Saturday, September 3, 2016

Wellbeing and resilience:

This week I have been to the RTLB Cluster 8 WWW or 'What works for Wellbeing' conference. Most of the presentations were drawn from the field positive psychology.
I'm going tell parts of my own story which were evoked strongly by presenter Lucy Hone, who by her own definition is a 'pracademic', an academic who researches real world applicable practices for every day life.

Reading Lucy's website  100% project  after the conference, I came across her video presentation about accessing positive psychology for the purpose of dealing with grief. Lucy's story is quite well known - she and her husband Trevor lost their youngest daughter in a car crash quite recently. In this heart-achingly dignified presentation, Lucy talks us through a number of resilient approaches to moving through grief. Lucy talked about the experience of this event bringing to her mind the image of a road that suddenly forks and that you are instantly sent down the road less travelled (in Robert Frosts famous words). Life completely changes in an instant and you a person will now always be partially defined by this event. My younger sister died by suicide in 1992 when she was nearly 25. I remember the image in my mind was similar to Lucy's -  an unexpected corner to the road of life, changing the terrain forever. That loss has been intricately woven into my identity. My resilient response has been to strive to find a meaning for my own life in response to my sister's choice. I have not always achieved this and at times I have felt that all my own pre-existing vulnerabilities were made worse.  I have felt angry, abandoned and broken by the blow of her death.

This brings to mind my reading of the famous book 'Man's search for Meaning', by psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived several years in a Nazi concentration camp and went on to create Logotherapy, which is based around our need to find a way to make meaning of events and experiences which are tragic and over which we have no control.

In my work as a counsellor, I encounter people of all ages who are hungry for meaning. The day after I had been reading Viktor Frankl,  two young students came to counselling and both told me hesitantly that they sometimes felt that suicide was a viable option for them. When students open up about this subject (and they do quite frequently), I first of all attempt to assess their safety and build a safety plan, which can include referring them for a mental health assessment and contacting families, depending on the seriousness of the suicidal feelings. To begin our therapeutic conversation, I often talk to them about some statistics: one in six people consider suicide but in New Zealand one in 10000 actually dies by suicide. The message in this is that our consciousness of mortality separates us from any other living creature, as far as we know. This consciousness gives us the ability to stand outside ourselves, to know we are mortal, to project our thinking into the past and the future, and to know that we have the power to end our own existence. Is it surprising then, that one in six of us consider it when life has lost its meaning and joy? Contemplating suicide then is normal, but concerning.

Viktor Frankl encountered many people in the camps that were suicidal. They felt life had nothing more to offer them other than indignity and suffering and that even if they survived the camps, their families quite likely had not. His question to them was "You feel that life has nothing to offer you anymore, but what might it be asking of you?" This of course is the invitation to make meaning out of experience. Being full of reading the book the night before, I told the two young students about Viktor Frankl and his question "What does life ask of you?" They sat there speechless for a while, and I wondered if I had pitched my offering at the wrong level for a couple of 13 or 14 year olds. A week later, we had another counselling session and I brought up the book again, asking how it had affected them. It had clearly sunk in, and although they could not articulate any response at the time, they both understood the relevance to their own problems of Viktor Frankl's story. Time and time again, I have been struck by the depth of need in children and adolescents to find meaning in life. Most have not been struck by terrible tragedy, but possibly the ongoing hurts of everyday life can be even more challenging because the suffering is invisible and cumulative.

The year my sister died was the year New Zealand became infamous for having the highest youth suicide rates in the OECD. There were many discussions in the media and I remember hearing one between Kim Hill and somebody else whose name I've forgotten, postulating that our culture is immature, we have become increasingly materialistic and self- centred, that parents don't help their kids access deeper meaning and culture but instead treat them like projects,  boxes that can be ticked by good academic grades with the ultimate goal of a good job and material independence from the parents.

24 years later, I work at a school that has given 'personal excellence' and 'academic excellence' equal importance. I think that although there might seem to be a groundswell of acknowledgement of the importance of  'personal excellence' and the attributes of wellbeing and character development that this implies, we are still going to have to swim against the current of the main culture we live in for a long time to come. I will be, thats for sure.

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