I work often with children and adolescents that have been labelled depressed, addicted, oppositional or delinquent and I often remind myself how important it is to not forget the full picture. A person struggling emotionally does not deserve the label of his or her diagnosis the same way someone with cancer, a broken bone or diabetes does.
For one, if I go to the doctor for a blood test the medical professional is looking to see that my blood count is normal. We will know if something is wrong based on a concrete measurement. We know what normal blood sugar or iron levels are and also know when these levels become dangerous. Unfortunately for emotional concerns such as depression or anxiety, it does not work the same way.
There is no normal level of depression but a professional can tell that you are depressed. Also, there is no way to treat these troubles the same way antibiotics treat an infection or pain killers on a headache. Helping people with these concerns requires getting the full picture from the person's point of view so we can use their everyday success and bravery for good. The heroic things that the ‘depressed child’ does each day will tell us how we can help him or her out of their stuck place.
I have worked with a few young people this year that have struggled with being bullied at school. Some have gotten so low that they have self-harmed causing such alarm at home that their parents have reached out to me for help. One person in particular, an eleven year old, had decided that it was better eat lunch on his own rather than with any of his friends just to hide away from the kids that were picking on him. He had scratched himself while walking home from school and has started to feel that he would prefer to just stay home from school in bed instead of making the treacherous journey to school each day.
On the surface we see this boy as young person struggling socially with all the adversity happening around him. In trying to problem solve, we could focus on the bullying or the self-harm. However, there may be more to the story we don't want to miss.
During our second session together he talked to me about cricket. His coach had told his father that he was not a very skilled player and did not put in enough effort during practice and should probably look into different extracurricular activities.
Being born in America I know very little about cricket so I curiously asked him what he liked about the sport. He lit up. He sat on the edge of the couch and began explaining all the different ways the sport is played from test cricket to 20-20. He talked to me about how the players line up and strategies for bowling. Having cricket stumps along with our expedition gear I got them out. He started as the bowler and easier ended my turn at bat laughing as I joked about being a not-so-good cricketer.
We went back into the office to talk about his plan for the final two weeks before the school holidays. He told me about what the coach had told his dad and said he did not know what would happen if he was unable to play cricket at school. “It’s the main reason I wake up in the morning,” he said.
I spoke to the boy’s father the next day and told him about how passionate and enthusiastic this child was about cricket. He was not the depressed, low energy, effortless boy I had been referred. I said that it would be an enormous oversight to not let this boy play. The father rang the coach and advocated for his son. The coach decided to meet with the child and they spoke for a full lesson about strategies for improving the team and what the boy could offer in helping the other boys to improve their game.
During our session the next week he said that one practice the coach had allowed the boy to help teach a certain bowling technique he could do better than most the other kids. He said he was nervous but everyone was interested in learning this technique. He said some of the kids asked him to have lunch the next day.
Although this boy has serious concerns, self-harming behaviours and a challenging circumstance at school, we were able to find his heroic passion and use his strengths to our advantage. We were lucky to have such an engaged father and coach who had the best intention of helping through connection. Instead of hoping the child would fit-in or change his thinking about the bullying, they put him in charge using one thing he knew best.
How can we do this in our own life? Think about the things that put you at the edge of your seat. What are you most passionate about? What excites you?
For me it is music. I know that if I’m overwhelmed, stressed or anxious I can play my drums, pick up my guitar or learn something new on piano. I can even put a record on and sit for a second. It doesn’t take long to feel better when I’m using the part of me that is focused, passionate and skilled.
Think about what this is for you and use it.
Have a safe new year and a happy 2016!
Will Dobud MSW
True North Expeditions, Inc. provides adventure therapy programs and services for children and teenagers in Australia. Based in Adelaide, the TNE team writes about child and adolescent psychology, family dynamics and how adventure therapy programs can connect with struggling adolescents.