Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Crisis Line

People often tell me I’m lucky to do work that makes a difference. I don’t take the opportunity for granted. In fact, I’ve never had a job I felt was meaningless.

Earlier in my career, as a television medical reporter, I received letters from people telling me that a report I did on colon cancer, heart disease, or HIV motivated action on their part, and may have saved their life. Twenty years later I can still remember some of those gratifying letters.

Today, another unforgettable one. It was sent from a high school guidance counselor to Partners HealthCare in Boston. Partners – which includes Mass General Hospital – sponsored the distribution of our DVD, Depression: True Stories, and Words Can Work booklets to attendees at a State House Forum on Depression a few months ago. The guidance counselor writing the letter had received a complimentary copy.

Here’s what she wrote:
“I am writing to express my gratitude for providing [our high school] with the DVD Depression: True Stories. Having worked with two of the psychiatrists who contributed to the publication, I knew it would be a valuable resource for our students.

This week, the documentary was shown to the freshman class as part of a lesson on adolescent depression and suicide. I received overwhelming feedback from students, faculty and administrators. Students shared how helpful it was to learn about the symptoms of depression, and how they felt better able to support peers in crisis. This was evidenced by the number of students who came forward after the activity with concerns about the wellbeing of their friends.

One such case involved two girls who were very worried about a friend of theirs who had attempted suicide only two days earlier. With the comprehensive information and empowering message they received from the documentary, the girls felt able to come forward to seek desperately needed help for their friend. Our guidance staff was able to intervene and secure resources for this young man and his family.

Your kindness in providing our school with this documentary was instrumental in saving a young man’s life. I cannot thank you enough.”

Maureen M. Sanford, LICSW
Guidance Counselor

A response like this is why I get up in the morning. It’s why I continue to feel gratitude to our advisors, who generously gave their expertise to Depression: True Stories, and to sponsors whose donations get the DVD into the hands of people who are using it to help save lives.

Depression can be treated when people find out what to do and where to turn for help. Effective tools can set them on the path, and lead them in the right direction.

Depression: True Stories
Words Can Work: When Talking About Depression and Other Mental Health Disorders

Related Issues and Answers columns
Depression: A treatable disease
Preventing suicide

Related columns for young people


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Monday, March 24, 2008

Civil Rites

On occasion, I meet a young person with exceptionally good manners. A few days ago, I was introduced to 10-year-old Tyler. He extended his hand, gripped mine firmly, and said with confidence, “It’s nice to meet you.” Ahhh, a child with good manners. I loved it. In my opinion, good manners show both self-respect and respect for others.

Maybe it was meeting Tyler, but I’ve been more aware than usual of kids’ manners. Based on recent observations, here are a few suggestions.

1) Teach your children that restaurant waiters are not servants.
In an ice cream store, the child in front of me – about 7 years old – said to the young woman behind the counter, “Give me two scoops of chocolate mint chip.” It was none of my business, but I impulsively piped in, “May I please have two scoops of chocolate mint chip?” The boy and his mother gave me a vacant look, and went on their way. I suspect the child is still demanding service everywhere he goes.

2) Teach your children to say, “Excuse me.”
I picked up 8-year-old Sophie, a friend’s child, at school. Backpacks and jackets were flying around the gym where the children were gathering. A classmate of Sophie’s accidentally ran into me. She looked up, and kept going. “Excuse me” would have been nice. I know Sophie, who’s been taught good manners, would have automatically apologized.

3) Teach your children to say, “You’re welcome.”
Cecilia, a friend’s five-year-old, brought me a glass of water. I thanked her and she said, “You’re welcome.” I was reminded of a comment I overheard at a party a few weeks ago. “No one says, ‘You’re welcome’ anymore.’ ” I started listening and, sure enough, most people respond to “Thank you” with, “No problem.” “Sure thing.” “O.K.” “Absolutely.” But rarely, “You’re welcome.”

4) Teach your children to say, “I’m finished,” rather than, “I’m done,” when they finish meals, if they announce it at all.
My friend Chad brought his four-year-old son Javier over for dinner. After our meal, Javier said, “Daddy, I’m done.” My friend Dierdre was at the table. Never one to hold back, she said, “Javier, cakes are done, people are finished.” We all laughed. A few days later, Chad announced after dinner, “I’m done,” and Javier corrected him. “Daddy, cakes are done. People are finished.”

5) Teach your children telephone etiquette.
When the 10-year-old of a friend answers the phone and I ask for her mother she always asks, “Who’s this?” How about, “Hi. May I ask who’s calling?”

Why do I consider these important? Last week, my 23-year-old nephew Robb and I were talking about all bad news in the world: financial meltdowns, infidelity, flooding. “Everything’s a mess,” he said, “and that’s about all I have to say about it.”

With things around us seeming in turmoil, the world can use more civility. Even if it's something as simple as a firm handshake or a polite thank you.

© Blake Works 2008


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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Stress Test

Some high schools are funding stress-reduction workshops to help kids relax. The Boston Globe reports in Stressed-out teens get lessons in relaxing about the growing trend.

The Globe article quotes Marilyn Wilscher, the director of a program offered to schools by Mass General Hospital. She says kids from every economic background are stressed. Privileged kids worry about getting into Harvard, while kids from the inner city worry about survival. (I’ve talked with plenty of inner city kids fretting over getting into college too.)

As I’ve written before, there are lots of sources of stress on kids – pressure kids put on themselves, and pressure others impose.

Seventeen-year-old Angie lives in the Bronx. “It sounds really cliché, but there’s so much pressure to fit in, and in trying to fit in,” she says. “Like whether to do drugs, or drink, or smoke, or skip classes. Without a good head on your shoulders, it’s really easy to get into it.”

And there is the pressure some parents put on their kids. And it can start early. Recently, at an eight-year-old’s birthday party, I listened in amazement as a group of moms discussed what language class their kids should take to increase their chances of getting into the “right” college. Spanish? Chinese? Eight-year-olds!

Globe reporter, Jan Tracy refers to “helicopter parents” – those who “obsessively monitor their children’s attendance and grades via the web-site set up by the school.” Many parents defend this behavior saying it’s for their kids’ own good. But young people have told me that this kind of scrutiny can feel like judgment, and does more harm than good. As high school principal, Paul Richards, tells the Globe, “Overtaxed and overcommitted students have more trouble understanding what they are suppose to be learning. … their academic performance plummets.”

Last year, Richards quit publishing the honor role in the local newspaper. His town, by the way, has experienced a series of teen suicides.

Add up all the texting, testing, talking, and worrying kids do, and they do need time to decompress. It’s great that some schools are teaching kids techniques to help them cope. These are skills kids can carry into adulthood. But how parents and other adults interact with the kids in their lives can also make a huge difference.

Every kid wants to hear that doing his or her best is all we expect.

Angie has another suggestion that doesn’t cost a cent: Just put down the blackberry or cell phone and connect.

“Every kid wants to be heard out,” Angie says. “We all want somebody to listen to us. Be really supportive. That makes us feel good about ourselves. We need that the most.”


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