November 29, 2016

Let's talk about youth suicide before it's too late


By Jack Smith

Talking about suicide doesn't increase the risk of suicide.

But we need to talk about it in the right way. And we need to talk about it with our teenagers. Before it's too late.

Suicide breaks hearts. It rips families apart. It devastates friends. And it damages children. That's the dark reality of suicide, which isn't poetic at all. It's grim and it's cold and it's sad.

Ending stigma is part of the challenge, but we have to do more than just talk about suicide. We have to talk about our fears. Our anxiety. Our hurts and our brokenness.

When we bury those emotions for some who struggle with mood disorders, we plant the seeds of suicide along with them.

That's why it's important to begin a healthy discussion with our young people now. 
They need to know it's okay to struggle. They need to know it's okay to ask for help. They need to know an episode of depression or failure or disappointment doesn't have to be the end.

They need to know feelings aren't facts. They're just feelings. And they pass like a night storm that brings wind and rain but is gone before dawn.

I deeply appreciate Auburn City Schools being proactive on this issue and encouraging my daughter and I to share our story. And I could not be prouder of  her. When we make ourselves vulnerable and share our stories, secrets and stigma lose the power to hurt us. 

Thank you Dr. Karen DeLano, Dr. Shannon Pignato (a gifted and compassionate educator who cares about all of her students) and Joy Stanley.

 I'm especially grateful for Chris Hardman and Daniel Chesser for their professionalism and compassion shown throughout this series...and most of all for their care and concern for the students of Auburn High School.

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for young people. And it's by far the most preventable.

But only if we have the courage to be vulnerable and start talking.

November 3, 2016

Trump: Draining the swamp or poisoning the well?

This blog is probably not the place for politics.

But as someone who has seen people who are already struggling stung by the insensitive things people say about mental illness, I think the level of public discourse matters.

Words matter. The labels we use matter. The way we talk to people matters.

So does civility. And kindness. And compassion.

Sadly, this election has been like a really bad referee in a rivalry basketball game inside a cramped and hostile gym. The adults have let the atmosphere get too heated and toxic. 

Reason is failing, and tempers are flaring. And somebody’s going to get hurt.

When this election is over, my sincere hope is we can return to a basic level of civility in this country.

As someone who studies history and enjoys politics, I’ve observed that much of the vitriol in tough elections is typically directed from one candidate to the other.

Usually, angry candidates direct their hostility at their opponents, not the voters. 

Never before have I seen so much hate and anger aimed not at an opposing candidate but squarely at the people the President of the United States is supposed to represent: Women. The disabled. Hispanics. The overweight. African-Americans. Entire religions. Immigrants. Reporters. War heroes. Republican Congressmen. Even local elections officials across the nation, who apparently rigged the election weeks before it took place.

It’s ironic that Donald Trump draws cheers when he chants, “Drain the swamp!” Mr. Trump has so thoroughly poisoned the well of decency and diminished the greatness of democracy it may take generations for the pendulum to swing back to some level of normalcy.

And there will be consequences. There are always are. As the pendulum swings back to the vital center where most of us actually live, the standards of decency that make us a civilized people will continue to be knocked down like pins at a bowling alley on $2 pitcher night.

It really is quite unprecedented. And terrifying.

I’m fascinated by the psychology of people who are able to so easily ascribe their anger to “the government,” the Mexicans or the Clintons, while simultaneously failing to show an ability to articulate with any specificity or clarity why they hate them so much, or what a credible solution might be, not counting lazy stereotypes, political mythology or building walls.

Maybe that’s why so many are falling for the notion that the entire game is rigged. All of it, from the opposing coach and the referees to the bookkeeper and the company that manufactured the game clock to the local newspaper that will write up the fake results when the fixed game is over.

That’s another article for another blog, but it would be fun to write “The Politics of Paranoia” or “The Power of Hate.” Its premise could be Donald Trump’s entire presidential campaign, with pages and pages of footnotes of things he actually said, tweeted or did.

People a lot smarter than me have concerns like global instability or a devastating economic malaise (based on his economic plan’s review by scores of credible economists) if Mr. Trump is elected.

That’s out of my wheelhouse, so I’ll stick to civility, our values and our already fragile psyches, which so badly need a leader that can give us hope after sewing so much fear and stoking so much hate.

I would be remiss if I didn’t briefly mention the candidates’ policies on mental health. Check out both websites if you’re interested in issues other than deleted emails and lewd tapes.

I could’ve written Mr. Trump’s mental health plan in five minutes while brushing my teeth. Hillary Clinton actually has credibility on the issue and serious policies to put forward that would give mental illness the attention it so desperately needs.

While coverage of preexisting conditions and equal treatment and benefits for mental illness are all enormously important issues Mr. Trump could care less about, an equally concerning issue is the erosion of lines our leaders simply should not cross. Ever.

Like openly inciting violence. Or flippantly shrugging one’s shoulders at the notion of “Second Amendment people” killing the opposition if we don’t like the final score. Or putting them in jail without due process. Or calling reporters trying to do their jobs “disgusting.” Or shamelessly mocking the disabled on national television.

It feels as though America has collectively become so desensitized to hate speech, threats of violence and this idea that it’s okay for the powerful to humiliate the powerless that we either barely notice or want to quickly forget when one makes a statement so outrageous it would normally disqualify them from a presidential race. Or most book clubs.

Yet because of Donald Trump and those who willingly bathe in his toxic brew of hate, bullying is not only back. It’s cheered as some perverse form of heroism.

Laugh if you will, but can you imagine our playgrounds in a few years?

Or cyberspace? How big of a setback will it be in the fight against cyberbullying if one of the biggest cyberbullies in the history of Twitter is elected President of the United States?

What will happen to young women in frat house bedrooms where those who revere Trump and plaster his name all over their absurdly large trucks (that are never used to actually haul anything) begin to take on his false macho persona or justify their behavior with his?

Wasn’t that what the fuss was all about from Evangelicals when Bill Clinton had oral sex in the Oval Office? Do we not have the same concerns today?

Where are the church leaders and fundamentalists who flip out about legalizing lotteries and what they deem to be deviant sexual behavior? What does their absence say about the state of morality in America today? Or leadership in general? Where is John C. Maxwell when you need him?

Or what about every kitchen table in America?  What if a man who once said he gets furious if his wife doesn’t have dinner ready when he gets home suddenly is the most watched man in the world with the biggest microphone? 

What kind of behavior will he model? What kind of language will he use if he is no longer shackled by friends, handlers, family and focus groups begging him to tone it down? How will that affect our children? Or broadcast television standards? And why aren’t conservative Christians worked up about that?

Or what about the halls of our junior high schools, jammed with kids with raging hormones who don’t yet have good judgment? Will it be okay for the star quarterback to grab little girls "by the pussy" (to quote Mr. Trump) and brag about it to the school paper? Will they be cheered? Do those who support Trump not realize that’s exactly what they are doing?

And why is that suddenly okay after it took decades for society to evolve to a place where women on most levels and in most places were beginning to be respected?

We can justify how we got here all we want. We can blame and be angry at Congress, our changing demographics, the liberal media, aliens who don’t all have the right papers and global economic realities that transformed America, the world and the kind of jobs we now have available.

In other words, we can be mad at reality.

But it’s not healthy to be so angry we don’t even know who we’re actually mad at. Or why we’re so pissed. History shows us that when demagogues use hate to inflame emotions for political gain, common decency, common sense and the common good are endangered.

And all that truly does make America great really is at risk.

Donald Trump has stoked the fires of racism, celebrated misogyny, mocked disabilities, bragged about sexual assault and even graphically described the menstrual cycle of smart professional women who dared challenge him.

If we learn Tuesday that all of that is acceptable to a plurality of Americans, what then? If a man running for President of the United States has said these things under the scrutiny of an election and the media he has threatened to censor, what will be said when he no longer needs our votes?

What will he say to the leaders of foreign nations or the people they represent? How will that affect their view of America as the great hope of the world? Isn’t that we want America to be?

Let’s suppose for a moment Mr. Trump wins the election.

Once the swamp is drained and no monster is found, what then becomes of the bloodlust he created?

Where will the anger of those he has so masterfully manipulated then be directed?

That's when labels will be the least of our worries.