Parents, students and members of the community came together last week to talk about mental health in the Lewis-Palmer High School auditorium. Lewis-Palmer School District hosted “Connection and Conversation” Dec. 4, a meeting designed to discuss the social and mental health of youths in the community.
“It’s meant to be a connection and conversation about the social-emotional health of the youths in our community,” said Bridget O’Connor, assistant principal at Lewis-Palmer High School. “The event is just to open a conversation about many of the struggles that our young people and families are facing in regards to mental health and what protective factors can we build on with parents and partner schools and families to come together and help our young people.
“(Mental health is) an issue and El Paso County in particular, and northern El Paso County in particular, this is just an important conversation due to the recent suicides.”
Two Monument teens died by suicide in October. According to an El Paso County Public Health Report, teen suicide was the leading cause of death in children ages 10 to 17, with 15 children taking dying by suicide in 2016. Colorado also ranked ninth in the nation for highest rates of suicide, according to a report published by the Colorado Health Institute in 2018.
“Probably the No. 1 thing I see with teenagers is anxiety, and it’s complex in ways it wasn’t 10 years ago because of the way technology has developed and the way relationships have developed from technology, and then just changes in our society,” said Dr. James Bixler, a psychologist at Mayfield Counseling Centers who attended the event. Bixler added that a sense of hopelessness and a rise in mental health issues are among the many factors contributing to youth suicides.
Dr. Mark Mayfield, founder and CEO of Mayfield Counseling Centers, was the event’s guest speaker. Mayfield addressed some of the mental health challenges youths face and how to address them. He said factors causing stress in teens today include, “academic standards emphasized by test performance, concerns about future job prospects, financial pressure caused by student debt, and excessive involvement in often stressful and bully abuse-enabling social media.”
Mayfield discussed the need to “redefine success” for students by breaking away from a mentality of achievement-based value that causes many people a sense of anxiety and hopelessness, to build relationships, to establish trust and open communication, and to meet children’s needs to be seen, safe, soothed, and secure. Mayfield said parents should not stop establishing expectations for their children, but change what defines success and value.
“The traditional definition of success is wealth, power and position,” Mayfield said. “Turn on anything on MTV (or turn on) the news — it’s about money, power and position. But what if that could be different?
“I get that we cannot change the system (that values performance), but what if we changed it in our own households?”
After Mayfield spoke, members of the audience asked a six-member panel questions about mental health challenges facing youths and how to address them. The panel consisted of a student, a parent, a Palmer Ridge High School counselor, a Lewis-Palmer High School counselor, Mayfield, and a representative from Value-Up, a program designed to teach youths they have intrinsic value.
The student panelist later spoke about the pressure teens feel to be the best at everything. He said students often feel like they must take as many advanced placement classes as possible, be involved in as many activities as possible and maintain appearances and relationships, all factors leading to high stress.
“Prolonged stress actually changes the structure of the brain,” Mayfield said. “I’ve got brain scans in my office, if you actually were to take a brain scan of somebody with prolonged stress — prolonged stress meaning over a period of time — ... and put it next to a brain (scan) of somebody who just got back from Iraq, you couldn’t tell the difference. That’s what prolonged stress does to our kids’ brains.”
Bixler said the amount of parental involvement youths need to thrive varies from family to family, however, children will benefit from parents making the effort to build healthy relationships.
“Talk to your teenager,” Bixler said of what he hoped parents learned from the event. “Be involved (and) have a healthy relationship. Figure out how to do that.”