The kids at LifeSpan day treatment center in Burnsville, at least the nine who volunteered to meet with me, have a lot in common: They are very self-aware; they can identify their feelings (good or bad); they can matter-of-factly and unashamedly disclose their mental-health diagnoses; and they can articulate the many skills they have acquired to manage personal pain, family conflict, depression, anxiety, and thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
They also have good boundaries: They do not overdisclose; what needs to stay private stays private. And they have dreams for the future — even if the dream for now is simply “to be alive.”
What was I doing here? The kids must have wondered, but they put aside any apprehensions and proudly welcomed me into their space, introduced me to their teachers and therapists, showed off their artwork, and told me about their daily lives.
I asked them a bunch of nosy questions: What brought you to LifeSpan? Do you like it here? Did you ever feel stigmatized? Have you ever been bullied? What skills have you learned to manage anger? What worries you most about returning to school?
I felt silly for asking (the way you do when you are an uneducated tourist or a semi-detached anthropologist). But the kids seemed glad to be asked, and we easily established some mutual ground. I don’t know if they learned anything from me, but I will never forget the day I spent with them.
Fewer kids, more support
I first was met by Susie, a poised and soft-spoken young woman wearing bright-blue eye-shadow, and Max, a curly-haired and earnest young man with an endearing habit of pulling his sleeves over his fists. (Each young person adopted a pseudonym for the day.) The high-schoolers had been at LifeSpan for about four months apiece (about halfway through their treatment programs), and were already noticing some positive changes in their lives.
On a little tour, they showed me an “in program restrictions” (IPR) room, “where people take breaks and stuff”; a community room; a “problem-solving” and group-therapy room; a math and science classroom; and a poster that said, “Basic Needs: Belonging, Power, Fun, Freedom.”
Both compared LifeSpan, with its 80 kids and more than 20 staff members, favorably to their larger school settings.
“One of my big triggers is the word ‘crazy,’ ” said Boh. “People look at us like we’re crazy. And we’re not. … We’re here to get help, not to be locked away from the world. We’ve just got some unique things going on that need some special eyes to look at. And our therapists are the special eyes for us.”
“I really like programs like these,” said Max, “where if you have a problem, you can talk about it. … Whereas in a public school, there’s nothing you can really do. There’s like 500 kids. The kid who bullied you or whatever may get suspended for three days, but that doesn’t really solve anything. Here you can actually talk about it and try to get deeper into the meaning of why and how to deal with it.”
Susie agreed, saying, “There’s just a lot more support here. In a public school, if you’re having issues, I mean, yeah, you can go talk to your guidance counselor, but that’s pretty much it. And they usually don’t do anything about it. And here they try to give everyone what they need and help them out as much as they can.”
The work of interacting with others in an intimate space is not easy.
Susie, who said she was being treated for “depression, self-harm issues and anxiety,” admitted a tendency to retreat into the “comfort zone” of her bedroom. It was a relief, she said, to break up group therapy sessions with class-time – an hour here and an hour there.
“It’s hard,” said Max, who is working on “problems with depression, anxiety and chemical use.” In group therapy, he said, “we talk about what I can do to reduce vulnerability from family problems, and we kind of just deal with it until I can sit down with my family and talk about it.”
Max shared some coping skills he’s learned to stop a downward spiral, including mindfulness and breathing. “It seems kind of goofy to do this, but even if you just half-smile when you’re down, it kind of tricks your body into making you happy.”
Susie said the coping skills she’s learned “definitely have helped with my mom. If I were to get angry with her, I would know how to manage it and not just like explode or yell. We’ve been getting closer. I feel like this program has helped me in that way.”
Susie wants to become a criminal defense lawyer, and Max a motivational public speaker in the manner of Reggie Dabbs. But for now they’re focused on the challenges at hand, and looking somewhat nervously at life after LifeSpan.
Said Max: “In here, there may be people judging you, but that’s just their problem. They have stuff going on, too, but you learn how to deal with it while still being in a safe environment. If this were happening in school, and you didn’t know how to deal with it, you’d go right back to your old whatever you did. That’s another thing I really like about this place, and will find hard when I go back.”
How to get unfrozen
Up next to show me around were middle-schoolers Dean and Haley — by turns talkative, playful, serious and philosophical. They relished explaining the rules:
- If you’re “frozen” and in the IPR room, you’ve broken a rule. You might lose some privileges and get some sanctions, such as not talking during the first part of lunch.
- An “intervention” is a group-generated plan for getting your privileges back.
- One way to get your privileges back is to “give positives.” Dean’s example: “I can give Haley a positive for, like, she is wearing an awesome sweatshirt today.” Haley’s examples: “Apologies, worksheets, writing a paragraph, designing a poster. You might get assigned a packet to work on. Anxiety packets, truancy packets. Writing down what you’ve been doing and what you can do instead.”
- No sharing of phone numbers or last names, no touching, no dating or fraternizing and no Facebooking until you are discharged from (complete) the program.
As they showed me a few rooms, they also felt the need to explain something else:
Haley: “You may have noticed that there aren’t many chairs.”
Dean: “There were some behavioral problems with them.”
Haley: “Like knocking them over.”
Dean: “Building giant sculptures with them.”
They paused to admire a wall of artwork.
Dean: “I’m really into the art that we have here — watercolors, foil prints. …”
Haley: “It’s nice to have the art classes, for sure. It’s a good coping skill for a lot of people here.”
And they stopped in the math and language arts room, where Ms. (Marcie) Craven was finishing up a reading class. Recent favorites have been “The Bridge to Terabithia,” “Old Yeller” and “Crispin: The Cross of Lead.”
What bullying begets
After the tour, Haley and Dean led me to a conference room, where we joined five other middle-schoolers (Hansel, Gray, Maia, Maria and Boh) for an hour-long conversation that ranged from misperceptions of mental illness, to how to conquer “automatic negative thoughts,” and the toxic half-life of being bullied and of bullying.
Most in the room had felt stigmatized, misjudged or stereotyped.
“One of my big triggers is the word ‘crazy,’” said Boh. “People look at us like we’re crazy. And we’re not. … We’re here to get help, not to be locked away from the world. We’ve just got some unique things going on that need some special eyes to look at. And our therapists are the special eyes for us.”
All but Gray had been bullied (“I’m 6 feet tall; who’s going to try and bully me?”), and some admitted that they too had bullied — for a variety of reasons. “I’m not going to lie,” said Gray. “Sometimes I have been a bully to fit in with people.” But he’s not proud of that fact, and he’s acutely aware of the terrible outcomes. “Some people are bullied so badly that they want to kill themselves,” he said. “They’re called ugly or stupid or gay or whatever. Some people here think they’re ugly. And it’s really messed up that they think they are, just because people call them that.”
They talked about their diagnoses — depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia, suicidal thoughts and self-harm — and some peoples’ misguided assumptions about all of the above.
“People stereotype depression,” said Maria. “They think, ‘Oh, she probably locks herself away in her room in darkness and cuts herself.’ No, that’s not it. I personally still love to go outside and take walks and listen to music in the brightness. I love the sun. I don’t like it when people do that.”
They talked about learning to cope, and what that looks like.
Said Hansel: “I try to blame my anger on something else that is not living, like a tree. I yell at the tree.”
Said Haley: “I’ve learned through the program that I have to open my eyes a little more to the more positive things. People who love me and care about me — listen to what they say. Like when someone gives me compliments or says I’m smart. I need to learn to accept the positives instead of accepting the negatives. I think a lot of people would really benefit from that. It’s hard at first, and it’s still hard, but it gets easier.”
Hopes for the future
I tried to end our conversation on a light note by asking about dreams for the future. But these kids, though gifted in humor and irony, are not given to superficialities.
Hansel: “I love animals, and I just want to work with them. Not staying in a building and helping them, but going out in the middle of nowhere and playing with them. And getting to know them better.”
Gray: “I think I’m going to have to get married. I have so many names for children – all of them Irish – so I’m going to have to have 80 kids. Names like Padraig … and Aoife.”
Dean: “I’d like to be a software designer, for something, anything but Microsoft.”
Haley: “I want to be an author or editor or publisher. I would really like that. I want to get married one day. Kids would be awesome, but, then again, kids. I’m 14. I don’t have to make that decision yet.”
Maia: “I’ve always wanted to be an actress, but I know it takes a lot of courage and a lot of hard work to get to that level.”
Maria: “I’m really drawn to the solar system and outer space. And profilers and FBI — gosh I love them.”
Boh: “I don’t really believe in dreams, but if I ever did, it would be to be alive. That’s my major goal, to actually be alive one day.”
Next week: An interview with LifeSpan of Minnesota Inc. President and CEO Traci Hackmann.