While I was walking out the door of 2017, I ran into Hope. I bumped into Hope at the Walgreens in Bakersfield. It wasn’t the place that one usually expects to find Hope. Yet there he was, in the battery aisle, walking over to greet me with a big smile and warm embrace.
I met “Hope” while serving as a therapist at a juvenile correctional facility in Kern County. Hope was then a teenage, minority boy found guilty by a judge of several felonies and sentenced to the center. Hope was like many of the other boys at the center — old souls born into a culture of broken homes, poverty, domestic/gang violence and drug or alcohol addiction that spanned up to four generations.
The boys attempted to make the best out of the cards they were dealt, yet the almost daily life-and-death stressors they experienced pushed them on the other side of the law.
The boys could hardly wait to be released from the center so they could prove to others that they could “make it on the outs.” They had fierce “I-will-show-them” attitudes. But the high rate of recidivism left them with a creditability problem. Some of the staff and counselors held out little promise for the boys.
This meant that the boys were virtually on their own upon release. They alone had to carry the torch (of self discipline) to find their way out of the darkness. So when I ran into Hope at Walgreens, he was still carrying his torch. He beamed with pride, telling me he was enrolled at a 4-year university.
I remembered working with Hope, who had been incarcerated multiple times and considered a “lost cause” by many at the center. A counselor advised him that it would be more appropriate for him to attend a community college, rather than set his sights on a university. Hope ignored this microaggression and followed his own path.
Michelle Obama, the former first lady, experienced a similar situation, as reported by the Washington Post. Obama told a group of low-income students that while in high school she was considering attending Princeton University as her college of choice. Her counselors warned her that she was too ambitious. She was told ‘you will never get into a school like Princeton.’ The sting never left her: “I still hear that doubt ringing in my head,” Obama said.
These life scenarios indicate that we still have a long way to go in reforming the cultures of our schools and juvenile justice system. When adults can’t see past their own faulty assumptions and preconceived notions about a youth’s innate abilities, then we risk crushing their dreams. How can youth be inspired to grow — let alone reform themselves — when cynical adults don’t believe that change is possible?
Hope was an extraordinary teen. He showed a lot of resiliency and strength to pursue his dreams in the face of overwhelming adult pessimism. Yet not all kids at the center were like Hope. Most of the teens at the center were influenced by the counselors’ outlook. The boys’ sense of despair was only deepened by the counselors’ cynical outlook and lack of hope in the youth, contributing to the cycle of recidivism. Burn-out by mental health counselors is prevalent in community health organizations and continues to be a real barrier in youth getting services that are safe, effective and non-discriminatory.
And this is the very ugly truth about the system. It can harm the very children it is trying to save.
Youth need not carry the torch alone. We can brighten our own beacon of hope in 2018 if we promote meaningful reform that truly gives troubled youth a fighting chance.
Share your thoughts below with me on ideas you have to reform the system. What has your experience been in working with adults in the system who have lost their ability to be effective in helping youth. How can we better help youth?
Reprinted From Kern River Courier December 15, 2017
Though the holidays are associated with joy and good tidings, they can also bring darkness. Feelings of sadness, loneliness and emptiness can resurface at this time. It’s very common for people to experience the holiday blues, so finding ways to manage our emotions can be helpful.
As a therapist, I often have to use the same techniques to manage my own emotions that I prescribed to my clients. This week I had to put these techniques to work after experiencing some tense moments at a family gathering in Los Angeles. A relative who was not invited to the event showed up, causing conflict, opening up deep wounds and dividing the family.
The family conflict greatly upset me, so as I drove back home along the 395 freeway, I contemplated how I would manage my internal distress and deal with a fractured family.
Incidentally, there is no better place to unpack existential angst than the drive up to Walker Pass. The desert can be quite comforting — a silent and desolate world where one can find the space to smooth out the jagged edges of life.
As I drove past the rugged, purple Scodie mountains, and marveled at the spiny cholla cactus gracing the remote desert landscape, I explored what I could do to take care of myself. This momentary pause to consider self-care options often provides the vision needed to guide us out of distressful times.
I decided it was essential for me to process what happened and feel my feelings (as ugly as they were). Negative emotions can transmute into negative energy if they are not expressed. In other words, bottled negative feelings and thoughts can contribute to disease and mental health conditions (which is why therapy is called the “talking cure”). I also recognized that it would not be helpful if I fixated on these negative thoughts and feelings. I had to find a balance between expressing my emotions in a healthy way, while not letting them consume me.
I considered those actions that would offset my mood. I could engage in “Retail Therapy,” (not an optimal choice); watch marathon episodes of I Love Lucy; eat lots of chocolate (also not a healthy option), take a hike, etc.
Most of these options did not appeal to me. I don’t feel like doing much when I am upset. Yet therein lies the work of self help — doing what is necessary to nurture our soul, regardless of how difficult it may be.
I decided that when I got back home, I would do yoga, journal and run a few errands. These activities got me through a dark day, and sometimes that’s the best we could hope for.
Managing emotions is daily work, and the more you practice at it, the better you get at it. When we get in front of our feelings —instead of stuck in them — we improve our ability to adapt to life’s curveballs.
It appears our nation’s divisiveness has spread well beyond water-cooler banter and coffee-shop talk, encroaching upon the sanctity of our traditions— the holiday get together.
For many people in my generation, the holidays were once a time when family set aside their differences in the spirit of the season. We avoided discussing topics that could spark family feuds. It was the Zeitgeist of the Walton family. A time when the unspoken rule to leave your baggage at the door prevailed.
Yet this tradition may now be waning due to increasing intra-family discord emanating from the political strife which has divided our nation. Regardless of political persuasion, many Americans feel compelled to voice their dissent -- be it on the streets at a protest rally or in grandma’s kitchen on Thanksgiving day.
If you consider the family as a microcosm of society, then it’s understandable to see why the nation’s angst is spilling over into our homes. Family members with polarized socio-political views are squaring off. This has pitted in-laws against in-laws, cousins against cousins, brothers against sisters, and wives against husbands. As a therapist, I have seen families torn apart due to the political dissension.
Americans are passionate about the future direction of our nation, so it’s not out of the realm of possibilities for family bickering to escalate into a scuffle. “What do you mean Trump is…,” as granny grabs the bird and slings it across the table.
So what can you do to prevent a flying Mr. Butterball? What is the best tactic to use if you find yourself at a holiday party and a relative wants to incite a futile political debate? I asked around and got some suggestions.
My cousin said to “try to win them over, prove your point with facts.” Call me crazy, but I think it is very difficult--if not impossible--to change a person’s beliefs at one dinner party. “Yeah, as I was saying about gun control--oh, can you pass the yams.”
A friend of mine goes for the avoidance approach. “I can’t stop him from going on about his politics, but I can seat him at the kid’s table.”
My dad goes for the change-the-subject tactic. When asked by his sister if he has heard the latest fake news, my dad responded: “Yeah, I watched TV. How about those Astros.”
Whether you see the world through a lens of blue, red or somewhere in between, it’s helpful to remember that our political leanings are influenced by the values we have developed over a lifetime. People can and do change, but it is usually a process that takes time.
In this final article on bullying, I explore how advocacy can thwart bullying and explain how a business is doing just that.
I have witnessed bullying take its toll on the psyche of our youth. The juveniles I have counseled would tell me how “low” they felt when being bullied. Yet I didn’t realize there are long-term health consequences associated with bullying, until I learned these facts:
Though the media have covered childhood peer bullying extensively, adult-on-youth bullying is equally harmful and may be underreported. Youth may heed the code of silence if the adult bully is in an authoritarian position and has the power to retaliate. Adults who care about youth have a responsibility to stop the abuse. Michigan State University has studied this problem and recommends these steps:
Sometimes the strongest advocates are people who have been bullied themselves, like Shannon Rapose, who works in Lake Isabella at The Pizza Factory owned by her family.
Rapose was bullied in her youth by a group of classmates who incessantly taunted her and threw green, spiky tree pods in her hair. Rapose reported the incidents to her mother, who advocated on her daughter’s behalf and worked with school officials to stop the bullying.
Paying this advocacy forward, Rapose channeled this experience into something positive, and subsequently established the Pizza Factory as a safe/no-bully zone — a place that welcomes all regardless of cultural affiliation, age, race or sexual orientation. Rapose recently painted a rainbow, no-bully sign on the window, yet it was defaced within one week.
“I was surprised the sign lasted that long,” Rapose said. “There are always risks involved when you are promoting tolerance.”
Despite these risks, Rapose continues to be an advocate. For instance, a group of men recently visited the restaurant, and a young waiter asked the group if they needed anything else from the kitchen. One of the men looked at the waiter’s rainbow wristband and snarled back, “no we don’t need anything from you [expletive].”
The employee reported the incident a day later and Rapose responded by ordering rainbow bracelets for any employee who wanted to show their solidarity with the waiter. This action effectively showed the employee that harassment is not ok, and people will take a stand to prevent it. I wonder how such nurturing could change the lives of young people who are bullied. Would youth be less apt to develop mental health symptoms because they learned that the world is not all dark? Would it change their lives if they felt compassion during that moment of feeling low?
Taking a stand on bullying is not always a Piz-za cake. Yet it may prevent youth from suffering long-term mental health problems associated with bullying. What is your experience in standing up for youth? What are there barriers that make it difficult to take a stand? Share your comments below.
Note: This is the full article of a condensed version that was first published in the Kern River Courier.
When I first became a therapist, I stayed in the traditional lane of my field, affecting change one session, one person at a time. This is the conventional route, and I may have indeed followed this path if I did not meet a new breed of counselor I call the "macro therapist."
Macro therapists extend their reach and impact by getting involved in community non-profits, raising awareness of mental health issues and serving as social justice advocates when clients are harmed by the very system designed to help them.
I am proud to be in the company of these mental health leaders, as they have successfully demonstrated (and taught me) how to navigate the intersection of psychotherapy and social justice. These leaders continue to inspire me and work with me on creating ways to reflect what is truly happening in our mental health system so that change is not only created on a micro level with clients, but on a macro level with the larger society.
Let me know your thoughts about therapists expanding their reach beyond traditional therapy.
I am pleased to announce that I am writing for the Kern River Courier as a columnist.
The column and my blog will cover many facets of mental health, providing therapy insights and inspiration, educational information on disorders of the mind, as well as clinical perspectives and commentary.
This week my blog focused on bullying, and you can get the full article here. There has been a lot of local interest in the Kern River Valley regarding this prevalent problem that has affected so many residents. One community leader tapped into this problem with her Facebook post, sparking intense dialogue that racked up more than 5k hits in a short period of time and oodles of emojis. After I read her post, I started exploring the depths of bullying in the KRV, and learned that it is often an intergenerational trait with deep roots in our community. I also learned that for every bully out there, there is someone trying to make a difference and inspire tolerance, consideration and respect for others.
In my article, I reported on how one principal is taking the punch out of bullying by working to change the culture of his community. Click here to find out how this principal is leading an initiative that has proven to generate positive changes in students’ grades and behaviors.
During my research, I met many upstanding citizens who are doing their part to curb this harmful behavior, so keep an eye out for my next Mental Health Matters article that provides a personal and up close view of the backlash that occurred when an ordinary citizen tried to stop bullying while promoting tolerance.
Thanks for reading, and best of mind & body health to you.
Like the seasons that gradually transform the earth with the passage of time, human change can also plod along. It may be difficult to see that we are growing and moving forward when our life seems at a standstill. So if we are toiling away daily at doing better and being better to ourselves and loved ones -- and still come up short -- it's normal to question the purpose of our efforts. It's normal to feel stuck. Yet it is our actions of today, no matter how small, that will inch us toward a new season of hope.
Autumn does not happen overnight. It's a gradual process. Yet If we slow down just enough, we may be able to witness nature's transformation as the sun starts to wane, temperatures begin to dip and trees begin to paint themselves a hue of purples, oranges and browns. Likewise, the process of human change often occurs in thinly sliced moments. Change happens when we accept our losses, do the uncomfortable, face our fears, feel our feelings, challenge ourselves and recognize our strengths and limitations. Change happens when we transcend the moments we thought we couldn't.
Ironically, these experiences of angst or despair can be the seeds that spawn new growth. For instance, I have witnessed how my clients have struggled with conditions of the mind and body that have negatively affected their relationships, work or school. In therapy, my clients work hard at overcoming what's holding them back. Bit by bit, moment by moment, life situation after life situation, they look within and find solutions to create a better tomorrow.
Yet, sometimes they get stuck in therapy and repeat negative behaviors or think thoughts that are not helpful. At these moments, I contend they are still moving forward. We can't always see how what we do today affects tomorrow. The cultivation process happens beneath the surface, like a seedling that nudges, pokes and prods its way through dirt and gravel as it tries to sprout. Change is a germination process that entails struggle.
Clients may ask me how long it will take before they or their family get better and see results. This is a difficult question to answer because everybody has unique skills, motivation, barriers and life events that can affect the course of treatment. But what I can say is that their transformation began before they walked through the doors of Therapy Trek. Something occurred to them or within them that motivated them to seek treatment. That in itself is change, a step toward creating a new normal.
I think it's in our nature to persevere during difficult times. We have a natural ability to heal, change, recover and grow. And like all things of nature, the process can be steady and gradual. So when you hit a snag in the road, be mindful that your struggle may indeed be part of the journey to a brighter season.