Dyslexia, self-harm and attempted suicide

 Research shows that at least 5% of schoolchildren are likely to have dyslexia.  Children sometimes lack the maturity to ask for help and things can go sour when they’re left to fend for themselves. With the aim to assist both parents and educational practitioners to recognise the emotional turmoil that young dyslexics face in life, Neil Alexander-Passe explains the link between dyslexia, self-harm and attempted suicide. The author’s new book Dyslexia and Mental Health: Helping people identify destructive behaviours and find positive ways to cope is out now.

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School – legally enforced torture

If you were forced to attend school in Japan without the aptitude to understand the language nor pens and pencils to record what is required, you might not mind if it were only for one day. However, imagine you were legally forced to go five days a week for eight hours a day for ten or more years. Is this fair? I’m sure you would agree not. Well this is exactly how a dyslexic feels. They lack the skills and tools to understand school, and are marked poorly by the lack of such abilities. Everywhere they turn, they see books, and the ability to read and write are valued above all other skills. You can appreciate that they could feel helpless and lacked of control in their lives.

To make matters worse, most teachers lack the skills and aptitude to recognise a struggling learner in their classrooms. It must be said that dyslexic children begin to develop self-protecting strategies to camouflage themselves from showing up their lack of skills, especially amongst their able-bodied peers. Such strategies can include: hiding in class, being the class clown to cover up for the lack of abilities, being the class helper to avoid writing tasks, forgetting homework on purpose, and calling in sick to avoid lessons when there are spelling tests or they need to give in homework. They develop sensitive antennas for situations that might highlight their difficulties, and quickly put in place back-up plans to avoid trouble.

It should also be recognised that children sometimes lack the maturity to ask for help from teachers, and get bored waiting in a long line for help. Calling out in class is sometimes seen ‘bad behaviour’ but in reality it is the child asking for help, albeit not in the way the teacher would prefer.

 

Regaining control in a world they can’t control

When dyslexics feel that they have no control over their life at home and at school, and feel like failures at everything they try to achieve, they begin to look for ways to feel better.

We all can recognise comfort eating; maybe a chocolate bar when you feel sad – but self-harm goes beyond this. Food, if taken to extremes can give an individual some control in a world they feel is uncontrollable. They are forced to go to school each day; even though they hate it and are taught in ways they can’t learn. Over-eating and becoming obese can protect them from social situations that might require them to read or write (e.g. reading the bus timetable; reading numbers on a bus to meet up with friends; reading the name of the film being shown at the cinema; reading a timetable etc.). They might take the other extreme and think if they didn’t eat they would be so small and thin that no one would recognise and take note of them.

Others see that drugs are a way to escape the harsh world they believe they live in, so sniffing glue or taking drugs will bring a high that allows them a respite/escape even for minutes from the pain they feel at school and home, being socially excluded or by them not having a job.

Self-harm through cutting allows a sense of control in their lives, it also gives an adrenaline high to the body. It allows an individual to regain control of some aspect of their life, however it can become more dangerous in their pursuit of this natural high. Easy to hide at first but harder as time goes by with constant cutting.

In the extreme, the need for an escape through risk-taking can lead to putting one’s life in even more dangerous situations (e.g. playing on train lines, getting into fights), however it is with attempted suicide that can be shocking in young dyslexics from a very young age of seven years old. They want to escape a world they feel excluded from, they also see the pain and anguish they are putting their parents through and want to save them from further pain. Sadly many dyslexics do take their lives but such deaths are unrecorded as they haven’t left a suicide note, as that would require writing, a task they feel is very hard and they want an escape from.

It is interesting to note that some dyslexics get into fights to break bones, especially arms and hands to avoid writing tests. Such calculated lengths to avoid taking tests should be recognised, along with unrecognised dyslexic children forcing themselves to be sick just before a test to avoid being judged badly in front of peers. The lengths some dyslexics go to preserve what self-esteem they have can be remarkable.

 

What can be done?

  • Schools need to screen and put in place interventions to help dyslexic and other struggling learners.
  • Schools need to provide counsellors for children who experience difficulty learning at school, as the emotional effects of failure can lead to social exclusion, depression and self-harming.
  • Teachers need to recognise the avoidance by children, ask themselves why, and act to question if there is a learning difficulty or another barrier to their learning e.g. avoiding reading and writing.
  • Teachers need to read through secondary behavioural manifestations in pupils and look to understand their primary learning needs. What is bad behaviour covering up? Are they lost in class? Have they missed vital stepping stones to learning? Are they using bad behaviour to cover up for their struggle to understand what is required?
  • Parents need to recognise the signs of self-harm and depression in their children, so that they can refer them to specialist teams for help.
  • Parents need to praise the effort, not the end result, and support their children to focus on strengths not weaknesses.

 

Neil Alexander-Passe is the Head of Learning Support (SENCO) at Mill Hill School in London, UK, as well as being a special needs teacher and researcher. He has taught in mainstream state, independent and special education sector schools, and also several pupil referral units. He specialises in students with dyslexia, emotional and behavioural difficulties, ADHD and autism. Neil has written extensively on the subject of dyslexia and emotional coping and, being dyslexic himself, brings empathy and an alternative perspective to the field. Find out more about Neil’s work here.

Learn more about Dyslexia and Mental Health here.

Read Neil’s other blog post: The lifelong social and emotional effects of dyslexia

The lifelong social and emotional effects of dyslexia

With the aim to assist both parents and educational practitioners to recognise the emotional turmoil that both young and older dyslexics face in life, Neil Alexander-Passe illustrates the lifelong social and emotional effects of dyslexia. The author’s new book Dyslexia and Mental Health: Helping people identify destructive behaviours and find positive ways to cope is out now.

 

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What is dyslexia?

To most, dyslexia is the difficulty with words, but in truth the term is misleading. The true effects of dyslexia go well beyond having a difficulty with words and spelling, as it also affects the ability to remember names and facts, balance and the ability to tie shoe laces and tying ties, misreading and misunderstanding the relevance of numbers, to write neatly, and to recall facts once learnt (even from two minutes ago).

 

The young dyslexic

The effects of dyslexia are widespread, and in mainstream education everything the dyslexic has difficulty with is valued highly by teachers and their peers. Can they read fast and write neatly? Well, no. Can they remember spellings for a test? Well, no. Can they recall enough facts to write an essay? Well, no. So a young dyslexic will see their friends and peers perform at ‘normal’ rates and progress smoothly through school, and each year the gap widens. Unless teachers have knowledge of special needs and/or dyslexia, it is unlikely that the young dyslexic will be identified as having learning difficulties or differences.

Studies of teacher training courses and the knowledge-bases of teachers support the argument that most teachers are unqualified to recognise a dyslexic child in their midst. So what happens? The dyslexic child begins to see themselves as ‘abnormal’ and ‘stupid’, which is exactly what they are told, either openly by teachers or by their friends, or indirectly by being put on the ‘stupid’ table with the other ‘slow’ kids. Children know who the clever and not-so-clever ones are very fast, and no matter how teachers dress up mixed-ability classrooms, kids know! In the playground the clever kids mix within their own circles, excluding all the others as misfits.

Each year the dyslexic child falls even further behind their peers, and their common reaction is to give up even trying in class, as no matter how hard they try, they always seem to get the lowest marks. No matter how hard they revise spellings or facts, within minutes or hours such facts or spellings are lost like grains of sand.

Emotionally such failure on a daily or hourly basis is harsh. What can the dyslexic child do in such a hostile environment? Well, many withdraw and develop depressive symptoms to cope, as it’s easier that way.

 

The adult dyslexic

After ‘surviving’ school, maybe without any qualifications to their name, dyslexic young adults are faced with finding a job, or going to college to gain the qualifications they need to start an apprenticeship. They see their peers leave school with 8-10 GCSEs, and all they have is one or two qualifications in unvalued subjects, such as Art or Drama. They see their peers go to university or train up to any career that takes their fancy, but what can the dyslexic do? Do they have a choice? Not with the lack of qualifications they have. Their dreams of being lawyers or doctors are just that, dreams.

Do they either start on a low-level college course to develop their basic skills, take a job in manual labour, or be unemployed – they begin to question their place in society. Can they take their place, or are they excluded from a society that highly values those who can read and write? Once again, they see that withdrawal is a good option to protect their self-esteem, and again depression looms. Many find completing application forms so exhausting that they give up even applying for jobs or benefits, and some even turn to crime to make ends meet.

 

Dyslexics and their families

Parents of young dyslexics are bemused by their child who can orally seem intelligent but just cannot seem to cope at school. They know they work hard but nothing seems to stick. They know that no matter how long they work at writing an essay, it looks messy and rushed. Compared to their non-dyslexic children, they can see their dyslexic child starting to give up, and beginning to withdraw into a shell-like existence.

The dyslexic child begins to question their place in their family; it is almost like they don’t fit in. They begin to question if they were adopted, and many have been known to write ‘help me’ on signs in their bedroom windows, or even run away from home, as they feel trapped by a family that they don’t feel a part of. What does running away achieve? It manifests their anxiety about fitting in. It says to them that it’s better to leave as they don’t fit in, and that their parents and siblings do not understand them. Many keep a packed bag under their beds, even from an age as young as seven, so when the pressure gets too much, they can flee at a moment’s notice. Where do they go? Anywhere, as it must be better than a home that feels more like a prison.

 

What can be done?

  • Schools need to train teachers to recognise dyslexics in their classes. Research suggests that 20% of all school-aged children will have a learning difficulty at some point in their education, and dyslexia is the single most common difficulty. Seen severely in 5% of schoolchildren and another 5-10% more mildly, that’s at least one to two dyslexic children in each classroom.
  • Teacher training needs to teach recognition of learning difficulties.
  • All teachers are required by the UK government to be qualified to teach all children with special educational needs in their classrooms, but most lack this ability, so additional training is urgently required for them to ‘differentiate’ their lessons effectively.
  • Schools need to identify early and provide specialist teaching to children with special educational needs.
  • Schools need to provide counsellors for children who experience difficulty learning at school, as the emotional effects of failure can lead to social exclusion, depression and self-harm.
  • Teachers need to recognise the avoidance by children, ask themselves why, and act to question if there is a learning difficulty or another barrier to their learning e.g. avoiding reading and writing.
  • Parents need to praise the effort not the end result, and support their children to focus on strengths not weaknesses.

 

But don’t some dyslexics survive school and succeed in life?

Whilst it is true that some dyslexics do well in life (e.g. Richard Branson, Keira Knightley, Mollie King, Jamie Oliver, Tom Cruise), researching them you hear the same thing. School was hell and they left as soon as possible. They also highlight that they found something they were good at early on, maybe not school subjects such as English, Maths or Science, but vocational skills such as selling, persuading, acting, cooking, art and design, etc. This allowed them to balance the negativity at school with their ability to out shine their peers outside school. Ongoing research in dyslexia and success has found that each successful dyslexic has a ‘chip on their shoulder’ to prove everyone who ever doubted their ability wrong, to prove that they are not ‘stupid and thick’. They are driven by their school failure and humiliation to do well in life. Even returning to school for their own children is hard for them, they can have symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder when seeing small chairs, smelling sickly floor cleaner, or seeing drawings pinned up on walls, as theirs were not deemed good enough for presentation.

 

Dyslexics, unless diagnosed and helped early on in their school career, will suffer from varying levels of emotional pain. Be it low self-esteem, self-doubt; withdrawal or running away from home. It is important to recognise that secondary bad behaviour is commonly covering up for primary difficulties, but most teachers are just satisfied by mislabelling pupils as troublemakers and try to move such needy pupils to a different teacher.

 

Neil Alexander-Passe is the Head of Learning Support (SENCO) at Mill Hill School in London, UK, as well as being a special needs teacher and researcher. He has taught in mainstream state, independent and special education sector schools, and also several pupil referral units. He specialises in students with dyslexia, emotional and behavioural difficulties, ADHD and autism. Neil has written extensively on the subject of dyslexia and emotional coping and, being dyslexic himself, brings empathy and an alternative perspective to the field. Find out more about Neil’s work here.

Learn more about Dyslexia and Mental Health here.

Read Neil’s other blog post: Dyslexia, self-harm and attempted suicide

Independent Mental Health Advocacy: A glass half full?

Independent Mental Health Advocacy is all about giving a voice to those whose rights have been compromised. Hot on the heels on the release of their new book Independent Mental Health Advocacy – The Right to be Heard, co-authors Karen Newbigging, June Sadd, and Karen Machin explain the role that IMHAs play within mental health services, and the principles and practice of the role.

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The Mental Health Act allows for people to be detained in hospital and, in specific circumstances, treated against their will. Changes made in 2007 extended these powers into the community with Community Treatment Orders, with the safeguard of a new statutory role of Independent Mental Health Advocacy (IMHA).

In researching IMHA across England, we heard about its value and how it had helped people get off a section quicker, or negotiate a change in medication or leave.  For some people, it enabled them to feel valued and built their self-confidence so that they could advocate for themselves. For a small number of people, however, it seemed like IMHA services were maintaining the status quo, giving the appearance of protecting individuals’ rights without really changing their situation.

As a team, and perhaps particularly because some of us have experience of being sectioned, we were troubled by this finding.  How could an apparently progressive step for human rights be misused or misinterpreted in this way? This led us to reflect on the grassroots nature of advocacy and how its introduction as a statutory duty could have fundamentally, but not necessarily, altered its nature.

Advocacy has a long and honourable tradition in mental health, where the experience of being detained is profoundly disempowering. Limited choices or inadequate support and treatment from mental health services have raised questions about upholding people’s rights and the availability and quality of care.  Incidents that have involved people at specific risk of discrimination have brought this into sharp focus, including the higher rates of detention of African and African-Caribbean people under the Mental Health Act, the poor treatment of people with learning disabilities and, in extreme circumstances, deaths of detained patients following restraint.

The purpose of IMHAs is to provide a safeguard for people detained under the Mental Health Act and to enable individuals to have a greater say in decisions about their care and treatment.  In this book, we explore this type of advocacy drawing on available research, including our own. We take a critical look at IMHA services, considering their foundational roots and the factors that shape how these are provided and that will have a direct bearing on their impact.

The development of IMHA services has to be understood and evaluated in context and the first part of the book is devoted to this. We start by exploring the disputed terrain of mental health and different perspectives on what this means, the origins of advocacy in the survivor movement and the emergence of IMHA services, borne out of the lengthy and contested process of the reform of the1983 Mental Health Act.

Our individual values, experiences and reading of the research on experiences of compulsion raised questions for us about the fundamental purpose of mental health legislation and its value, pointing to much-needed reform.  Although this research reinforces IMHA as an essential safeguard for protecting rights, the interpretation of the legal framework often privileges negative rights (such as refusing treatment), thus overshadowing more substantive rights (the rights to health and civil and social participation). The second part of the book keeps the latter focus in mind, as we discuss how IMHA services should be commissioned and provided, and the skills that IMHAs need to enable an individual to self-advocate, and mental health services to listen.

Access to IMHA services is still problematic and people who might need this form of advocacy the most are often the least likely to have access. We consider how well IMHA services are being commissioned and provided so that they are available and suitable for everyone, such that they take account of prior experiences of discrimination and how these can be reproduced through the mental health system, reinforced by legislation and in advocacy provision.

The relationship between advocates and mental health professionals should be unsettling and can be fraught for various reasons, including a lack of appreciation of the advocacy role and a professional assumption that they are best placed to be the person’s advocate.  Nonetheless, this can also work well, and we identify a framework for understanding such tensions and possibilities for constructive working relations.

It for these reasons that we conclude by looking at the future of advocacy, as a glass half-full/half-empty scenario. This deliberately evokes the paradox described by Peter Campbell (2009:51) that although the right to advocacy is ‘partly recognized, service user influence over its provision is diminishing’. Readers will decide for themselves whether this is a glass half full or half empty!

We have found that the process of coming together and co-writing this book has been a really rich one. We brought different perspectives and experiences to the task and hope that this has resulted in a penetrating analysis of IMHA that both highlight the complexities and suggest some ways in which these can be thought about and addressed. We hope that our book will contribute to shaping future development so that, ultimately, people detained under the Mental Health Act really do have a say, and that their rights, beyond the narrow confines of the Act, are promoted.

Karen Newbigging is a Senior Lecturer at the Health Services Management Centre, University of Birmingham and is active in advocacy research and development. June Sadd, an independent survivor consultant, educator and researcher, draws on her personal experience of the psychiatric system in her work. Karen Machin works freelance in mental health from a perspective of lived experience. Learn more about Independent Mental Health Advocacy – The Right to Be Heard.

 

How to support grieving college students – Part 2

Between 35% and 48% of college students have lost a family member or close friend within the last two years. Grieving college students can often feel isolated and vulnerable, and may feel that no one else ‘gets’ what they are going through. In the second part of this two-part post, co-author of We Get It, Heather Servaty-Seib talks about the book and how it can be used as a tool to support grieving college students.

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We Get It is the product of the power and compassion of 33 resilient grieving young adults who took the risk in sharing their stories with others.  As the authors/editors, David and I were honored to receive their stories and to organize them in a way that we thought would be most useful and helpful to others.  As David noted in the prior blog entry, our primary audience of focus is grieving college students and young adults.  We want them to know, through reading these stories, that they are definitely not alone and that in many cases they will find their own thoughts and concerns in print in the narratives of their grieving peers.

As someone passionate about supporting grieving individuals, and who dedicates the majority of her academic and clinical efforts to encouraging and empowering young people in their grief journeys, I have always wanted to assemble a resource for grieving college students. But, over time, I realized that grieving college students did not want or need a book that I, as a counseling psychologist and professor, would write for them! Rather, what students and young adults need is to hear the stories of their peers and to know that they are not the only ones who feel/felt torn, lost, transformed, newly determined about life, etc. I believe this book will make a true difference, and I am proud of David and every single young adult who contributed to this volume.

In addition to reaching out to grieving individuals, this book was also written to offer guidance to those who want to support grieving college students and young adults, including family members, friends, counselors, professors, or university staff members. Reading the stories included here can provide helpful insights into the unique and dynamic nature of grief. If you are someone who is seeking to be a supportive presence in the life of a grieving young adult, we hope you will consider reading our book and that you will leave wiser and better able to acknowledge, normalize, and facilitate the grief of these young adults.

David and I want to express our sincere appreciation to supportive others who decide to read We Get It. You have taken a significant step in making a difference in improving the experience of grief for young adults. By reading the narratives in this book and considering the reflection questions, we hope that you will be able to offer the high quality support that you wish to provide. We know it will mean a great deal to the grieving college students and/or young adults they seek to support.

In the final chapter of the book, we actually provide a list of suggestions for those who seek to offer support to grieving college students and young adults (e.g., non-grieving peers, parents, counselors). We separated the chapter into general tips for supporters and a few additional specific tips for parents, non-grieving peers, counselors, college personnel and professors, and support group leaders. We provide a brief description of each suggestion followed by quotes from the authors to help illustrate the “lived” experience of each of these ideas. These suggestions are tips that grieving students themselves have offered. Some of these suggestions were reported by many, whereas others were only noted by a few. We encourage you to view these ideas as possibilities and be sure to personally evaluate how well each may or may not fit for you.

Again, although our primary focus is on getting We Get It into the hands of grieving college students and adults, we definitely believe that the book can offer real and practical guidance to family members, friends, counselors, professors, or university staff members. You will truly be amazed by the candor, depth of insight, and eloquence of the 33 young adults who share their stories in We Get It.

Heather L. Servaty-Seib, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist. She is currently a professor in the Counseling Psychology Doctoral Program in the Department of Educational Studies at Purdue University, US. Dr. Servaty-Seib also maintains a small, grief-focused private practice. She is well-published in the areas of adolescent and young adult grief, social support and grief, and she is a past president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Much of her recent scholarship has been focused in the area of student bereavement, with articles published in both The Counselling Psychologist and Death Studies. Dr. Servaty-Seib was heavily involved in implementing a bereavement leave policy for students at Purdue University, an effort which has set a precedent for other campuses. She lives in Lafayette, IN.

Learn more about We Get It.

Read part one of this blog post.

How to support grieving college students – Part 1

Between 35% and 48% of college students have lost a family member or close friend within the last two years. Grieving college students and young adults can often feel isolated and vulnerable, and may feel that no one else ‘gets’ what they are going through. In the first part of this two-part post, co-author of We Get It, David Fajgenbaum says in his own words how he aims to provide guidance and support for bereaved students and young adults.

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Losing a loved one at any age is difficult. But there are certain things about college and young adulthood that can make it a particularly difficult time to grieve. We’re often away from home for the first time and/or at college. We’re going through an intense period of personal and professional development. We’re swamped with assignments or work tasks. We’re often geographically far from our ill or grieving loved ones. We’re supposed to have the “best four years of our lives” and be worry free. Despite having other grieving young adults all around us (one out of three college students reports grieving in the last year), we can and often do feel completely alone and believe that there is no one around us who “gets” what we are going through.

We get it. These are some of the reasons that Heather and I have dedicated much of our lives to helping grieving college students and young adults. Heather has published bereavement research, advocated for young adult grievers as the President of the Association for Death Education & Counseling, and helped to establish one of the only student bereavement leave policies in the nation on her campus at Purdue University. I established a peer-led grief support group at Georgetown University after my mom died, grew the organization into a national movement (AMF) that has reached 3,000+ grieving students on 200+ campuses, and helped to propel college student grief to become a priority issue in higher education in the United States.

But four years ago, Heather and I connected over our mutual concern for all of the students not being reached by my nonprofit and not benefiting from Heather’s research and outreach. We had seen the impact that can be made on a griever’s life when they receive the support they desperately need, and we knew there were many more around the world in need of support and of connection with others who “get it.” Some individuals are able to find and connect with those with similar experiences of loss, whereas others are never able.

We assembled a book of autobiographical narratives written by 33 grieving college students and young adults for grieving college students and young adults. We believe these narratives can give readers a voice and the courage to share their grief experiences with others. We have discovered that one of the most powerful experiences for grieving individuals is to hear even a small element of their own experience being expressed by another. We wanted to make this experience possible for all, regardless of their access to others with similar experiences.

This book provides a window into the many grief reactions and mourning approaches of 33 grieving students and young adults. These young adults contributed their stories to this book to make a difference in the lives of future grieving students through sharing their stories–through showing that they “get it.” Rather than providing a prescription for how grief should be done, they genuinely describe the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors they experienced throughout their grief journeys. The power of this book is in the candid, engaging, and heartfelt sharing contained in these stories. We have offered the whole narratives, organized them based on themes, and provided commentary and reflection questions at the end of each chapter to help grievers to keep actively moving forward. We are so grateful for their beautifully-written stories.

If you are a grieving college student or young adult, we hope our book will be helpful for you and that you will find multiple points of connection as you read. This book was also written to offer guidance to those who want to support grieving college students and young adults, including family members, friends, counselors, professors, or university staff members. If you fall into this group, we hope that this book will provide helpful insights into the unique and dynamic nature of grief.

I’d like to close by sharing some of the lessons I’ve learned through my own grieving process and work:

First, helping others through support and community service has been very therapeutic for me , and I’ve heard this from many of our AMF members. The community service component is a particularly helpful way to get guys, like myself, to confront some of their emotions – through actively doing something. Along the same lines, I also get tremendous therapeutic benefit from dedicating my life to fighting cancer. Second, the power of peer support and being able to speak with others who “get it” cannot be underestimated; my support group at Georgetown was my lifeline. Third, we all express our emotions differently, so it is essential that we encourage people struggling with grief to express their emotions in whatever way is most helpful for them. Fourth, even though it has been over 10 years, I still miss my mom and wish that she were still here. But the sadness and intensity has certainly decreased over the years, so that I’m able to integrate my memories and the lessons she taught me to be able to actively move forward.

David C. Fajgenbaum, M.D., MSc, is a Research Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology/Oncology at the University of Pennsylvania and the co-founder of the National Students of AMF Support Network, a non-profit organisation dedicated to supporting college students grieving the illness or death of a loved one. Dr. Fajgenbaum co-founded the organization in 2006 in memory of his mother, Anne Marie Fajgenbaum (AMF). The organization is now a national movement that has supported 3,000+ students on 200+ campuses and raised national awareness about college student grief. AMF now stands for “Actively Moving Forward.” David has been profiled on Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 list, the Today Show, Reader’s Digest, and 40 million bags of Doritos.  David received his BS from Georgetown University, his MSc in Public Health from Oxford University, his MD from the University of Pennsylvania, and his MBA from The Wharton School of Business. Dr. Fajgenbaum lives in Philadelphia, PA.

Learn more about We Get It.

Read part two of this blog post.

Can children be depressed?

It may be hard to believe that children can experience depression at a very young age, but as the NHS explains, “10% of children in Great Britain aged between 5 and 16 have a mental health problem, with 4% of children suffering from an emotional disorder such as anxiety or depression.” Lloyd Jones, author of The Princess and the Fog, shares his personal experience with depression as a child and adult, and explains how he learned to cope through his art.

This content was originally posted on Lloyd’s blog.

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‘Depression has been something of a running theme in my illustration work for a long time and The Princess and the Fog is obviously no exception. It is a subject that is very  near and dear to my heart as I’ve personally suffered from depression for most of my life.

I first felt as though I had a tendency towards depression when I was a child. I had only a cursory understanding of what it was – namely that it made you feel tired and sad and disinterested in things much of the time – which I felt described me, but I didn’t really know what it MEANT to be depressed or what one was supposed to do about it. I remember I confided in an adult – a family member, I won’t say whom – for some advice. “I think I’m depressed,” I admitted. “What have you got to be depressed about?” they replied, fairly astounded. And that was the end of the discussion. I suddenly felt as though I hadn’t earned the right to be depressed. I was just a kid. I didn’t have anything to be depressed about. I suddenly felt so embarrassed and so intensely alone. I don’t really remember what happened after that but I know that for a long time I wasn’t able to talk to anybody about it again.

It wasn’t until I was 21, in the second year of my BA, that I was first officially diagnosed with depression and put on fluoxetine. Suddenly I was allowed to be depressed. It was okay to talk about it and there were pamphlets and medicines and all sorts of things I was allowed to know about. I had had some experiences in college with herbal remedies and counselling that only seemed to be taken semi-seriously and didn’t really do much for me but this was the real deal. Depression as a theme started seeping into my illustration work as something I finally understood enough to be able to communicate. Projects like the Short Term Diaries of the first year of my MA gained some popularity as an alternative therapeutic tool, and I seemed to reach a lot of people with my short graphic memoir zine There’s A Hole In My Chest and its follow-up There’s a Hole In Your Chest. I was meeting and communicating to increasingly more people who felt the way I did.

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Excerpt from ‘There’s A Hole In My Chest’

For the second year of my MA I wanted to do something different, having felt a bit stifled by the Short Term Diaries towards the end of the project. I liked the responses I got to my Hole in Chest books so I thought it might be a good idea to keep the same theme rolling. Writing and illustrating a picture book had been on my bucket list for a while so I thought I’d give it a try.

When I began writing the story I had to do a lot of research into childhood depression to make sure I tackled the subject responsibly and respectfully, and to make sure I got my facts straight. I discovered after struggling to find much that childhood depression was still a relatively new concept and that up until recently it was believed that children could not become depressed. Suddenly I had a bit more context for the loneliness I had felt as a child. There were hardly any books for children with depression out there. There were dozens of books and pamphlets and cartoons and other media for children living with just about any other mental illness you could think of, but not depression. I realised that if I made one, it could actually be really important to someone. A year and a half of working on it later, and here we are.

If I had had a book like The Princess and the Fog when I was a child, I wonder how different things would have been. If I’d known that I wasn’t the only person out there feeling this way, I can’t help but think I might have felt a lot less isolated and desperate, and  perhaps because of that I would have had a better understanding of how to deal with it. That was the book I tried to create. If The Princess and the Fog helps even one kid out there feel like they don’t need an excuse to be depressed, that there’s somebody else out there who’s been through the same thing and survived, and that they can do the same, then I’ll have done my job and I’ll be happy.

Lloyd Jones lives in the south of England. Lloyd has a first class honours degree in Illustration from the University of Portsmouth, an MA in Sequential Design and Illustration from the University of Brighton and he is currently working on a PGCE FE from the University of Southampton. He has learned to live with his fog, rather than suffer from it. Learn more about The Princess and the Fog

Find out more about depression and anxiety in children here.

 

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Princess and the Fog by Lloyd Jones

The Princess and the Fog

by Lloyd Jones

Giveaway ends August 19, 2015.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

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Six steps to finding balance in busy lives

It is important to know that life imbalance is one of the biggest causes of stress in the western world; consequently understanding why we experience imbalance in our modern lives, and finding strategies to help you overcome it, is very useful! Teena Clouston shares 6 steps to finding balance in busy lives from her new book Challenging Stress, Burnout and Rust-out.

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So what is burnout and rust-out?

Burnout and rust-out are caused by long-term stress; burnout is marked by exhaustion and rust-out by apathy and disengagement. Which of these we experience and when, is variable, dependent on the unique individual and his or her circumstances. Stress and imbalance can be linked to some specific personality traits and thinking patterns that we can unconsciously adopt to manage the daily grind but which, unwittingly, can maintain our state of imbalance and levels of stress.  For example, people who rush around like busy bees, or those that put up with or make excuses for their busyness and overwork are all using different strategies to deal with life conflicts, pressures and time scarcity, but sadly, are failing to diminish stress. Alternatively those that fight back and overcome these pressures seem to be able to live a far more balanced and healthy life because they dare to challenge the status quo and take time to do things they find meaningful or enjoy doing, irrespective of the pressures of work or general over-busyness.

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Resistance is not futile

 

6 steps to achieve a healthy work-life balance

There are several different ideas shared in the book but if I had to choose 6 they would be:

  • Gain some autonomy over your workload
  • Review and adapt your views and attitudes about work so they become congruent with what you really want in life
  • Share your daily responsibilities with others
  • Do something meaningful everyday
  • Live in the moment
  • Walk in nature

These techniques are not a cure-all in terms of work-life or indeed, more general life balance. That’s because, in reality, they all need you to put in a lot of effort in terms of making changes in how you live your life everyday, and that is not easy. For example, if you are going to use mindfulness techniques to try to focus on the moment or cognitive behavioural strategies to change your thinking or attitudes about life balance, then you have to practice that regularly and put some work in every day. That said, you do need to start somewhere and from small moves big things can grow and consequently, with practice, you can really change your sense of balance, your quality of life and ultimately, your well-being; thus practice may not make perfect, as the saying goes,  but it can make life just a little richer and more satisfying.

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Illustrations by Peter Cronin, ARSMA.

Teena J. Clouston is a Reader in Occupational Therapy and Life Balance at the School of Healthcare Sciences at Cardiff University, UK. Over the last ten years, her research interests have become focused on the meaning and experience of lifestyle balance, and her PhD specifically studied the influences of paid work on finding balance in everyday life. Learn more about Challenging Stress, Burnout and Rust-out here.

Teach your Child How to Fight Anxiety

Natasha Daniels is a child therapist  and has worked with young children and their families for over 15 years. Her book, How to Parent Your Anxious Toddler, covers everything parents of an anxious toddler need to know, to help them tackle everyday difficulties and build up their child’s resilience, independence, and coping mechanisms. In this post she shares some advice on helping your child to fight anxious feelings.  

Teach your Child How to Fight Anxiety….and be a Super Hero!
Teaching your child how to fight anxiety can start at a very young age. I have worked with children as young as two and three that were able to learn skills on how to face their fears. So, roll up your sleeves and start arming your child with skills to overcome their anxiety. It is never too early to turn your little one into a superhero!

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EPISODE 1: DEVELOP YOUR LITTLE SUPERHERO

Set the Battle Ground
Have your child name their worries. Sometimes this will just be Mr. Worry, but you can pick something more specific based on your child’s fears (Mr. Bossy, Mr. Bugs, Mr. Scared, Mr. Sick etc.). Tell them that Mr. Scared likes to boss kids around and make them fearful. Have them create a worthy superhero to fight off Mr. Scared. I like to use the child’s name with Super in front of it (Super John, Super Amber, etc.). Have them draw a picture of Mr. Scared and of their superhero. Prompt them to make the superhero look like them in some way.

Dress the Superhero
Children love dress up and there is something transforming when one is dressed as a superhero. Have your child pick out a superhero costume that they can wear when they are a fighting Mr. Scared. A cape and a mask are always good places to start. If they have a particular superhero that they love – have them dress up as that instead.

Give them the back story
Set the stage for your child by giving them their superhero story. Incorporate your child’s fears into the story. Their story might go something like:

There once was a mean, bossy guy named Mr. Scared. Mr. Scared liked to go around bullying kids and making them feel scared. Every time Mr. Scared was able to make a kid feel scared, he would grow bigger. Super John wasn’t going to let Mr. Scared grow any bigger! When Mr. Scared started telling him to be scared of the dark, Super John didn’t listen to him! He knew he could turn on the lights.

Put on Your Game Face
In my house we have a “Brave Face” pose. Whenever anyone is scared to do something – we say, “Brave face!” and we all put our heads up high and proud. Sometimes duck lips are included. Sometimes it is a full superhero pose – arms on hips, chest pushed out. It is a nice way to empower each other and it encourages us to fight through our fears. At the very least, it lightens the mood and makes us all laugh.

EPISODE 2: SEND YOUR SUPERHERO OUT TO BATTLE

Verbally encourage your superhero
Having your child dressed and feeling empowered is only half the battle. Now they will need actual experiences to challenge and fight Mr. Scared. You want to encourage your child’s independence by giving them the least amount of assistance they need during these challenges. First start by giving them verbal support. You can say things like, “Don’t let Mr. Scared win this battle! Where is Super John? Do you need to get your cape on? Show me the Brave face!!”

Give suggestions to your superhero
Give your superhero some suggestions. You can say, “I know it seems dark upstairs, but there is a light switch right there you can turn on.” Or another suggestion might be something like, “We can sing together as you go upstairs so you know I am still right here.”

Offer limited support to your superhero
When your superhero is lacking some any superpowers – it may be time to call in for back up. The main goal is for your child to feel success, so if you have come to the conclusion that Mr. Scared is definitely going to win the battle, get your kiddo’s back! Offer the least amount of intervention as possible. This might be turning the light on for them or walking half way up the stairs with them. Always premise your assistance with something like, “Okay Super John I will make you a deal. I will turn on the light for you if you do the rest” or “I will go up the first flight of stairs, if you go up the rest.” Getting your child to agree on a plan makes it more likely that they will stick with it…sometimes. If that doesn’t work – pleading helps – “Don’t let Mr. Scared win! I know you can beat him!”

Okay, if all else fails, bribe your superhero!
I know that if someone told me to jump off a high dive there would very little that anyone could say to get me to do it. However, if the price was right – I might be encouraged to face my fears and try to do it. When all else fails offer a “challenge prize.” I will often have families set up a “challenge treasure box” that is filled with dollar store toys and prizes. When your child is faced with a particularly hard challenge, you can offer a challenge prize if they try to do it. You want your child to push themselves just slightly out of their comfort zone. If they are able to do this, but don’t fully complete the challenge you can say, “You were amazing! I know that was scary for you, but you went ahead anyway and tried to do it! You get a challenge prize for being so brave!”

Children don’t turn into superheroes overnight, but if you don’t give your child the skills to fight their fears, they have lost the battle before it has even begun.

This post was originally published on Natasha’s blog: http://www.anxioustoddlers.com/ 

Find out about Natasha’s book How to Parent Your Anxious Toddler, read reviews or order your copy here 

 

Designing The Princess and the Fog

What better way to explain depression to children than with a relatable and enjoyable storybook full of vibrant illustrations? The author of The Princess and the Fog, Lloyd Jones, reveals the motivation behind designing this book and its characters in his distinctive and colourful style. This content was originally posted on Lloyd’s blog.

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The Princess

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I chose a princess as the protagonist of my book because it is an archetypical character in children’s fiction. If you know that a picture book is about a princess, you can infer a lot about what the story, setting and characters are likely to be based on the countless princess stories you’re already familiar with. I was then able to turn that on its head by introducing new elements to surprise the reader and make the main character of the story much more relatable.

Additionally, princesses are typically revered and looked up to by the children who read their stories. They are something that a lot of young girls in particular strive to be. If a princess can get depression, anyone can. I think it’s important that the children who read my story can relate to its protagonist in quite a personal way so that they know that they aren’t alone and that this thing that they’re struggling with that they can’t explain can happen to just about anyone else. Depression can make you feel very alone, so just knowing that there is someone out there – even a fictional princess – who is going through something similar can be a huge comfort.

 

The Setting

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The setting of The Princess and the Fog is a strange mix of traditional old-fashioned fairy tale and modern day. A huge purple castle sits at the heart of a bustling modern metropolis. The Princess rides horses, everyone else drives cars. Television and print media apparently exist but so do knights and adventurers with swords and shields. This, again, is designed to make the story relatable on a number of different levels. Children will find the fairy tale elements of the situations as familiar as the real life ones.

In my research into writing for children I learned of the importance of metaphor. Children do not tend to like stories with aggressive morals. While the book deals with real-life problems, I have managed to avoid “outing” the children who read it by disguising the issues that young readers may be facing behind metaphors. Readers may understand that the book is describing a situation similar to their own without feeling like it’s singling them out or trying to teach them a lesson. The story is designed to be enjoyed in its own right but with a hidden depth to it that should communicate with any young readers who are feeling the same way as The Princess.

 

The Fog

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In my early design ideas for the book I was toying with various ideas for how to represent depression visually. I had previously used the idea of a hole in one’s chest and an obscured, scribbled out face in an earlier independent project called There’s A Hole In My Chest and didn’t want to use it again as I thought it would be too grim for children. Early ideas included some kind of slow, lazy slime monster not unlike The Doldrums in The Phantom Tollbooth, a hat or helmet of some kind that couldn’t be taken off once it was put on, and a ball and chain, but none of these quite described the feeling adequately. I decided that whatever it was it needed to be opaquely black, thick, impossible to remove and in some way at least partially obscure the protagonist’s head and face to create a sense of loneliness and isolation from the outside world.

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The title The Princess and the Fog popped into my head one day and it just fit perfectly. It ticked all the boxes, I could illustrate it in a similar frustrated scribbly way as the obscured faces in There’s A Hole In My Chest, and I just couldn’t resist the pun. The exact depiction of The Fog developed considerably  over the course of making the book before I settled on how it looks in the final product, particularly after notes that it obscured too much of The Princess’s face and could be seen as scary for some readers.

 

The King and Queen

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It was important to me to have the King and Queen both appear very physically strong, in their own ways. The Queen is extremely tall with very large legs but she’s very thin and a little unbalanced, while The King is short and squat with diddy little legs but with a very large upper body. In this way, it shows that they each have their own strengths that make them a very well-balanced team, both as parents, supporters and as the co-rulers of the unnamed kingdom in which the story takes place. Most children will look to their parents as their first port of call in times of crisis and The Princess is no different. The King and Queen are the first two characters to offer help to The Princess in dealing with her affliction. Although they get it a bit wrong at first, they are an essential part of the large support network The Princess is eventually able to put together. I hope any parental figures reading this book will be inspired to be as strong and determined as The King and Queen.

 

The Supporting Cast

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The other characters in the story that The Princess eventually enlists for her support network all play important parts in aiding her gradual recovery. Most of them straddle that same weird line between fairy tale and reality by representing both a trustworthy adversary one might find in the battle against depressive illness and a friendly fantasy character. The Druid, for example, brews up some potions for The Princess to try to help her fight away the fog.

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With his lab coat and diplomas, The Druid is clearly a metaphor for a doctor offering to help medicate the problem. But not everybody responds to medication. Everybody experiences depression differently and no one cure exists that will work for everyone, so I felt it important that the story never explicitly states which of the many solutions The Princess uses to try to rid herself of The Fog actually ultimately works.


Lloyd Jones lives in the south of England. Lloyd has a first class honours degree in Illustration from the University of Portsmouth, an MA in Sequential Design and Illustration from the University of Brighton and he is currently working on a PGCE FE from the University of Southampton. He has learned to live with his fog, rather than suffer from it. Learn more about The Princess and the Fog

 

Exclusive look at The Princess and the Fog

Enjoy this sneak peek at The Princess and the Fog, JKP’s latest children’s book. Vibrantly illustrated, this book was designed to be read with children aged 5-7 who are suffering from depression. 

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Once upon a time there was a Princess. She had everything a little girl could ever want, and she was happy. That is, until the fog came…

 

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Lloyd Jones lives in the south of England. Lloyd has a first class honours degree in Illustration from the University of Portsmouth, an MA in Sequential Design and Illustration from the University of Brighton and he is currently working on a PGCE FE from the University of Southampton. He has learned to live with his fog, rather than suffer from it. Learn more about The Princess and the Fog