Mindfulness and Mental Illness


      By now you certainly know that there has been another school shooting at  Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

    According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, one in five children between the ages of 13-18 live with a mental health disorder. And according to the CDC, 79% of these children with mental health disorders don’t receive treatment. These statistics are valid, they are simple, yet astounding. We read them, but often don’t fully allow ourselves to digest them beyond the point of an internal gasp with language such as “what a shame”; “too many violent video games!”; “the government needs to step in.”  Our natural human tendency is to take in the information easily, talk about it even more concretely, but when it comes to the “doing” part, we lack motivation and tenacity. The predicted societal cycle occurs after any major shooting our country encounters. Anderson Cooper covers the story live for days on CNN, Facebook blows up with political opinions and quotes related to everything from parenting to gun control. And then, like fog in a window, the rhetoric recedes slowly and the incident that sparked the predicted cycle is something that had happened; something that was unfortunate; but now we move on. That is, until the next unfortunate tragedy takes place. 

    We have gotten so used to the term “mental illness” that we have hardly allowed ourselves to really understand what it’s all about. We think of it in terms of what textbooks and pamphlets say. We avoid going into the dark underbelly of what living with this disease could feel like. Allow me to start off by saying that in now way do I label every gun violence catastrophe as a result of one’s mental state. There is not a way to validate that statement. The individual has his or her own reasons for the terrible act of violence they take part in. Instead my intent in this post is to challenge you to become curious and then compassionate about what mental illness really looks like in the life of another. To begin to embrace, yet not own the pain of another human is compassion and empathy in it’s earliest stages. This process starts with acceptance that others have a set of life circumstances, fears, pain, and disappointments. That phrase, “Be kind. Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about” is a mirror reflection of accepting others as they are. That individual who fights the silent battle of mental illness is likely to be ashamed of the darkness that overtakes them at night. They are internally fighting against voices that go against who they yearn to be on the other side (some day) of this painful mountain they have to climb. But here’s the thing, the part of the process that hurts my heart for those dealing with this rocky, uphill climb…where is the support system? Why aren’t other parents and schools not more compassionate and empathetic to the student who struggles daily (and at times moment to moment) with a feeling of very little self-worth and meaning? 

   Simply because it involves work. 

 It involves parents to sit for hours with our children as they talk through feelings and frustration, it involves evaluations, therapy appointments, meetings with Child-Study teams. And these meetings never go smoothly. These meetings look at grades and test scores to validate the child’s school success. But what about the child’s “feeling” success? Where is that Standardized test? And you see…that’s the parent’s job. The job to be the daily monitor and over-seer of the subtle ways and not-so-subtle ways that a child cries out for more light and less dark in her life. 

    I reflect on the many, many shootings that have taken the lives of so many. I vividly remember the Columbine shooting. I was a junior in college, living in a townhouse. Me and my on and off boyfriend watched the TV screen of news coverage in our bulky sweatshirts and Nike wind-pants. We had just come back from practice and then the dining hall. I felt sick, sad, dark, astounded that hundreds of people were wrestling with a pain I would hope I would never feel personally. How could I be sipping Sprite from a soda can, tucked cozy under a blanket on a well-worn college couch watching this horror unfold while others understood they would never see their child again?  I took note of the day…4/4. I would remember that day every year, I promised myself that…and I have. But why are all the other dates not seared into my memory too? It’s because it’s become the norm, the dates happen, they pass, we forget. 

     Mental illness is a silent, angry monster who is creeping deeper and deeper into the lives of adults and now children. Most parents don’t understand the full capacity of its grip and that alone can scare them away from fulling seeking the necessary treatment for their kid. Let’s be brave and seek help for our children when help is needed. Let’s not care about the judgmental eyes of another parent. Unfortunately those eyes will always be there from some. The only eyes that should matter are those of your child. Let’s embrace with love those who fight a battle they can’t put into their own words. Let’s educate ourselves, read articles, look for the signs, hug the child who is quiet, and connect with the child who stands alone. Show mental illness Love; crush it with your kindness, and embrace it without shame. Those who struggle do not choose this way of living. It was unfairly forced upon them. Be an encourager through deed and word. Connect and uplift; empower and share your conviction with the one suffering that they are not alone. When small steps are taken on our end, larger steps towards light are taken in the life of another. That is the work that we all need to do. 


Sarah Stevenson