I was recently invited by the Berkshire chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to give a keynote address on the topic “Anxiety and Stress in Today’s Youth and How to Help.” It was my first keynote with an organization of this type and I was nervous knowing there would be professional psychologists present.
I began to research and discovered this staggering statistic “One-half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14; three-quarters by age 24.”
I was galvanized. I have been teaching teenagers in the classroom for seventeen years. In 2011 I was nominated for the Distinctive Educator of the Berkshires Award because of the innovative practices I was bringing to the classroom. Little did I know that my work in the classrooms was ideal to help youth at risk from mental illness.
I began my keynote speech with a story. At one point in the story I was unexpectedly racked with grief and started to sob. It made me realize how close to home mental illness is to us all.
The story went like this: “In 1929 a girl was born in Australia. Her parents named her Elizabeth. Elizabeth was the youngest in a family of four children. Elizabeth’s parents, were newly arrived immigrants from England. Australia was a tough place to grow up in those days. It’s harsh climate of floods and droughts, hosted deadly spiders and snakes and was isolated from the rest of the world by vast oceans. Unemployment was high and wages were low. To cope with the anxiety and stress Australians used their favorite sports of cricket and horse racing to distract them from the harsh life conditions. Gambling and alcohol abuse were common.
Elizabeth’s parents were determined to raise their family in the best way they could, despite the hardship. They loved their children, especially young Elizabeth, who adored her father. She had a happy childhood up to the age of five. At that point her parents were tragically killed in a car accident. Her siblings, who were older, brought her up. They spoiled Elizabeth but she never felt safe after losing her parents so unexpectedly. She lived with two of her sisters until she was twenty five, working in various menial jobs.
At that point she met a handsome and care free sailor whose light heartedness and adventurous stories of life in the Royal Australian Navy captivated her. He affectionately called her “Betty” and the new name stuck. Betty fell in love, became pregnant and got married in that order. In 1955 she had her first child. By 1960 Betty had three young children. While her husband was devoted to her he was away at sea for months on end. She began to feel alone and overwhelmed.
The stress of raising her family alone, her husband’s meager salary which barely made ends meet and their small, living in their poorly constructed Naval development house, started to take its toll on Betty. She began to depend on her oldest child to help her cope with the daily household chores and to raise the other kids. The young boy reluctantly took on the role of surrogate father. He was just 5 years old, a shy and quiet child. Often it was too much. He would develop headaches and be bed-ridden when the pressure was too great.
When the young boy reached the age of ten one night his mother crept into his bedroom, waking him up. Her voice was a strained whisper as she said “We have to leave, there is someone trying to kill us.” The young boy was terrified. As he and his siblings dutifully piled out into the darkness he longed for the strong arms and presence of his father. They were shivering and whimpering as their mother tried to keep them quiet. They made their way to a neighbor’s place. Everything seemed odd to the boy. There was something about his mother’s behavior and the neighbor’s responses that puzzled him. They were trying to calm her down. They didn’t believe her! The boy felt heavy and sad. His mum was acting very strangely and he did not understand it at all. He felt alone and powerless. That boy was me.
That night we returned home and tried to get some rest. The next morning as I got ready for school an ambulance drove up to the house. Mum was put in the back where she lay quietly. I was asked to sit in the front seat. Then we drove for two hours to a place in the mountains where I had never been before. It was a psychiatric center. Mum would be away for several weeks for treatment. Meanwhile the navy flew dad home from sea. He was our caretaker until mum returned home.
Mum never fully recovered from her breakdown. She took refuge in constant smoking and became addicted to a strong pain reliever called Bex. Bex was a bitter tasting powder used primarily by Australian housewives during the 1950’s and 60’s. It was later taken off the market because of its damaging effects on the liver. Betty’s health suffered and she was often depressed and unhappy. One hot February day my mother called out to my father. He came in and she was struggling to sit up. My dad held her in his arms. She whispered “Jim, I am going to die.” She said nothing else and died in his arms. She was 55. Our family remained fragmented for decades after mum’s breakdown and her early death. To this day it is hard for us to stay in touch on a regular basis.”
It took me a moment to recover from the sudden grief I felt as I finished my story. The room was silent before I continued. People came up to me afterwards and thanked me for such a moving story and speech.
This story is but one example of mental illness which pervades our society. Because of my experiences with my mother I have thought deeply about the importance of mental health and well-being. Why is it that some people break down and others are resilient under similar situations? How can we manage so much stress and anxiety? How can we learn to be more resilient from life’s set backs and traumas?
As a parent, grandparent, caretaker, teacher or leader what can you do to help? Follow these five steps:
Mental illness can be prevented and managed. Please share this blog with others and let's hear your comments. For ways I can help your or your children on Peak Performance and Mental Health Coaching contact me below.
"Lawrence Carroll's workshop on personal stress management, which he conducted with my Columbia Grad School class
was a huge success."
Neal Pilson, Columbia University, Former President, CBS Sports