The Bakersfield Californian

Combating mental illness plaguing teens

- ROBERT TAFOYA Robert Tafoya is a retired Kern County Superior Court judge.

May was Mental Health Awareness Month and it invites us to examine this important topic. Given the increase in shootings throughout the country by young folk in just this year alone, it behooves us to stop and ask ourselves: What is going on?

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek, in a New York Times op-ed article, warned of an epidemic of loneliness in America. Dr. Omar Awan wrote a piece in Forbes magazine regarding social media and its effect on the mental health of teens in America and notes that 90% of teens ages 13-17 have used social media and teens are online an average nine hours a day, not including time spent on homework.

Does such use have any associatio­n with their mental well-being? Data shows that greater social media use relates to online harassment, poor sleep, low self-esteem, body weight dissatisfa­ction and higher depressive symptom scores. Some mental health experts associate an increase in teenage suicide rates in the past 10 years to excessive use of social media. The more time spent on social media, the less time teens spend on making meaningful connection­s.

Adolescenc­e is a developmen­tally vulnerable period when youths crave social rewards but don’t have the ability to restrain themselves. The prefrontal cortex, that region of the brain that involves exercising sound judgment, is not fully developed. TikTok, Instagram, Snap Chat, Facebook and similar platforms are not bad in themselves and provide positive opportunit­ies that allow young folk to remain connected with family and friends. But despite these advantages, our U.S. Surgeon General writes: “We have to renegotiat­e our relationsh­ip with technology, creating space in our lives without our devices so that we can be more present with one another.”

A wonderful and insightful solution to this pressing problem was articulate­d in Valerie Schultz’s column published in The California­n on May 27: “We all need a moment of silence.” This article should be mandatory reading for every parent, pastor and middle and high school teacher and counselor. The content should be discussed regularly with their charges.

Simply stated, we adults need to provide our children the tools to access silence. We need to guide them on how to enter that realm or dimension within themselves, that center, home, or place where they can relax, destress and examine their thoughts and the correspond­ing feelings in the moment, in a non-judgmental way. We need to give them the tools to take responsibi­lity for the content of their minds. We need to nurture in them the discipline to turn off their iPhones, computers, TVs and similar distractio­ns and embrace silence. We need to show them how our minds can become either a hostage to our ego or a host to the divine.

I was introduced to transcende­ntal meditation in high school and during lunch breaks would meditate with fellow classmates. We never discussed God, religious dogma or other related themes. We just cleared our minds through conscious and deliberate breathing. Over the past 50 years I have continued the practice and it has been invaluable in allowing me to maintain a sense of balance in a demanding environmen­t.

Whether we describe these prevention or early interventi­on efforts as meditation, prayer or cognitive behavioral therapy, we need to provide our children the means to navigate their complex worlds. Ms. Schultz shares with her readers that when she embraces silence she feels at home and participat­es in a conversati­on with herself wherein she not only talks, but listens. Perhaps her conversati­ons included reflection­s on life lessons offered by loved ones.

She reminds us listening takes time. Listening demands an open and undistract­ed mind.

It is said that sometimes life’s most profound lessons are found in simplicity. Going forward, maybe just embracing silence, as a matter of daily routine, could be one solution for helping our children traverse their worlds.

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