Suicide attempts by adolescent girls are up 51% in 2021.
As a parent of a tween girl, as a parent with a mental illness, I’m extremely focused on threats to kids’ mental health and opportunities for the safe expression of growth and curiosity explored within the necessary boundaries of rules and routine. We need to give our kids limits just as much as we need to encourage discovery. We need to foster a culture of confidence, not one of victimhood and fear. To do otherwise is to force huge questions of identity and security onto minds not yet mature enough to deal with them.
Our kids will have plenty of time to push back and test limits as they get older, as they should. But in adolescence if we only give them uncertainty they will fail. And they will struggle with uncertainty that will test their mental health and, in many cases, break it.
You couldn’t design a better laboratory experiment in how to ruin children’s mental health than the lives we have lived in the last two years. When the pandemic first struck things completely shut down. We were promised a quick resolution to the threat to our health and it didn’t happen. School stopped and we were all separated with no real opportunity for the expression of supportive communities.
Then came the summer. Riots and lawlessness were encouraged by some of our most influential cultural figures. In the fall the schools didn’t reopen and a divisive election tested close relationships. Crime rates soared. The holidays came and families didn’t get together. Masks covered up every expression of emotion, and the goalposts of what was required to return to some semblance of normal kept moving. The fear, division and focus on threats of coming together instead of joining with each other in the face of adversity just dragged on and on.
Here we are almost two years into this disruption of life and we’re still holding our breath. The data is coming out. Our children are suffocating. In the face of a world of restrictions our kids have been taught they can be anyone they want to be, which they can’t. They have been taught they are all equal, which they aren’t. They have been offered a world without common cause in which one can be sure of nothing. What did we think we should expect but depression, anxiety and anhedonia? Our kids expect the worst and live lives of trauma that for them masquerade as an insecure normal. It’s possible we have ruined a generation.
Yet there have been small chances for kids to find security and build confidence. There have been groups that get outside, exercise, and share struggle and success; time to meet new people and make lasting friendships. Our daughter found this in a group called Girls on the Run.
She had participated in the program before the pandemic. She met with other girls twice a week to train to run a 5k. Then, at the end of the season, the girls in her group came together with thousands of other girls to do their best and finish something grueling. To test themselves and achieve something.
When the pandemic first hit even Girls on the Run went virtual, which was almost silly for a running group, and our daughter’s interest and sense of achievement waned. But in the fall of 2020, with the schools still closed, the GOTR group came back together to meet and run in a park. While the mass 5k wasn’t held that season, our daughter’s coaches, in a tremendous demonstration of civil disobedience, brought the girls together to run out and back on Front Street six times until the 3.2 miles were logged. My daughter collapsed across the finish line, breathless and beaming.
This was repeated in the spring of 2021, this time with a small number of other groups in Washington Square, and as all seemed lost the girls in the GOTR group won again. They learned that individual effort joined with a supportive group focused on a well-defined goal can help them overcome life’s greatest challenges. They learned as only sports can teach them that they are not equal, some are more gifted than others, but by challenging their own abilities they can succeed at the highest levels. They found light at the end of the long tunnel of this mishandled, defeatist pandemic response and manufactured cultural crisis.
This week, as the Surgeon General released a damning report about adolescent mental health as a result of Covid restrictions, GOTR came together again, this time with a return to the large group of teams from many schools, for another 5k. Our daughter’s times keep getting better. I ran the event with her, and I witnessed what she is capable of doing, the application of tremendous positive energy, and the joy of her testing herself completely as her faster teammates waited at the finish line to cheer her on.
I know this experience will bolster her mental health. She has gotten outside. She has played and struggled in-person with teammates and coaches. She feels better about herself and her world.
It’s not too late to counter the damning effects of the last two years on our children’s mental health. Mental health follows physical health. Individual suffering is tempered by strong community. Girls on the Run gives this to our daughter. We don’t know what will happen with the pandemic or the divisions in society as we look forward to next year. But our daughter does look forward to another season with a group of girls, running together, fearless, drawing on each other to confidently face a world that seems intent on beating them down.
Here's what positive defiance looks like:
I focus on movement, as well as meditation and meaningful work, as the keys to overcoming anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder in my upcoming book Practicing Mental Illness. Please pre-order it here.