We kicked off our lunch speaker series last Friday with a visit from Grace Gallagher, Executive Director of the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation, which seeks to clear the air for youth struggling with anxiety and depression. As part of the talk, Grace shared the story of her daughter Cameron, whose struggles with depression led her to plan the bones of the Foundation while still a teenager. Her sudden death while competing in a half-marathon preparing her to organize the SpeakUp 5k, a race devoted to awareness of teenage depression, spurred her parents to realize her dream of a far-reaching campaign that could help other suffering teenagers.
Grace began by invoking Orchard House’s collective goal for the year—self-compassion. “Why do we talk to ourselves the way we’d never talk to our best friend?” she asked. Students were reminded of the weekly Mindful Monday exercises we do together and encouraged to remember the self-talk they use when things are going well. “When you’re in a down moment, it’s really hard to find the kind words for ourselves. But if you’ve already found them when you’re feeling great, or even okay, it gets easier to find them when you’re not.” Building a practice of self-compassion does not start only when you need it the most—just like a marathon, you can train for it.
Grace emphasized the power of disconnecting our self-identification from our struggles, pointing out that if we all have brains, we all must also have mental health. “So why then do we always associate ‘mental health’ with ‘crazy?’ If you have the flu, would you say, ‘I am the flu?’” In trying to recognize that we are not defined only by our difficulties, we can identify ups and downs for what they are: not permanent conditions, not personalities, but byproducts of the human condition, of simply having a brain.
Speaking to both faculty and students, Grace also reminded us that all too often adults are quick to regard teenage mental health with a variation of a familiar phrase: “These are just hard years.” While it’s true that adolescence is often a difficult time of transition and growth, choosing to mark depression or anxiety by reducing it to “hard years” can feel dismissive and sometimes take the place of addressing mental health. In a sense, we should start a discussion with our students and daughters by acknowledging the universality of mental health struggles (i.e. “We all have brains.”), but continue by addressing the fact that their teenage brains are distinctive and personal, not a cliché.
The students rounded out the talk asking questions and hearing about practical ways of working through sadness and anxiety, learning both short-term and long-term methods. On top of inner mantras—”I am strong enough. I am okay.”—Grace shared with us the framework of a goal of working through extended rough patches. “When you have passion and when you have pain, you can put a purpose to it.”
Students are participating in smaller interactive workshops with the Foundation all week to learn about stress, positive coping mechanisms, self compassion, and mindfulness. On Thursday, October 4 at 7:00 pm, we will host Jodi Beland, Program Director for Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation, as she presents an informative workshop to assist parents and caregivers in understanding adolescent mental health.
Please join us to continue this important conversation.