Changing the Conversation about Youth Mental Health
Mental health issues can be difficult to understand. Struggles of the mind are laden with kaleidoscopic subtleties that can complicate their management and resolution. How can we help someone who is in a place where the pain and suffering in their mind is so terrible that it outweighs everything else life offers? Between the light of wellness and the darkness of mental illness there is a dim place that is under-discussed. It is here that a social network, community, family, friends and self-care plays a crucial role; this is where life-saving opportunities are being missed.
Through a new and innovative program, the Break The Hold (BTH) Foundation of Pleasantville is making strides by breaking down misconceptions about mental illness and building a safety network that mitigates the real risk factors. They are, in effect, extending branches for those suffering to grab hold of and implementing safety nets to catch those who are spiraling into darkness.
Driven by the love for their middle son, Brian T. Halloran, who lost his battle with depression in January of 2018, Pleasantville residents Brian and Jolina Halloran are determined to help those suffering the way he did. Through the BTH Foundation, named after their son’s initials, the
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24. Each day in the U.S., there is an average of over 3,470 attempts by young people in grades 9-12. Four out of Five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs. They don’t want to die.
Hallorans provide school and community-based advocacy programs that promote emotional wellness, resilience and suicide prevention in Pleasantville and nearby communities. Their program focuses on suicide education, raising awareness of the warning signs and empowering young people to have the courage to communicate about this difficult but important issue. The BTH Foundation is giving the community the tools to deal with mental health preventatively and is referring those suffering to the appropriate places to get the help they need. The outstanding progress the BTH Foundation has made merits attention.
The Education Platform – BTH 360
In short, the BTH Foundation’s mission is suicide prevention. The BTH program advocates a safety net system of “Recognizing and Referring”; teaching those in the community how to recognize someone suffering and refer them to receive appropriate help. “We often hear that a friend had seen a flag that could have been addressed but felt that saying something about their friend’s struggles is snitching. The message needs to get out that keeping friends healthy and happy is the right thing to do,” says Brian Halloran.
When BTH is contacted, they have a team of clinicians who, based on a triage system, put together an action plan to help connect those in need with viable options and work to overcome barriers to treatment such as financial cost.
Prevention through education is key. The BTH Foundation has worked alongside the Pleasantville High School (PHS) administration and a team of local psychologists. Together, they have developed programming for the school district that satisfies the NY State mandates for mental health in the curriculum. Their program is focused on teaching Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which is evidence-based training for emotional regulation. DBT uses mindfulness strategies to manage emotions, increasing student’s tolerance of negative emotions.
The idea is that everyone will be speaking the same language, everyone will learn to respond a little bit more thoughtfully rather than emotionally. We must get to the kids early. They need to be able to understand and communicate what is going on in their heads,” says Halloran.
Last September, ninth graders in PHS had 16 hours of mandated mental health education incorporated into the school curriculum. This coming school year, fifth graders will receive 10 hours of the program. Within 4 years everyone at PHS will have had 26 hours of DBT training. In addition, all staff in the Pleasantville High School, Middle School and Elementary School are receiving 8 hours of DBT training. Parent workshops are offered regularly.
It is especially important to educate teens before they go to college. The BTH Foundation arranges senior transition meetings to help. “Adolescents lose many protective factors once they leave home to go away to college. Many risk factors increase at this time,” Halloran warns.
BTH is sharing their model with neighboring school districts around Westchester. For example, this Fall, the program will be rolled out to ninth graders at Alexander Hamilton High School in Elmsford. The Foundation is also working to get government resources.
Dismantling the Stigma
Those suffering with mental illness are not the only ones in the dark. Some people think of suicide as “the ultimate selfish act” and wonder “how could they do that to their family and friends?” These judgements are often based on misconceptions. Most who die by suicide do not want to end their life; they want to escape their pain. Suicide is not a rational decision; it is one made under extreme duress.
A person trapped in a burning building might reasonably make the decision to jump out of the window rather than suffer the pain and anguish of being burned by the fire. A person jumping off a bridge to end their life is trying to escape pain that is very real, just like the pain of burning to death. The instinct to escape mental suffering can be as powerful as the instinct to escape physical pain. BTH is trying to break down social barriers to recovery by addressing misconceptions and normalizing the conversation about mental health.
Mental health is a public health issue requiring the help of the entire community. We have lifeguards and life preservers to mitigate the risks of swimming, the Heimlich maneuver to prevent choking and defibrillators in the case of cardiac arrest. Public controls are placed in countless situations to manage health risks. The BTH system of Recognizing and Referring is something everyone can help implement. The community should not underestimate how important they are.
Are you OK? Is something wrong? Can I help you? Those were the words I desperately wanted to hear.” – Kevin Hines, Suicide The Ripple Effect
The Art of Mental Wellness
We can’t stop thoughts from coming into our heads, but we can cultivate an awareness of them. Just because a thought is in your head does not mean it’s true. Skills can be taught so thoughts can be assessed and managed. For someone struggling with a mental illness like depression, thoughts of self-criticism and self-doubt can grow to become powerful and even debilitating. Thoughts like: “everything I do is wrong”, “nobody likes me”, “everyone I love would be better off without me”, “I have nothing to give”, “I am not able to live up to what everyone needs from me” and “I am a failure.”
Living with these ruminating thoughts is frightening and painful.
Unable to control and manage overwhelming negative thoughts, and not understanding what is happening in your head, can lead to a feeling of being trapped. Panic can ensue and bring with it impulses to escape the epic amount of mental and emotional suffering that the negative thoughts create.
The shame of what is secretly happening inside one’s mind prevents resolution and the thoughts continue to spiral. “I felt unable to function. I was being crippled by my struggle as the pain got louder and louder. It might have looked like I was ok on the outside, but the amount of work it took to maintain this false appearance was not sustainable,” recalls one survivor of depression.
The shame that prevents one from reaching out for help is a huge barrier to treatment. The person suffers internally in silence as their condition worsens and signs are missed.
Those who could help don’t know how to read the signs indicating there is an issue, and if they do sense there is something going on they don’t know how to react. If the person continues to suffer in silence, they are unlikely to get better. Depending on the sufferer’s resilience and stress factors, the bubble can ultimately break.
Please remember to be kind. You never know what someone else is going through. Jolina Halloran.
Mental health struggles are managed best when openly discussed. “There is a false belief that talking about suicide will escalate the idea. However, the opposite is, in fact, the case. An adolescent or young adult who is spiraling downward benefits immensely from simply talking about their thoughts”, says Dr. Gayle Augenbaum, a child and adolescent psychiatry specialist who practices in Armonk. BTH gives people a safe and accessible place for these conversations to take place. These simple conversations can deter unhealthy choices such as self-medicating with drugs and alcohol or worse.
Ultimately the BTH Foundation encourages people to be involved in their own self-care. “If you want to beat this mental illness problem, you have to be involved in the process. Everyone can help and we need a network and a community of support, but it is also necessary to take effort in and be proactive in your own self-care,” advises Halloran. Just as an individual with asthma pays extra attention to their breath, and a person with a food allergy has a heightened awareness of what they eat; similarly, a person who suffers from “brain pain” can become aware of the thoughts that enter their minds and learn how to manage them.
You don’t necessarily beat depression once and then it is gone. It is often something you live with throughout your life. When a person who suffers from depression is well, they can learn to practice preventative measures to maintain and manage their mental health. Mental illnesses like depression can break down one’s resilience over time and can turn thoughts into irrational behavior. But the key is “over time”; that’s where the opportunity lies, between the light and the darkness.
How Mindfulness Can Help
The principles behind mindfulness are the basis for much of DBT. Mindfulness concepts like self-compassion, non-judgement and gratitude can redirect thoughts from the darkness into the light. “Meditation helps bring awareness to your thoughts. You are not blocking thoughts but relating to them differently, letting them come and go and observing them. This will help in life because you will be able to recognize when thoughts are not helpful and can dismiss them instead of intensifying them which can lead to sadness or anxiety,” says Jodi Baretz, a holistic based therapist from the Center for Health and Healing in Mt. Kisco.
There are other methods to proactively keep one’s mental health in shape. Exercise can help in many ways including shifting one’s focus from the mind to the body. Getting enough sleep can play a big role as well.
The Next Generation
There is concern that the next generation is especially at risk of depression. Technology fosters social isolation; the omnipresent screens that children and teens are growing up with are barriers to human interaction. Mental illness breeds on social isolation; humans are meant to be in groups and care about one another.
While it is extraordinarily difficult for an adult to manage a mental illness, it is even more difficult for a child or adolescent. “Kids and teenagers don’t have the right words to name their emotions and their frontal lobes are not finished developing. Therefore, they are more impulsive and more reactive and tend to be more rigid with whatever they are feeling, not recognizing that there is hope for change.” Says Augenbaum. Teens don’t have the ability yet to understand that situations aren’t permanent. This is a learned lesson that takes time and life experience they don’t yet have. And so, the risk factors continue to pile up.
Walking into the Light
The Hallorans have suffered the unimaginable in losing their son Brian. But with the work of the BTH Foundation, steps have been taken towards compassion and understanding and away from judgement and misconception. Every time a teen who has gone down the road of darkness is given the tools to recover, Brian is there. With Brian’s light leading the way, steps are being taken in the right direction. This past June, the community showed their support by participating in the BTH Foundation’s second suicide awareness walk. The steps they took communicated a clear message to those suffering from mental illness: you are not alone in this fight; we will walk into the light with you. For more information, please visit: www.bthbreakthehold.org
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
800-273-TALK (8255) or Text “TALK” to 741-741
A Bit About Brian
Brian was a beloved son, brother and friend. He was well-liked, smart and athletic. He was friendly and had a lot of empathy for others. His parents knew he was a good person but “didn’t realize how kind he was”. After he passed away, friends and acquaintances contacted his parents and told them that if Brian saw someone who seemed sad he would not hesitate to reach out to them.
Brian appeared to most to be a typical teenager, but underneath his strong exterior he was suffering from depression. Depression can come and go. It can appear to be managed but then come back. Though Brian had been doing well, still the day came in January 2018 when his parents got a knock on their door. Brian had died by suicide while away at school in South Carolina. Before Brian died he reached out to several people but was not able to connect with anyone.