What’s on Seattle students’ minds as they talk family, mental health and the holidays

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The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral health issues. It is funded by Ballmer Group, a national organization focused on economic mobility for children and families. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over work produced by this team.

Family is like a hanging mobile art piece.

It’s got all of these complicated pieces hanging off the center bar. If you tweak one, the rest jiggles for a while and then comes back to where it was. “It maintains its cohesiveness, even as it’s adopting a new space,” said Dr. Larry Wissow, a youth psychiatrist at Seattle Children’s.

Over the course of a 38-minute recorded conversation on a recent Monday, Wissow talked with Nathan Hale High School senior Lily Turner about how to create supportive and nurturing families while answering other students’ questions about family dynamics:

What is a chosen family? How can parents affirm the identities of their nonconforming children? What is family counseling? How can families access mental health resources?

Families can play a significant role in a person’s mental health, and around the holiday season — whether in presence or absence — current and historic family dynamics can feel especially relevant. Since the pandemic began, as more youth began to experience and identify their mental health challenges, many are still searching for the words to understand and communicate their needs.

That’s where Coping 101, a product of Nathan Hale’s C89.5/KNHC radio station fits in. The goal of the student-run podcast, partially sponsored by Seattle Children’s, is to provide a space for young people to get answers to their mental health questions, said Billy Thompson, the station’s director of corporate support.

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This month’s episode offers a glimpse inside the minds of today’s high school students who are grappling with the mental ripple effects from the pandemic and how they seek to relate their experiences to their families. 

“If ever there’s a time when multiple mental health issues collide, it’s during these gatherings,” Thompson said. “When we do get together for Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holidays during the season, how can we understand one another’s mental health differences and support each other and ourselves?”

Despite the ubiquity of mental health conversations, there aren’t many where young people can dive deep and feel comfortable admitting what they don’t know about mental health, Turner said. Other times, issues are brushed off as a joke, stifling more substantial discussions.

“You make a Tik Tok, you make a meme about it. But then at the end of the day, you still have to live with the reality of your mental health or your addiction,” she said. “Having outlets where you can have more serious conversations is important.”

In one exchange during the podcast episode, Turner asked Wissow to define intergenerational trauma and how it impacts a family.

Wissow explained that traumatic events that may have happened decades prior to parents or grandparents — often because of their culture or ethnicity — can be transmitted to future generations through genetics and family norms.

For example, parents who survived the Holocaust may have raised children with a sense of uncertainty, a feeling of being an outsider, and stress that such an event could happen again. Wissow said his family avoided talking about traumatic events in their history, which left him feeling isolated.

“It’s very important for us to have a sense of who our ancestors were and how we got to a particular place,” he said. “If people say that it’s too painful, it can be hurtful for our development.”

A good family has frequent communication. The members are able to understand each other, Wissow said. A good method to combat past trauma is to try to understand where your parents came from and what factors play into who they are today, he told the students.

Mental health resources from The Seattle Times

On a hike over the summer, Turner said she talked with friends about intergenerational trauma the entire time without putting a name to it.

“Especially being younger, you don’t always know the scientific terms when you talk about something. And then you hear it and you’re like, wait, that’s what that is,” she said.

In another round of questions, Turner asked Wissow to talk about how substance misuse impacts a family.

He said families may experience a financial cost because substance habits are often expensive and the person experiencing addiction may struggle to get or keep a job. They may also cause emotional or physical harm to other members.

“Many substances disinhibit people and make them irritable, either while they’re using it or when something is wearing off,” Wissow said.

The podcast gives Turner, and other students, a chance to process these questions and conversations:

“Walking through the halls of high school, we know about addiction, we see overdoses, we know about fentanyl. But sometimes it’s hard to have real and honest conversations because so often the reaction from adults is ‘Don’t do drugs.’ And so it’s hard to dive into like, well, what if my parents do drugs? Or what if my friends do drugs? Or how do I help my friend?”

One topic that continues to persist among questions that students submit is around identity.

“There’s always questions about identity and struggling to understand yourself,” Turner said. “My generation is very focused on labels and identity, and so it’s always so interesting to hear so many students also struggle to know who they are or what they are.”

The next podcast episode is scheduled to be released this month and is expected to cover depression and mental health disorders that occur alongside it, like anxiety and substance use.

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