I work in public education, but I’m not a teacher, administrator, custodian, social worker or a member of the cafeteria staff. I’m something far stranger, or, according to at least one student I met during the course of my work at his school, “someone who looks like a real jackass wandering around in skinny pants all day.”
I’m a licensed psychotherapist providing school-based individual and family therapy in an underfunded high school in East Tennessee. My work is made possible through a joint partnership with our school system and an area community mental health agency. I’m also the parent of an upcoming kindergartener.
The thing I love most about my work with teenagers, especially ones regularly referred to as “emotionally disturbed,” “problems” or “you know, one of those kids,” is that they have this way of colorfully laying bare the aspirations, fears, values and stinging contradictions of whatever system in which they find themselves attempting to survive.
This is why some of the early fathers and mothers of the systems-driven family therapy movement began treating everything interrupting typical adolescent development — from schizophrenia to eating disorders — as less the result of individual pathology and more the guttural cries of an entire family or community in pain. According to these early psychotherapists, the “problem kids” aren’t broken or crazy, they are instead the only ones actually telling the truth about what runs the world.
“The pandemic has apocalyptically uncovered the raw nerve of the collective pain we regularly live with as Americans.”
It just happens that their truth is uncomfortably, profanely sharp, as it has not had time to become regularly blunted by an adulthood spent glazing over in front of home renovation shows, or transformed into a more well-practiced and socially acceptable self-effacement learned over years of making polite dinner conversation with strangers.
The pandemic has apocalyptically uncovered the raw nerve of the collective pain we regularly live with as Americans. And it has violently revealed the ways in which citizens in this country are expected to internalize and subsequently take responsibility for the toxic stress of our societal abandonment. In America, even our pain itself has been privatized.
What we do with and for our kids is often the clearest explication of what we actually believe about the world.
Lately, in my industry at least, this looks like teachers (or the ones privileged enough to still choose) weighing whether or not to leave the profession or expose themselves or vulnerable loved ones to an early grave in order to provide a poorly funded public service to families and children they love. It looks like parents (or the ones privileged enough to still choose) weighing their abilities to provide virtual home school opportunities for their children while also working, or exposing their children, teachers, themselves, family members and the community at large to COVID-19. Additionally, the bifurcation of our choices about staying home or going back to school fail to account for the underlying reality awaiting our students were they all to return to an academic environment my friend Jim refers to as “Chernobyl-light.”
“For parents, educators and school support personnel there are no ‘good’ or ‘right’ choices any more.”
For parents, educators and school support personnel there are no “good” or “right” choices any more — those evaporated in the June heat of the Trump administration’s waning commitment to public health. There is only the uniquely internalized, private pain of realizing that as an American parent and educator you are on your own.
These (lack-of) choices remind me of the “parentification” I see constantly in my work with students at the high school. Parentification describes what happens when children struggle to bear the inappropriate weight and internalized responsibility of their abandonment at the hands of adults who are ultimately responsible for their care.
We have, all of us, been parentified by a system that has abandoned us and refuses to care for us.
Which is why — now, more than ever — we need the unbridled voices of our teenagers. Because they, uniquely, still retain a furious belief in a world whose awfulness isn’t briefly interrupted by commercial breaks for a pill that reduces the unwanted side effects of our anti-depressants. Teenagers are, as one colleague put it to me early in my therapeutic career, symptoms incarnate, they are our pain made flesh.
One of these incarnate symptoms we’ll call “Henry” recently asked me if it’s still called depression whenever he gets “so tired of thinking about how I make more per hour at my fast food job than my 45-year-old dad does at his fast food job, that I just want to scream and cry in bed all day?”
I imagine underneath the surface of his original question there are a few more waiting to be asked. Like whether or not it’s still called “depression” whenever the complexity and inescapable ubiquity of an economic system that prizes scarcity, competition and anxious accumulation at all costs becomes unbearable for those of us charged with holding it up. Or if it’s still called “anxiety” whenever we come face to face with the realization that there is no longer a social contract between any of us. That we, uniquely on Earth as Americans, refuse to belong to one another as a point of national pride and economic policy. Or, finally, is it actually a mental health problem at all that living in America leaves most of us lying helplessly on the couch, staring at our phones at the end of the day much like psychologist Martin Seligman’s haphazardly electrocuted dogs in his famous study on learned helplessness?
Currently, I don’t think the kids are alright, but they are right to notice that the pain of being alive without any answers, beneficent social structures or parents to guide us is — as they regularly put it to me in my office — “total bullshit.” Their refusal to go one step further, turn in one more worksheet, comply with one more request, slam the door and go on strike is a helpful guide for framing our own responses to the chaos of our present. Not because we need to angrily self-immolate in the wake of our profound aloneness, but because we must begin noticing that the creeping depression and anxiety we feel right now must be rejected rather than internalized as the just rewards for our failure to cope and keep working.
We must begin forcefully illuminating the falsity of our nation’s religious fidelity to privatization, deregulation and individualism as nothing more than a large-scale effort to disempower us from talking to one another out loud about what we want, need and desire for the world.
I want you to empathize with your pain, acknowledge it, care for it, but I’m begging you, don’t own it. It isn’t yours, it’s ours, and the only way we get out of this, the only way we defeat this, is by dreaming, working and refusing to be anything but together.
Eric Minton is a writer, pastor and therapist living with his family in Knoxville, Tenn. He holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Tennessee, a master of divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary and a master of science degree in clinical mental health counseling from Carson-Newman University.