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What a therapist wants you to know about repairing America after this election.

She compares the election to a dysfunctional family system. It’s a perfect metaphor.

I'm a therapist. I'm also an adult survivor of a childhood trapped with a sociopathic, narcissistic, abusive, misogynistic white male bully of a father who disowned me at age 11.

He was a big source of trauma for me growing up until pretty recently.

And for 25 years, I didn't talk about this — no one in my family really did. No one really had the language, power, or modeling to really even know it wasn't OK, to stand up to him, to shine a light on how incredibly abusive and dysfunctional it was for him to do, say, and act in the ways he did. At many points during my childhood, I looked around and thought,, "Am I the crazy one for thinking this isn't right but no one else is saying anything?!"


Then I grew up. And I literally left my family system.

I found therapy. I cultivated new and reparative and healthy relationships where I learned what functional actually looked like. I learned that while certain kinds of relationships can wound and traumatize, other kinds of relationships can heal. In my bones, I believe it's always possible to heal and overcome until the day we take our last breath — because I did.

I want to share this with you today in case you're feeling scared, shocked, and even a little traumatized.

I wanted to share this because if you're like me, following this election, you're probably looking around and thinking "How could something this crazy have happened?"

As a therapist, I want you to know that your feelings and your responses are totally normal and natural. They are appropriate responses to witnessing that something not OK happened. In fact, I think it's a really good thing that so many of us are aghast and shocked.

It's not OK that a man whose platform has been built and driven on fear, misogyny, xenophobia, racism, sexism, and downright aggressive and abusive behavior is winning the title of the highest office in the land.

And it's scarier still to see so many people support him and his way of being in the world. It's scary because we know it's not healthy. We know there's something better and healthier out there.

Folks, if you're feeling angry, scared, and sad, that makes sense. In a way, we're all together now in a dysfunctional family system that we didn't really want to be a part of anyway.

But I will say this: Hope isn't lost, and we can see it.

We can see that it’s not lost because there are so many of us saying, "No, this isn't OK to act this way. I don't agree with this things you are saying and doing."

Image via iStock.

And, now, we are not disempowered young children who, in a painful family system, truly have no power. We have each other (amiright, Pantsuit Nation?).

Much like in the healing of a dysfunctional and abusive family system, our work now isn't to get angry and attack and blame and shame the other members of our dysfunctional family system (as tempting as that is).

Our work now is hard, but important. It is to keep saying, "No, this isn't OK."

It is to model something different — what it is and means to be in a healthy, functional relationship.

Our work, together, is to be kind, accepting, self-responsible, compassionate, curious, respectful, honest individuals of integrity. To keep speaking up and showing up and insisting on something healthier at all levels of our lives until abusive, dysfunctional behavior — whether on the playground blacktop or on the presidential stage — is no longer implicitly condoned and explicitly championed but is instead seen clearly for what it is and rejected universally.

The more we do this, the more we can hopefully shine a light for those who still think that it's OK for Trump (or for anyone else) to be a bully, to be abusive, to not be accountable for their behavior, the greater collective healing opportunity we as a nation have to make sure elections like this one never happen again.

When they go low, we go high.

Let's use this as an opportunity to go higher still. Let's commit to doing the deep, systemic, and critical educational and emotional work that the results of this country's election have proven we so desperately need coast to coast.

Let's start with healing the abusive and dysfunctional parts in ourselves, in our own minds and hearts. That is something we can do today. Let's do it in our families, in our workplaces, in our immediate communities. Let's do it nationally, reaching over the blue and red divides, striving toward something better in our humanity.

Changing a dysfunctional and abusive family system takes time, but it is possible.

So this week, please take very good care of yourself. Comfort yourself in any way you can and take hope in the fact that we have each other to lean on, we're not alone in this, and that today, tomorrow, and all the days after will be the start of many opportunities for profound healing and transformational work.

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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There’s also a feeling that the current state of pop culture is lacking as well. Nobody listens to new music anymore and unless you’re into superheroes, it seems like creativity is seriously missing from the silver screen.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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