Resilience Required: Covid-19 and Teen Mental Health

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Jon Mattleman

Anxiety in young people, Jon Mattleman said, “is about lack of control. There’s a lot going on below the surface. Even resilient people feel the angst, the pain. We have to recognize that they are hurting in their own way.”

The Arlington counselor was featured on a Zoom webinar Tuesday entitled “Resilience Required: Covid-19 and Teen Mental Health,” co-sponsored by the Bedford Youth and Family Services office and the schools’ Counseling Department

Mattleman, a former 24-year director of youth services in Needham, is Massachusetts clinical director for the non-profit mental health educational foundation Minding Your Mind. He was introduced on Zoom by Heidi Porter, Bedford health and human services director, and Bedford High School adjustment counselor Charles Alperin.

Minding Your Mind says its primary objective is “to provide mental health education to adolescents, teens and young adults, their parents, teachers and school administrators. Our goal is to reduce the stigma and destructive behaviors often associated with mental health issues.”

“We were all pretty good about carrying things around for eight months, and we have a long way to go,” Mattleman said. “We have been going through a process of grieving and loss, individual and community. Some of the losses are not retrievable.”

The speaker enumerated types of anxiety disorders – obsessive-compulsive, social anxiety, panic, post-traumatic stress, general anxiety. “When out of control and competing with anything else, anxiety almost always wins.”

“If your child is struggling with anxiety, they are probably struggling more than you know,” he said.

Mattleman, who refers to “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing” (“I don’t want to social distance from anyone”), noted that “we have learned all kinds of different ways to connect. It has been pandemic teaching and pandemic learning. We were pivoting at a moment’s notice with this incredible stressor Covid-19.”

Covid-19, Mattleman said, “has really been overwhelming for us. It has altered our way of life.” And its confluence with issues of racial justice and equity “impact our mental health.”

“We have learned how this has impacted our mental health,” he continued. “. We expected a physical surge but from statistics we know there was also a mental health surge.” When trauma rates escalate, he said, the outcome can be self-abuse, anxiety and depression.

“What we are trying to is get back our normal way of life,” he said. “But we can’t do that right now.”  To illustrate, he crumpled a clean sheet of paper, then restored it, revealing random lines and creases, “Every line represents something for someone – anger depression maybe anxiety. Those lines represent a lot of the pain we feel.”

After last spring’s hiatus, “Returning to school has its own special anxiety,” he added. “It’s very hard for students, teachers and parents.”

Young people perceive things differently, Mattleman said. “The teen brain is incredibly smart but very wedded to instant gratification. It doesn’t have a lotta experience and is more drawn to the social reward of risk.” So teenagers will get together with their friends despite public health warnings “because the reward is so great. Teen brains do not have a braking system.”

Mattleman addressed the relationship of anxiety and social media, where “people present very differently than in real life. Young people are seeing images that people post can be very different when compared to their own lives. We might say, ‘It’s not a big deal – get over it,’ but there are better ways to respond.”

He listed several, including “helpful words” such as “I’m listening” or “let’s breathe.” “We have to understand that this has been such a tough year. Parents, by modeling good behavior and exhibiting calm can be really helpful.” Anxiety is different for each person, he added, and “parent response is a key. We have to model a healthy response to anxiety,” which for those suffering is exhausting.

“When we go through a difficult time, we reach out for something,” Mattleman said. That could result in substance abuse, eating disorders, abuse, anger and lying. “Now the things that used to nurture us are not nearly as accessible.” He urged parents to “focus on validating statements and know when to seek professional help.”

Mattleman said parents should be vigilant for signs of depression, sometimes a byproduct of anxiety. “It can be overwhelming and disempowering to focus on the things we cannot control.”

The speaker addressed the subject of teen suicide. He shared strategies to “open up the conversation.” Young people should also be encouraged to share fears that friends are contemplating suicide, he said. “I always say to young people: Better to lose a friendship than a friend. Asking for help can be a tough thing to do.”

The speaker was upbeat about a response mechanism he called “self-care.” This covers a wide-ranging list of activities – laughing, mindfulness, therapy, medication, napping healthy eating, self-generosity, exercising, faith, volunteering, spending time outdoors. “Do things that are accomplishable. Be creative and think about what is going to work for you.”

“Everything a kid does is for a reason,” he observed. “If your child is being verbally abusive, give yourself a timeout.” Sometimes texting can be a better option than a face-to-face conversation, he suggested. “Ask what they angry about. They’ve lost so much – we have to understand that. What is something I can do to make things easier for you? Our role is for our kids to be thoughtful.”

Mattleman closed with some “reasons to be helpful,” including “increased awareness about the importance of mental health” and improved effectiveness of therapeutics. He also shared on the screen a number of national and local resources.

Click this link to see the taped presentation, available thanks to Bedford Youth and Family Services and Bedford schools’ counseling department.

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at mike@thebedfordcitizen.org, or 781-983-1763
Click this link to learn more about The Bedford Citizen’s first community reporter.


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