Because Writing is My Therapy…Thoughts on Tragedy and Mental Health

I’ve tried to write this since Friday, struggling to process and put my thoughts into words.

But my heart is so full it aches, and I need to find a place for all that aching to go.  Writing has always been a form of therapy for me, and if there was ever a time for catharsis, it would be now.  So I apologize for being selfish, but this post (this very, very long post) is largely for me.  If you’re patient enough to read it however, I hope that you’ll join me in recommitting to doing all we can to protect all our children.

Friday morning I sat in my son’s kindergarten classroom, my knees to my chest in a child-sized chair, as I led the Christmas activity for the winter holidays’ learning centers.  I keep reflecting back on those darling faces, lit up with the excitement of the holidays.  I keep thinking about my own son’s exuberance as I entered the room, and how he ran to greet me with an enthusiastic hug.  I think about his teacher, how wonderful and sweet she is and how much she gives to every one of those kids.

I finished the activity, gathered my two littlest boys from a friend, and circled back to pick up my older two from school.  Finally home and all  my boys busy, I sat down to my computer and took in the days’ news.

Shock.  Heartbreak.  There really aren’t words sufficient for the task of describing what I read.

I glanced at my boys, cheerfully unaware of what I now knew, playing together and going through another normal Friday afternoon.  I kept thinking of the kindergarten room I had just left, of 23 beautifully beaming faces.  There were miles and miles separating them from another classroom in Connecticut, but, as every parent will say, the events hit much too close to home.

As I read reports and news releases, in my mind it was the cozy classroom I had just left.  It was those sweet faces I had seen only two feet away from my own.  It was the nightmare I had tried to tell myself could never happen.

I prayed — and continue to pray — for those families, their community, and our nation.

My mother bear instincts and control freak tendencies kicked into gear.  What can I do now?  What can I do to stop this?

It’s long been my coping mechanism.  When I can no longer bear to think about something that has happened in the past, I look forward and try to find some way to move on.  I have to find something to DO to feel some sense of control.  As much as I and every other feeling person would do anything to change what happened that awful Friday morning, we can’t.  We can only look forward and ask, “What can we do now?”.

I’ve been pondering the question ever since Friday, as I’m sure many people have.  I realized that much of what I need to do are things I’ve been doing all my life, but now I view them with renewed purpose and passion.  Here’s what I’ve concluded — what I’ve committed to do:

I Will Start at Home

My first reaction, as it was for many, is to hug my boys a little tighter.  Talk with them a little longer.  Look at them, really look at them, and love them fully with every moment.

As my friend Rachel at Hands Free Mama poignantly reminds us in her beautiful post, XO Before You Go, I will hug and kiss my boys goodbye, even on those crazy, busy mornings.  As she wisely points out:  “While I can not control what happens when they leave my side, I can control what happens in those sacred minutes before we say goodbye.”  Every parent should read this post.

I will start at home to build boys who will become young men who have been taught to love others, to express emotion in healthy ways, and to live life with a noble purpose.

Any quick look at the history of mass shootings shows one thing very clearly amid the twisted, convoluted, and often incomprehensible details.  The vast majority of the offenders are young males.

I’m not about to place the blame for these heinous acts upon the shoulders of the parents of the perpetrators.  But as the mother of four boys myself, I owe it to my sons and to the society in which they live to be aware of the risk factors that psychologists and other professionals have been pointing to, and to provide as much of a safeguard as I can.  Factors like inculcated violence, the influence of relationships (both positive and negative), media input, and the need for future orientation.  Factors, that deserve a post all their own.

Last Friday’s events give me reason to recommit to loving my boys more fully in every minute that I am given, and to also do all I can in my own home to raise boys who are socially, emotionally, and mentally healthy and whole.

I Will Be an Advocate for Mental Health

As I mentioned earlier, while I feel moved to do more as a parent I have to make it clear that this is not to place the blame on parents for the struggles, reprehensible choices, and even illnesses of their children.

If you haven’t read it already, you have to take a moment to read Thinking the Unthinkable by The Anarchist Soccer Mom.  She bravely shares what it’s like to live with a teenage son who struggles with mental illness.  In raw honesty she paints a picture of both love and terror and the frustration of being offered the advice to create a criminal paper trail as the best route to getting help.  She shares as only a parent can:

“No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.””

We need more places like The Children’s Center of Salt Lake, an amazing organization I’ve been blessed to be associated with for over three years now.  When I began there, I read the center’s tagline: Mental Health Care for Families with Young Children.  “Mental health care?”  I thought to myself.  How do I fit with that objective?  I’m not a therapist or a psychologist.  What do I have to offer?
The Children’s Center does indeed offer clinical services — therapists, psychologists, social workers, etc.  But it also takes a more holistic approach that has changed the way I think about mental health.

In my view, mental health (and illness) can be understood much like physical health.  There are some organic illnesses that come without any apparent rhyme or reason.  Like my sister-in-law who developed lung cancer in her early 20s, having never smoked a day in her life, there are mental challenges and illnesses that have no apparent cause.  There’s no one to point fingers at, you just have to try to get the best care you can and fight it the best way you know how.  You need professionals and a plan.

Then there are threats to health that come through trauma.  Like a broken leg or torn muscle, these challenges come from impact.  Painful events that tear at hearts and minds and souls.  Trauma can be prevented, mitigated, or treated, but only with the right resources.

Lastly, we have to be aware of everyday health.  Like the effort you take to wash your hands, get a good night’s rest, and hoist yourself up off of the couch for a good workout now and then, there are things we can do on an on-going basis to establish and protect social, emotional, and mental health.  This work can start in simple ways.

In all three areas of mental health care, I feel there is so much more that could be done for all of our children.

Working there has taught me that mental health is not just clinical, and we can’t chase it with a deficit model.  We can promote mental health and be proactive about it.  We can build healthy environments, nurturing relationships, and promote healthy development.  That’s the work that I do, working with teachers and care providers to teach them about positive guidance and social and emotional development as components in healthy, whole child development.

And that’s the work you do as well, in your homes and classrooms, in any role that gives you the opportunity to build relationships and influence people.

There is a need for improved mental health in our country, but it’s not just the work of therapists and clinicians.  It’s something we can all take part in today.  All of us.  That may be the only way to really make a change.

 

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14 Comments

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14 Responses to Because Writing is My Therapy…Thoughts on Tragedy and Mental Health

  1. Nollie

    Well said, my friend. I think alot about how to raise a boy as well. As a child development expert, do you recommend bringing this topic up with a child if they’re not aware of it? I don’t think Ben knows the story, and I don’t want to frighten or overburden him, but think it might open up a good dialogue about things you mentioned like violence, media, anger management, etc.

  2. Nolls — I always love hearing from you!
    I don’t think I would recommend bringing up the incident with a young child who is not already aware of it. I think we can take general principles from it and discuss that when it’s appropriate — talking about guns and violence and the fact that they can kill people and leave people very sad, for example — but the specifics of this tragedy are just extremely burdensome for young children. There are so many details that even I don’t really want to know, and while we adults have the benefit of understanding statistics and the rarity of an event like this, it still causes so much anxiety. It’s compounded for children who don’t have that framework. That said, while I wouldn’t bring it up to a child who doesn’t know about it, I wouldn’t shy away from talking about it with a child who asks questions. For young children, I would keep it simple — A man with a gun killed a lot of people and that made a lot of people feel very sad, even me. Emphasize the positive — that people are sad because of the goodness that is in their hearts, that they love each other and they’re sad to see others hurting. (Add other details only when you know he’s already aware of them.) Answer his questions as simply as you can and emphasize things that make him feel safe — The man died too, so he can’t do it again, for example. Talk about the things you and his school do to keep him safe and point out all the helpers that he has around him. Reassure him that he is in fact safe and keep him away from any images if you can. It’s a tricky tightrope walk, balancing openness and honesty (which promotes security — questions engender fear) while also protecting them from details that they just can’t process. The discussion sounds different for different kids, but if you take it slow and listen to that little voice, you’ll say the right things.

  3. Pingback: Right Now «

  4. Eilidh

    Such a well written post and your reply above. I have avoided the news because I can’t watch. I’m so grateful and thankful for living in the UK where this is more unlikely to happen. I absolutely agree with your views on mental health too.

  5. Rebecca B.

    Hi Amanda,

    I am glad that I read your post even though I know it must have been very difficult to write. While watching the Sunday political shows, one man did bring up the same fact that you did: “Any quick look at the history of mass shootings shows one thing very clearly amid the twisted, convoluted, and often incomprehensible details. The vast majority of the offenders are young males.” I hadn’t even thought of that detail until then. Last night I thought about asking your perspective on boys and how they are getting lost in society (increase chance in being diagnosed with autism, getting lost in the school system, etc) and how these factors in combination with mental illness can lead to devastation. Personally all my childhood (and “adult”) bullies have been boys. I’m a mother to two girls and while at times I think that I’m off the hook in this area, these boys are their neighbors and classmates and they will affect their lives. So without being so negative to boys (there are a lot of great boys out there), I think that I just need some reassurance that there are more well-adjusted boys out there than troubled ones.

    • Hi Rebecca -
      I feel quite confident saying that there are many more wonderful boys out there than troubled ones. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t real concerns that need to be addressed when it comes to raising our boys (and our girls). I still believe that it’s out inherent nature to be good and kind. We just have to do our best to protect that spark in all our children.

  6. Great to hear your thoughts….many the same as mine. I’ve never been so shaken by a tragedy like I have this one. It would probably be healthy for me,too, to try to put my thoughts into words. Yours are beautiful.

  7. Thank you for this highly beneficial and beautifully written resource. I have read many pieces on coping with the Sandy Hook tragedy, but this really stands out. What you offer here are things we ALL can do today to help our children and help the world become stronger, more peaceful, and brighter. I am honored to be mentioned here. Thank you again. You have such a gift of sharing your experiences and insights.

  8. Tina

    Thank you. Distilling your thoughts into two phrases is incredible. “I will start and home” “I will be an advocate for mental health”. Simply profound.

    The idea of mental health having a everyday component is quite important. Recently, in different conversations with two different groups of friends, the topic arose that while growing up we were always told to be “nice girls.” No parents or teachers discussed how to identify and handle difficult emotions. These two groups of friends are very different and so I was surprised that through casual get together conversation, before the events of last week, the same topic arose. We resolved that for ourselves and our children that we must do better.

    So far one resource I found for helping children with emotions is the book The Grump Meter. My children’s preschool held a class on this book last year. With good intentions, the book has been sitting for months. It is time for me to put it into action, along with other resources that may be out there.

  9. Jill

    There are more resources for talking with children about violence at TCTCSN.org

  10. Thanks Amanda. When I saw you had a done a post related to the tragedy, I knew I had to read it because it would be well written and thoughtful and meaningful and actionable. As mentioned above- you have a gift.

    So thank you for writing and sharing and helping me re-commit and be resolved to start at home as well as be an advocate for mental health- something I wouldn’t have included previously.

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