I am sitting at my kitchen table, my computer spread out over a handmade banner that reads “We Love You, Springhill”, in preparation for the physically distanced parade of cars that will travel through our town today, celebrating the heroic efforts of our elementary school teachers. In sweet handwriting, my son has written “Thank You, Mrs. Quinn” in orange sharpie. I can see the dishwasher is open an inch, a passive-aggressive sign to my otherwise amazing husband that it needs to be emptied. The laundry machine hums permanently, a never-ending cycle of dirty things that need to be cleaned, folded, put away and made dirty again.
On this table, I also Zoom with my little brother, his family, kind nurses, and my mom from her hospice bed in Boston. I shout “I love you, Ma” hoping that she’ll understand and hear me. After I leave the meeting, I put my head down on the dark wood and sob for a moment before I blow my nose and call into the next conference call with a smile and a “I’m good, thanks! How are you?”. I’ll say goodbye to my mom at this table and I’ll also plan some truly world-changing programs for Born This Way Foundation at this table. This kitchen has never seen more action.
I am not OK, then I am, and the cycle continues. I am filled with gratitude for my health, for my children, and for my community and then I am overcome with terror at the idea of saying goodbye to my mother this way, the ever-present anxiety that hits each time I am reminded of all the things I can’t do, all the things that could happen, and the mounting number of emails in my inbox from young people who are rightly devastated and struggling. We are all riding this roller coaster of emotions together and at least once a day, I feel like this knot forming and tightening inside of me and the only way I know how to undo this knot is to write back to these young people. Here are some of the questions I’ve received from young people and my responses. Maybe it’s helpful to you, maybe it’s not and you have another issue that you need help with – if so, email me at [email protected] or connect with me on Instagram at @mayaBTWF.
One young woman says, “although I love my family very much, I do not know how much longer I can stay cooped up with them, and I do not feel like I can talk to them about these issues because they have a lot on their plate and to be honest I feel they are often the root of the problem.”
I love my family, too, but we’re not supposed to spend this much time with anyone. Your feelings are valid and some days, I feel cooped up and out of options too. Our mental wellness work at Born This Way Foundation is guided by research on the experiences of young people and one of our recent studies entitled Mental Health Online Diaries explored how to increase a young person’s willingness to share their mental health concerns with their parents or guardians. This piece is for us parents, but often young people don’t feel like they can share with us because they think we’re judging them. They think we’re only half-listening, ready to pounce with a solution or a judgment. I’ve become accustomed to sitting on my hands while my children share their issues, asking at least two questions before I share an opinion or a proactive thought on how to move forward. I encourage us parents to get curious on how our young people are feeling – not just when we think something is wrong – but always. We know from that same research that young people have a hard time sharing their experiences because as this young woman rightly points out, we have a lot on our plates as parents and we spend so much time pretending to have it figured out. Pretending to know what I’m doing is key to my survival but when I look at my two children, trying to navigate through the world in general and especially during these unprecedented times, I know that being honest about my own experience and the long list of answers that I do not have will make them more comfortable with their own unease.
For guardians, if you want more information on speaking with the young people in your lives about mental wellness, check out this helpful piece from Cynthia.
A high school student wrote, “Right now nothing feels certain and I feel like I have nothing to look forward to. Everything seems pointless and it feels like all the work I have done has gone to waste.”
On the first night of quarantine, I made a display of post-its in our kitchen of all the things I was going to count. The number of books I read to my kids, the number of walks we went on, the number of thank you cards I wrote. I desperately needed something to show for this time and I needed a list of things to do when I didn’t know how to put one foot in front of the other. I stuck to those post-its for a week or two and then I realized that survival was the goal, not accomplishment. The truth this young person shares feels so real to me, especially in our performance-driven culture and especially during this moment that for high school seniors like this one, is a time of accolades, celebration, and culmination. As I offer a suggestion in my response, I’m actually talking to myself; “It’s absolutely correct that everything feels uncertain, it does for me too, and the thought that I keep clinging to is finding what is certain. I’m certain that I’m a good friend, that I’m loved by some awesome people, that I have a cute puppy, and that he likes going on walks. I am trying to find big and little things that I am certain of when so much feels unclear, maybe making a list might help?” Maybe today, I’ll start making that list, too.
One excited, soon-to-be first-year in college shared, “It feels like my future has been taken away from me within a matter of months. I feel directionless and do not know what to do.”
Your feelings are valid. This is everyone’s first time in a pandemic, so know that it’s OK that you feel anxious or uncertain about the next steps in your life. Whenever I feel directionless and don’t know what to do, I think of Anna in Frozen 2 when she says, “Do the next right thing.” I’d like to slightly amend that to say, “Do the next kind thing.” There’s not a moment in our house that my daughter isn’t singing that song so that helps as a reminder, but Anna’s intent here is right. We know from our Kind Communities research that kindness really does matter. Young people who describe their communities as kind report a higher mental health inventory score, proving that acts of kindness – such as calling a friend, sending a letter to a stranger, or organizing a community service project – significantly fosters our mental wellness. The future may look different, but I promise, it does still exist, and if you don’t know what to do, choose the next kind thing. As you know already, I make a lot of lists so if you need a list of kind acts to do to fill your days. Try this one! And if you need more ideas, email me at [email protected]
Though I could have written this, I didn’t, but I feel this student’s words so deeply when they say, “I am very extroverted and being around people always makes me feel better, but right now that is the one thing we aren’t allowed to do.”
Let’s first stop using the term “social distancing,” and instead be accurate about what this moment is calling for. We need to keep a safe physical distance and in the absence of that human touch, we need to dive into social connection however we can safely find it. Physical distancing has made it difficult for extroverts like us to feel connected right now. We know from our Digital Communities research that peer networks are crucial to a young person’s mental health, so it’s important that we retain these peer networks through a sense of community. Through this experience of self-quarantining, I’ve come to redefine what this word “community” means to me. I’ve learned it doesn’t always have to mean being together in-person; it can also mean texting encouraging words to a friend, being there for others in the hard times via Facetime, reading the comforting and inspirational stories on Channel Kindness, posting encouraging messages on social media, or sharing funny memes with friends. I’ve found that being connected via technology has helped me restore my sense of community, and according to our research, young people echo this sentiment. Young people say that online life is a source of comfort, and those who turn to the online community to support their mental wellness find it to be helpful. In fact, 8-in-10 say online platforms allow them “the ability to connect to people facing similar challenges,” and 3-in-4 report that the personal stories shared online have been helpful to their own mental health. The more we connect with people who share our experiences, the more we feel understood, and the stronger our sense of community grows. Even though the way we all spend time together has changed, I take comfort in knowing that the love we have for each other hasn’t.
I wish I had more of the answers, friends, and I will keep trying to find them – for you and for me. I am honored that you fill the foundation’s social media and my email inbox with your stories, questions, and ideas. Please keep them coming because the world needs your voices, now more than ever. So, I’m here for you at [email protected] and there’s nothing I’d rather read here at this kitchen table than the stories of your resilience, of the power of our community, and of our collective hope for the future. Click here if you’re also interested in sharing your story with Channel Kindness.