In the wake of any school shooting, you will always hear the debates of gun violence and the right to bear arms. What we need to be discussing is that many of our kids are being asked to carry these incredible loads, and they carry it and carry it until they no longer can. Mental illness in very young children are on the rise, and while mental illness does not, in anyway equate to violence, I think at times the frustration and futility so many kids feel does. We need to be so very aware of our young people and how they are processing what is happening in their lives.
Every week we have a youth night, and our kids come no matter what. For so many of them, I know it is simply the promise of the only hot meal they will get that day and an escape from whatever is happening in their homes. They are not a smiling lot of golden-haired, blue-eyed, wide-smiled, poster children for Christian youth groups. They often come in bedraggled, discouraged, angry, defiant, or the hardest, despondent.
Last week we were having our meal and the conversation around the table was a comparison of mental illness. This beautiful, strong, sixteen year old commented on her appointment with her counselor, and that they were going to increase her anxiety meds. This prompted her fifteen-year-old friend to say, “yes they gave me more too, but the anxiety is still there, my mom wants us to all go to counseling, but really, what is going to change?” The nine-year-old across the table, who rarely says a word, spoke up and said in a shockingly adult voice: “My medicine for anxiety makes me sleepy. But if I don’t take it then I can’t even go to my cousin’s birthday party because I just feel scared all of the time.” The sullen, pimply faced boy at the end of the table, lifted his head only long enough to raise his hand and mutter; “bi-polar” over here.” And then his head was back down on the table.
Finally, I had to ask the entire group of twelve kids- “does everyone here have anxiety or something else you are on medication for?” They all shook their head yes and clamored to tell me their stories. Across the board, they had all been diagnosed with anxiety and…..
Anxiety and bi-polar
Anxiety and depression
Anxiety and ADHD
Even our little six year old of the group has a diagnosis.
These children are products of what is happening around them. I hear their stories and I can tell you that I would be on medication too. They live with a revolving door of boyfriends, step-moms, parents with drug addictions, parents with too little education, parents who are struggling with their own mental health issues, alcoholics, and parents in prison. The list goes on and on. They tell me about being bullied at school because they do not have the right clothes and the right shoes, or they were not able to take a shower because their water had been shut off. We have one boy who wears a hoodie with large pockets so he can stuff food in them to take home for later because there is never enough.
These kids are raising their siblings, and their cousins and they do it with more grace and dignity then I would be able to muster in their circumstances. So I understand that they are riddled with anxiety and a veritable variety of mental illnesses. What I do not understand is why then, we as a society are shocked when they are pushed to the edge?
These twelve kids have a leg up because they have us. We become their family and their safe place to land. All twelve of these kids come to youth group every single week, and they come to church on Sunday with no parents in tow. There is no family gathering in a pew. These kids sit with each other or different members of our congregation. They show up for Sunday school, and every activity we offer them, because it is an out for them, and they feel safe and loved. But then we have to send them back. With a lot of grace and constant care, I hope that because our kids and others like them have places like us to come to, that they will somehow survive and rise. But for those that don’t? Well, those are the ones that get lost. It seems like an impossible task to reach them all.
I don’t know what the answer is to tragedies like school shootings. What I know is that mental illness in kids is a real and powerful force right now. It is a reaction to the situations they are living in. I know that right here and right now I can have some impact on these twelve, but always behind them, I know there are twelve more and twelve more. These are kids growing up with the names of pharmaceuticals on their lips and knowledge that the world is not a safe and friendly place. But they are growing up with a counterbalance, with a place to feel safe, at least for a time. Is it enough? I have no earthly idea. We can hope that when you affect change in one, it ripples out and out and out. I can’t fathom what goes into creating an atmosphere, in which a child seeks to harm other children, but I have seen the fringes of it on the faces of these kids, and my heart is sick that it does not surprise me. Their shoulders are too small and fragile to bear the weight of what the world has asked them to carry.
Karen Cassidy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Karen is a mother of three amazing adult children. She works for a non-profit organization that serves some of the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals. She is passionate about people and believes every person has a story just waiting to be told.