As a 46-year-old veteran high school teacher, I often worry my students will soon write me off with an “Okay, Boomer” response. Although a member of Generation X, technically I’m closer in age to my Baby Boomer predecessors than the Zoomers in my classroom, but they just see me as the older guy behind the desk.
My students are navigating a world that looks a lot different from the one I grew up in. But even as technology, trends, and even the challenges we face evolve, the fundamental need for support and understanding remains constant. Despite what some of my students may think at times, I’ve learned a few things over the years that might be useful to them. Of course, remembering what it’s like to be a teenager isn’t the same as being a teenager, and I make sure that the advice I offer my students comes from a place of humility. You won’t hear Mr. Cullinane stand in front of the classroom proselytizing about the good ol’ days or about how he walked to school uphill both ways and still always arrived on time. I’m much more likely to bring up my failings.
The pressures and challenges my students and kids face are very real and significant. I’m grateful that this fall I can utilize the many resources in Mental Health America’s new toolkit – Selfies, Social, & Screens: Navigating Virtual Spaces for Youth – created in partnership with Walgreens. Young people need well-trained mentors, the right resources to identify warning signs, and sometimes a helping hand. This toolkit offers tips and guidance for me as a teacher and youth and their caregivers.
Sometimes, the advice young people receive about self-care online can be questionable or at times even self-defeating. Take “bed-rotting” for example – where young people are told that the best way to overcome their mental health challenges is to sit in bed for self-care, where they may end up scrolling social media and consuming negative news and information about how grim humanity is today.
Full disclosure: When I was a teen, I suffered from depression, anxiety, and a general feeling of discomfort. In a time when things seemed much simpler, my generation shared the same core concerns as those of my students today: feeling disconnected, hopeless, and more than a little lost. I rarely had a good day at school and often departed with feelings of hopelessness, like I didn’t belong, and that no one liked me. As a result, I frequently faked being sick, rotting in my bed (before “bed-rotting” was a thing), watching bad sitcoms, and trying desperately to quiet my mind.
And, you know what? It worked.
Well, it worked until it didn’t. Once 4 p.m. rolled around and my day of rot turned into the promise of a new day, where I not only would face the same challenges but also piled up homework from missing school, I panicked. Anxiety, frustration, and self-loathing multiplied.
This pattern continued for me through college. No one gave me advice on how to overcome it because everyone assumed I was a lazy slug. In general, people weren’t as willing to talk openly about mental health challenges back then.
During my senior year of college, I began tutoring a young man in reading. We met each week to read The Outsiders together, and with my help, he grew as a reader. But the real change happened in me. A brand-new feeling washed over me: pride. By helping someone else, I helped myself. This experience is also how I learned to feel empowered – that we can take control of our lives and become strong and confident. Empowered people are better equipped to handle the stressors of everyday life. They can make a change in themselves and others.
That’s why I appreciate Walgreens-Mental Health America partnership in creating much-needed resources for youth and the adults in their lives. In addition, I encourage my students to enter Walgreens’ Expressions Challenge every year, which allows students to create and share potentially helpful content with each other.
I particularly like the “Social Media Do’s” list and have shared it with my students. This is a core component of media literacy, and it should be incorporated into nearly every class. The comprehensive list keeps things simple and straightforward for students, while also addressing the nuance of being a teen in our modern world.
The visual print outs and fact sheets around my classroom will serve as a reminder that we need to address mental health every day, not just in the times when it comes up in a discussion. By keeping this topic in visual proximity, we are always reminded to take care of ourselves and each other.
I’m also going to share this information with parents. I want to be an advocate for my students, even in their challenges outside of my classroom, and a big part of that is being a resource for the parents.
I know, from working daily with Gen Z, that they can do great things. But in all honesty, it’s not easy for me or for them. My hope is that they will see the future is bright, feel the thrill of doing good, and realize that we all play a part in making a real difference.
Michael Cullinane is a journalism teacher at Nicholas Senn High School in Chicago, Illinois.
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