. Preferably with the “right opinions,” whatever those happen to be.

But is this necessary or desirable?

In many cases, I think it would do more harm than good.

  1. I don’t like the idea that people should feel compelled to discuss a topic. For instance, if someone wants to post tons of awesome photos about gardening, just leave them to it. I can get political commentary elsewhere. There’s no shortage of political commentary online.
  2. The pressure to speak on a topic is often driven by momentary trends. It doesn’t account for what someone may care about most deeply. For example, an influencer may be dedicated to protecting endangered species in the Amazon Rain Forest. It’s a topic she’s researched and can speak about with some depth. But it isn’t necessarily what’s trending on Twitter.
  3. People don’t have the time or inclination to research every topic that dominates the news cycle and social media. If they feel pressured to state an opinion, they’ll often just try to figure out what’s expected from them. (What are their peers saying? Their offline social circle? Their audience?) The opinions they express often aren’t based on careful thought or facts. Most of the time, their main concern is to be socially acceptable and to not get piled on by some of the more fanatical activists. Furthermore, if they’re pressured to comment on breaking news, they may wind up sharing unverified stories and rumors, adding more falsities to the internet.
  4. Following up on the third point, the pressure to speak out often results in superficial gestures. Those gestures mean little in the face of deep-rooted, long-standing problems. You insert a hash tag in one of your posts or chant a slogan at the end of a 15-minute video, and that becomes activism.
  5. I don’t think it’s good for our psychological health to have every channel, every forum, become a battleground on different political topics. If I’m looking for a drawing tutorial, or if I’m watching a video about how to keep plants alive indoors, I just want to focus on art or on nurturing plant life. Being plugged into political issues round-the-clock doesn’t help people become more effective citizens or advocates. If anything, immersion in social media can give people a skewed picture of a topic. It can also warp emotions, putting people in protracted states of rage or despair.

If people want to talk or write about a topic, they can. My concern is with the social pressures, the expectations that someone with a platform needs to use it to broadcast certain opinions. For multiple reasons, pressuring influencers (or anyone online) to take a stance often isn’t a good idea.

Two Major Challenges in Mental Health Healing

Here are two big ones that make people feel discouraged after they’ve already started addressing their mental health issues:

Progress isn’t linear

When they start working on their mental health, people often expect (or hope) to experience steady progress. Whether they’re finding ways to manage anxiety or confront the effects of sustained abuse, they hope for a clear, stable path to success.

The reality is more messy, and the messiness can be discouraging.

You deal with difficult situations, the fragility of new habits, and the persistence of long-established patterns of thought and behavior. Just when you think you’re doing fine, new problems crop up. Long-buried emotions demand attention.

That’s not to say that you aren’t making any progress at all. It’s just that healing can be uneven and patchy. It often involves backsliding and reversion. Some areas of your life may improve dramatically and within a relatively short amount of time. In other areas, you may still feel shaky, like you’re fumbling in the dark.

A while ago, I came across an interesting, hopeful quote about how healing is more like a spiral than a straight path:

“We swing around again and again to the same old issues, but at different turns of the spiral. Each time we confront a similar feeling or reaction we have yet another opportunity to learn and to heal. Each time, we bring with us whatever new understanding we have gained since the last time we cycled through this particular difficulty.”

– Nancy J. Napier, Getting Through the Day

It helps to not see healing as the attainment of a perfect state. Healing gives you more strength and resources to deal with the inevitable messiness of life. It also opens up new possibilities for what you can do with your life and what you can experience.

regrets are powerful

Healing often brings with it greater self-awareness. In many ways, this is beautiful. You’re in a better position to make good choices. If you’re more aware of your emotions, you can also be more open to joy, excitement, and love.

But awareness can also bring with it pain. You realize that certain relationships in your life are damaging. You become acutely aware of things you’ve missed out on. Even as you grow stronger mentally and emotionally, regret may blindside you. Grieving what’s lost and coming to terms with regret become part of your healing.

There are different ways of dealing with regret – like focusing more on the future, focusing on what you’re doing with your life now, and changing the story you tell about your life, so that it’s more about what you’re overcoming and what you’re working towards, and less about wasted time and loss. Still, regret is undeniably difficult to deal with.