Despite the rain, sleet and snow, the “Helping Our Teens Through Family and Community” symposium packed the Aspen District Theatre on May 20.
Presented by Aspen Connect with a bevy of partners and sponsors, two moderated panels discussed teen addiction, depression, anxiety and suicide. Solutions oriented and focused on the family unit versus individual teens, Valley-wide mental health professionals also discussed tools, resources and coping strategies.
Aspen Strong founder Christina King opened the first panel discussion with a quote by Brene Brown, stating that “Need is the most beautiful compact between human beings.”
It is a sentiment that wove its way through all speakers in both discussions. Recovering addicts, alcoholics, siblings to addicts, parents and the myriad professionals that provide support towards mental wellness all emphasized the importance of family and connection.
Many of the speakers in recovery spoke of being untethered and how critical it is to have connection and relationships. Often, young people have not been taught healthy coping skills and may turn to unhealthy relationships in which their undeveloped selves can hide: screen addiction, drugs and alcohol. These pathways, the panelists explained, often lead to isolation.
Nineteen-year-old panelist Eli Blume was poised and spoke calmly of his early teens and feeling exceedingly lonely. “The act of doing drugs gave me [a] connection, numbing all of it, not saying anything, just sitting with a friend, f-ed up.”
Said Eli’s mother, Jamie, “Having your child turn to drugs as a coping mechanism is like being on a spinning wheel: total chaos.”
“I was having fun,” Eli said dryly, using air quotes. “I felt crazy. I felt like I was on top of a tornado, getting pulled in, and I’m grabbing clouds, but they’re clouds and I’m just falling.”
According to panel moderator and A Way Out Executive Director Elizabeth Means, “We are in a crisis. It’s going to take all of us to help with what’s going on with our teens today.”
Means shared statistics that report by 2020, mental health and substance abuse will surpass physical health issues. That one in five adolescents has a diagnosis of anxiety or depression. That 30 percent will become addicted.
The evening’s speakers stressed that it’s not about the problem teenager. As Pitkin County Juvenile Investigator Bruce Benjamin explained, “arrests and behavior are only signs of something deeper, often early childhood trauma or mental health.”
And so “it typically starts with the whole family unit,” said King.
Fourteen-year-old Ashley Adams shared her experiences of growing up with an addicted sister. Emily, older by six years, disappeared into meth and a dysfunctional relationship with a boyfriend who dealt drugs. Ashley’s mother Catherine could see that Emily’s journey went as far back as elementary school when her “shyness caused a lot of rejection,” she says.
When trauma, anxiety and depression aren’t addressed, they accumulate. When children cope alone, the panel shared, teens begin to self-isolate, spending time in their rooms, not eating with the family. They stop doing the things they love. They stop hanging out with their friends. They stop taking care of their health. The anxiety and depression can lead to use and abuse.
“To say it’s OK, to say they’re only kids, they’ll grow out of it, is not OK,” said Sonja Linman, Glenwood Springs Middle School Prevention Specialist. “Some will not.”
Four years sober, E.B. Nix is the Family Engagement Coordinator/Child Welfare Caseworker for Pitkin County's Adult and Family Services Department.
“I grew up miserable, lonely, with no connections.” Nix described a childhood with no rules or consequences. She turned to alcohol, marijuana and eventually cocaine because “it was always around.”
Each speaker emphasized the critical need to engage around the pain, no matter how hard the conversations are.
“Communication is hard,” E.B. said, of conversations with her mom about her addiction. “It was very reactive instead of being curious. A lot of it was about my behavior instead of why I was behaving that way.”
The Adams family couldn’t talk to Emily. Ashley described a stranger in the house, no longer a part of the family, who was too angry to talk to.
“My biggest fear,” admitted Catherine, “was that she was going to land out on the streets.”
They drew upon a group of friends to intervene. “Five great people sat her down, talked to her, heart and soul, and said, ‘Emily if you don’t make that move, you’re going to die,’ ” said Catherine.
The big question of the evening was “Why?” What is happening with our teens?
Roaring Fork Weekly Journal reached out to Officer Thomas Wright, the Basalt schools resource officer, whose focus and passion is working with kids. He described the multitude of concerns with teens that he witnesses every day in Basalt schools.
“They struggle to effectively communicate without the assistance of an electronic device. The majority of teens I work with struggle to have a face-to-face conversation. They lack the ability to read body language correctly and nearly shut down completely if they actually have to hold an ongoing conversation. This goes hand-in-hand with what I believe to be the most significant struggle for teens, their inability to honor their deepest wish to say no to certain risky behaviors.
“Our schools no longer teach or partner with outside agencies in teaching ‘character’ education. We spend a great deal of time giving all the facts and information about drugs, alcohol, tobacco and sex,” he said, “without actually giving them any education or skills how to deal with these situations when they come up.”
Linman questioned the complex nexus of social media, screen addiction and the speed of information overload affecting teens today. “When a kid can’t turn it off, it leads to anxiety. What happens when things are always intense? Kids dysregulate.”
“We have allowed electronic devices to become a part of our teens' everyday life,” said Officer Wright, “knowing their growing brain cannot responsibly handle the responsibility or the consequences of said devices.”
Said Linman, emphasizing that children are yearning for their parents, “Slowing down and reconnecting is the most important thing,”
Wright opined that, “The huge elephant in the room that no one seems to want to address is how to parent. This generation of teens brings a new generation of parents struggling, more than ever, to communicate and ‘parent’ their teen. Most parents focus on being friends with their child versus being a parent first. This choice has pushed teens to allow themselves to make [riskier] decisions because of poor accountability at home.”
Kids need and want boundaries, “They don’t need more friends,” Linman said.
Both panels discussed the importance of allowing the truth of their suffering to come to light and staying the course with the painful and courageous conversations around it.
“I finally did in a Costco parking lot,” Nix chuckled. “Right when I was able to tell [my mom], she was ready to hear it, listening with empathy. She was angry. She was scared. But she asked questions. I was able to recover because I got honest.”
Ashley and Catherine Adams stressed the importance of “knowing your people” and being honest about what is happening.
“The connections that you make are essential,” said Catherine Adams. “Healing begins when you start to talk to other people going through this.”
As the result of a transparent Facebook post, Catherine received “over 50 phone calls within a week. People said, ̒How can I help’ or “I have friends going through all of this.”
“Connect,” Adams urged the audience.
And do it before it’s too late.
“We need to catch kids before they come to me,” said Dr. Sabrina Adams of Valley View Hospital. “When I have kids in the ER, I feel like it’s almost too late. Things are getting worse. I don’t go a shift without anxiety, depression, suicide. I don’t see any of them without them wanting to die, thinking about suicide, or about to die. Don’t wait til tomorrow if you can do it today.”