I lay crumpled on the floor, clutching my chest -- gasping for air. I was having a heart attack. A single bead of sweat trickled down my forehead and plopped silently on the floor. I stared at it for several moments. I wondered who would find me. I was sad I wouldn't get to say goodbye to my family, embarrassed my deathbed would be the cold tile floor in my office bathroom. Then, as abruptly as it began, it ended. My heart fell back into its chamber and resumed normal functioning. I realized that what felt like the end of my life had actually been a violent panic attack. I knew then that I needed help.
I was 27 years old, a successful entrepreneur, surrounded by loving friends and family, and at the lowest emotional point in my life. Two years earlier, I had gone through a divorce that tore my world apart. You see, I wasn't supposed to get divorced. I had a roadmap: get good grades, get into a good school, get a good job, marry a good man, have 2.2 kids and be happy. Naïve as the plan was, divorce wasn't part of it. My deepest pain came not from a break in the relationship; my deepest pain came from a break in my self-perception. I didn't know who I was anymore. So, after much heartache, I sought therapy.
What I learned in therapy
The notion of therapy conjured up images of lying on a sofa and talking to a Freud-like character who would blow rings of cigar smoke in my face while probing incessantly into my relationship with my mother. To my pleasant surprise, it was nothing like that.
During my sessions, my lovely therapist Abby provided me with the tools to increase my own self-awareness. I was able to uncover lifelong patterns of behavior that had hindered me from effectively moving past adversity. One such pattern was how I interpreted challenges. I would experience disappointment like most people, but instead of bouncing back, I generally took molehills of sorrow and blew them up into mountains of grief.
For example, as I once recounted to Abby, I was cut from the eighth-grade softball team. I was a decent player who just had a bad day on the field. After days of sulking, my dad finally encouraged me to practice harder and try again next year. It was too late -- I decided I was never going to be good at sports. So, I stopped practicing and wallowed in my gloom for the next several months.
Abby asked, "Renee, do you think everyone cut from the team that day responded the way you did?"
I replied, "I know they didn't. One of them was a friend of mine. She said it was no big deal and seemed to bounce right back."
"I see. So two people faced the same challenge -- getting cut from the team -- but each had completely different responses. Why do you think that is?"
I didn't know. My friend and I had been similar in many ways.
Abby continued, "The difference in your reactions wasn't a result of the adversity itself. The difference in your reactions was a result of your interpretation of the adversity--your thoughts."
"Well, I guess... I don't know. Maybe I just wasn't born with a resilient mindset."
Then Abby said something that changed the trajectory of my life. "Renee, resilience is a skill -- one you can learn -- one I'm going to teach you."
And teach me she did. Therapy was like a second education; my sessions were lessons in which I learned fundamental skills, such as awareness of self-talk, how thoughts affect feelings, what to do when I distort reality, how to practice accurate explanatory styles, and much more. In essence, I garnered vital life skills that helped me effectively challenge and change entrenched patterns of behavior.
As my lessons were coming to a close one day, I wondered aloud, "Hey, Abby, what would my life have been like if I had learned these skills as a kid? I probably could have avoided some mild bouts of depression, huh?" Then it struck me! What if every child received this type of education? What if we put all children through therapy? And what if we did it before they even needed it?
I've made it my life's mission to find out.
Why every child should be in therapy
As a parent or concerned citizen, you may be thinking there is no way all children should go through therapy, especially if they don't need it. Understandably, therapy can be cost prohibitive, logistically inaccessible and for some, stigmatizing. Yet, there are two extremely compelling reasons to put our kids through therapy at a very young age: (1) to prevent mental health disorders and (2) to promote the success of our children.
Let's talk about prevention. We're in trouble right now. In the United States, mental, emotional, and behavioral (MEB) disorders in children have hit epidemic levels. For instance, 1 in 8 children will suffer from an anxiety disorder, and 1 in 5 will experience an episode of depression by the age of eighteen. Although it's true that kids who receive treatments such as therapy can overcome these conditions, the reality is that two-thirds of them will never receive any type of treatment. Most kids suffer in silence and go on to endure a nasty ripple effect of recurrent episodes throughout their lives.
These statistics paint a dismal picture, but there is hope. In fact, extensive, mind-blowing research reveals that teaching children life skills--the kind you might learn in therapy--in advance of their needing them can help prevent MEBs. Take that in for a moment: the prevention of mental health disorders for our children is a possibility. Now, let's forget the studies for a moment and just think about this logically. If children are armed with a toolkit of life skills before facing their inevitable share of challenges, it stands to reason that they would know how to positively cope with adversity, which could help avoid downward spirals of negativity. We can teach these skills to our kids at an early age. The era for reaction is gone; the time for prevention has come.
What about the children who don't meet diagnostic criteria for an MEB? What about those who have exceptional mental health? Life skills still provide tremendous benefit. A growing body of research demonstrates that success hinges on a set of skills that go far beyond raw IQ or the ability to absorb facts. Skills such as emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and self-regulation, for example, are predictive of both academic and career success. The time has come to provide our children these 21st century skills that will promote their overall well-being.
We are in the position to begin preventing mental health disorders and promoting the success of our children by arming them with life skills. But how do we do it?
How to arm every child with vital life skills
It would be amazing for all children to take advantage of one-on-one therapy -- to have their own personal Abby as an additional educator. Clearly, this is not feasible. We do have it in our power, however, to integrate life-skills courses into every school curricula. Although it may seem like a radical suggestion, this idea is not novel.
Life-skills programs are popping up around the country. The programs gaining traction for their impact on students and school culture are now commonly referred to as social and emotional learning (SEL) programs. SEL programs focus on skills such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and decision making, among other skills. And these programs pack a powerful punch. In fact, a landmark meta-analysis of 213 SEL programs, sampling more than 270,000 students, shows that those who take SEL courses exhibit greater pro-social behavior, fewer behavioral problems, and less emotional stress and score eleven percentile points higher on standardized tests than students who do not take these courses.
As I look back on the trials and tribulations of my life, I do not wish that I could have sidestepped my challenges. Instead, I wish I had acquired the life skills to deal with them. I wish I had access to an SEL course as a child. This is what I hope for my own children and every child--to give them a fighting chance. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at a recent congressional hearing, "Children can have huge challenges, but when you help them learn how to handle them, they have a chance. When you don't, they can't get past the challenges and can't begin to think about what is going on in class. If we are not addressing this, we're not in the game."
Social and emotional programs are still in their infancy. They need support. They need a voice. If you're a parent, you can find out what your school is doing to implement SEL programming into the curriculum. As a concerned citizen, you can support Congressman Tim Ryan's bill to provide funding for professional development to be used for SEL programming. Let's educate ourselves about the necessity of SEL programs in schools and then take action to make these programs accessible for every child.