November 9, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Greetings, MindSite News Readers. In today’s Daily, a close look at the obstacles unhoused teens have to overcome before being able to focus on getting to school; strategies to help your kids build resilience without damaging their relationship with you; and a children’s mental health facility that looks very little like a hospital to the untrained eye. Plus, a couple of free resources, including a guide on how to talk to your children and teens about the many tragedies currently affecting our world.

Unhoused students contend with far more than worrying about where they’ll lay their head

15-year-old Deneffy Sánchez flunked his freshman year of high school. He’d been falling behind since seventh grade, shortly after the pandemic began. That school year, his mental health tanked, and his family lost their home a week after his mother, Lilian López, gave birth to his little sister Jennifer. They moved into a Los Angeles shelter where he was able to log into online school, but Sánchez told the Associated Press he just couldn’t focus. “I felt like they were judging me,” he said. Besides, the family wasn’t safe; López had been assaulted while they lived there.

Earlier this year, Sánchez’s mother landed them space in a shared apartment, and he’d hoped to attend summer school and catch up. But by June, it became clear that wasn’t happening. The woman they subleased from was their roommate and very contentious. Despite accepting two months of rent, she made every effort to evict them, once locking López and Jennifer out while he was at school. After that happened, Sánchez decided the only way they’d be able to stay is if he never left. So, he remained in the apartment at all times to provide his mother a place to sleep after going to work and looking for another place for the family to live. That put school, once again, in the backseat. It also further compromised Sánchez’s mental health. 

Back in ninth grade, he’d asked the psychiatric social worker at his high school for mental health counseling, but they weren’t able to offer it. Instead, the social worker met Sánchez for monthly check-ins, where he’d update her on his stress levels and living situation. She praised him for recognizing his depression and using strategies like positive affirmations and drawing to cope, which made him feel better—until he left. The depths of his challenges with mental health became clearer at the end of July when his mother secured another place for them to live. 

He’d been stuck inside their current apartment for roughly one month and now that he could leave, he was terrified to walk among the world again. Could he still talk to people, he wondered? Plus, he didn’t want anyone to see him; he didn’t like the way he was dressed and felt insecure about the puberty pimples on his face. 

Then, those fears were displaced for new ones. The family’s next apartment came with roommates who made unwanted sexual advances to Sánchez’s mother. To get away from them, she convinced the apartments’ managers to lease the trio an apartment, with a rent ticket higher than she usually makes in one month. “She tells me not to worry about it,” Sánchez said. “But I do. What if we don’t have money and we get kicked out again?”

How parents can help kids build resilience without crushing their souls

Have you ever met a parent who could care less about their child’s ability to conquer adversity? Not me. In fact, a number of parents I know (my husband and I might be two of them), have intentionally placed their kids in circumstances meant to encourage inner fortitude. Climbing instructor Erik Vance made a similar mistake once, pushing his 7-year-old son to complete a 900-foot rock climb even after the boy said he was too scared to do it. The challenge wasn’t formidable, Vance figured. He’s a 25-year veteran climber who had led his son through a 600-foot rock climb the year prior. It would be harder, sure, but the hard part builds character, he said. It wasn’t until his son screamed, “This is the worst day of my life!,” that Vance decided to figure out where he went wrong, he wrote in the New York Times.

Resilience matters because it helps kids develop empathy, coping skills, and problem solving. Other studies suggest that children with higher levels of  resilience may be less likely to suffer youth anxiety and depression. “I think a lot of kids are really cautious — maybe overcautious — today,” said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a developmental psychologist, expert in play and author of Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children. “We live in a society that tells us pretty consistently that if we don’t do well, we are failures.” Encouraging risk-taking and failure in a supportive environment is one way to combat that idea, she said. The trick is finding the “difficulty sweet spot,” said Ken Ginsburg, 

“You set the bar where [they have] to reach to grab it, but not beyond their reach,” said Ken Ginsburg, founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Congrats — You’re Having a Teen! “If you set the bar above where they can reasonably reach it, they will feel like a failure. And more significantly, like [they] failed you,” Ginsburg said. The best way to find the right amount of difficulty is to ask your child what they think they can handle, he added. 

As importantly, listen to what your kids say they want to do. Pay attention to what gets them excited. Sports could work since, in every game, someone has to lose. Learning to play a musical instrument could work, too. Whatever the activity, discomfort to begin is expected, and once overcome, will make the end-game victory even sweeter, Ginsburg said. But be clear on your motivation for pushing your kids; it has to be about them and their growth, rather than fitting into a set of ideals held by you. “It’s about emotional literacy and the fact that he doesn’t have to consider your feelings when he’s sharing his own,” Ginsburg said. “Like, he doesn’t have to worry that he might lose you”–  or your respect.

Liverpool’s new mental health facility for youth looks a lot more like a kid’s funhouse than a hospital

Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool looks nothing like a mental health facility. It’s bright orange, natural light floods the hallways, and it’s equipped with a virtual ocean and giant xylophone. But that’s the point. It stands as an alternative to the traditional hospital template, with light-filled courtyards and warmth infused throughout. “It’s part of the [National Health Service’s] wider drive to treat mental health with the same level of importance as physical health,” Lisa Cooper, director of mental health services at Alder Hey, told The Guardian

Much like the United States, the UK is dealing with a record number of young people in need of mental health services. A whopping 76 percent more school-aged youth have sought out professional NHS support since 2019, and the children and teens admitted to Alder Hey are acutely in need of help. “Our young people usually come with multiple diagnoses,” said clinical lead Andrea O’Donnell. “It could be an eating disorder like anorexia, in addition to OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder], with autism on top. They are complex, layered mixes.” 

To support their needs as patients and children, the building is equipped with nontraditional waiting and gathering spaces, even in the higher security Sunflower House on the grounds. These look like deep window sills and in-wall nooks where youth can tuck themselves in to rest or read a book. Features like that were added on the explicit advice of the children who were consulted during the building’s design phase. “They all wanted ‘getaway space’,” said Roddy Langmuir, practice leader at Cullinan Studio, the architecture firm which designed the hospital. “Somewhere to feel out of the public eye, but also be able to see what’s going on.” Even the cafeteria is different, built like a 1950s-era diner.

Not everything about the building is perfect, a symptom of push and pull between Cullinan Studio’s architects and the builder company that constructed the hospital. But it’s a powerful example of what can be done to “unleash the institutional coding” of health facilities so that they begin to look like places equipped to nurture healing.

In other news…

If you need help speaking to your children about the many crises affecting our world, Weill Cornell Medicine has developed a guide to give you that support. Coping in Response to Tragedy: A Guide for Families encourages open, age-appropriate dialogue and regular self-care check-in during tragedies.

1,000 Australian teens were signed up for therapy. It didn’t help and made them worse. That’s not to negate the power of therapy as a useful tool in mental health, argues this essay on the flopped experiment in The Atlantic, as much as it is an indictment – in this case – of forcing kids into therapy they never asked for and didn’t need. 

The Saginaw County Health Department in Michigan teamed up with Saginaw Valley State University to create the Mental Healthopedia, a free resource offering teens self-care ideas to manage difficult feelings. SVSU Dean of College of Health and Human Services Cathy Macomber told ABC-12 the tool is a good starting point to allow teens to share their mental health struggles without fear of stigma. “Talking about mental health, normalizing it, making these young people understand that reaching out for help, asking questions is not a bad thing,” Macomber said.

Thanks to a $6.9 million grant from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, a nonprofit created through the Affordable Care Act, Yale Emergency Medicine will soon add “peers” to its behavioral crisis response teams, the Yale Daily News reports. Peers, in this case, are people who have previously received mental health treatment in emergency departments and fully recovered. The expectation is that peers will offer direct support to patients by staying close during a crisis and even helping translate their concerns to an emergency room physician.  

“I think a lot of physicians [in EDs] don’t know what the trauma even is, so they don’t even know how to be trauma-informed,” said Anthony Pavlo, a clinical psychologist on the team and an associate research scientist in psychiatry. “The peer might be able to get that story a little bit more from a patient, understand it a bit more and be able to communicate [the patient’s] certain triggers.” In addition, the project aims to make mental health care more available to patients without full insurance coverage, especially those in marginalized groups because of their increased vulnerability to mental health crises.

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...