November 2019: Beyond the Black Hole

I recently read an article about Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist who, in spite of being diagnosed with motor neurone disease at just 21, lived a remarkable and courageous life.  As a theoretical physicist, Hawking was intrigued by how black holes are formed and the prospect that they may well be doorways to other universes.  Although his study of black hole thermodynamics, relativity, and quantum mechanics are far beyond my limited understanding, the overarching message of his life’s work is an inspiration and one that many of us can relate to.

In a lecture at the Royal Institute of London, Hawking once informed audience members that “black holes…are not the eternal prisons they were once thought.”  He went on to add that “things can get out of a black hole…possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up – there’s a way out…”  How many of us have occasionally felt that life’s circumstances have drawn us into an infinitely deep and endless black hole, one in which we feel trapped and unable to escape?

Some of us may feel overwhelmed, burdened by financial struggles and what feels like insurmountable debt.  Our financial stability can easily flip with the loss of a job, a marriage, or additional health care demands. While our cash flow and debt level often create an undeniable financial burden, they take a significant emotional toll as well.  In a recent Employee Financial Wellness Survey conducted by PwC, “employees cited money matters, including debt, as the lead cause of stress in their lives, more often than they named other life stressors—like their health or problems at work—combined” (2019 results). 

Times that call for celebration the holidays, our daughter’s new drivers license, our son’s college acceptance are often accompanied by the weight of added financial burden. And the fact that advertisers deliberately target our kids to promote the latest technology, playthings, gadgets and fashion becomes exhausting as we explain yet again our reasons for saying no.

Grief can also pull us into a deep chasm.  Various forms of loss, including loss of a loved one or pet, a divorce, the onset of a chronic illness, or the end of a friendship can trigger a broad range of physical and emotional feelings that are so raw and all-consuming we see no way out. It is always important to recognize that there is no timetable for grief. For people suffering a great loss, grief can last a lifetime. And because it is not a linear process, grief rarely has a clear beginning, middle, and end. 

Sadly, the deep dark hole of depression impacts more than 1 in 20 children in the United States.  As educators we are finding more and more students diagnosed with anxiety and depression at earlier ages.  According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, depression and anxiety among children aged 6-17 have doubled in the last ten years but fortunately early detection is allowing us to address and service susceptible students.  Because we know that mental health disorders can seriously disrupt the way kids learn, behave, and regulate emotions, it is our hope that accessing resources both within and outside of school while at the same time destigmatizing mental health concerns will make an important difference in the lives of our young people. Left untreated, anxiety in children can increase the potential for depression later on in life (Silk, et al 2019).  Understanding the warning signs - persistent sadness, social withdrawal, self-harm, intense worries and fears, etc., - can assist parents and educators in helping students see a way out of the black hole.

As Stephen Hawking reminds us, things can get out of a black hole and may lead to new possibilities.  With this in mind, it is important to remember a few recommendations from professional health experts. First, don’t be so hard on yourself.  Whether you yourself have become stuck in the black hole or a loved one is struggling, know that you are doing your best in this moment.  Treat yourself kindly, as you would a best friend, and remember that negative self-talk can lead to inaction and helplessness. Give yourself permission to slow down and function at a slower pace. Peace of mind and self-acceptance are essential for sustainable change to take place.

When we or someone we love is suffering we may want to run and hide, isolating ourselves and family from the hurt. We may feel shame and blame ourselves for not being able to control the situation.  When we choose to isolate, however, we lose a sense of perspective because we allow only one voice, our own, to drive the narrative.  Although it may feel safer, isolation can actually exaggerate the worry and anxiety and lead to deeper depression. 

Ask for help and stay connected. Many of us find this a daunting prospect. So do our students. We (or they) may feel embarrassed or believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Reaching out for help, whether to a loved one or a professional, is the first step in finding a way out of the black hole. 

As a school district, we continue to focus on the social-emotional needs of our students and staff.  For the past few years we have invested additional personnel and resources to support this effort and this year we have added a counselor at both Pond and Sharon.  These trained professionals lead group sessions designed to help students manage their emotions, resolve conflicts and feel more connected to others.  The creation of a Director of Guidance role allows us to take a systematic approach to making personal connections with students and to create a healthy and safe school culture.  Additionally, we continue to infuse social-emotional learning components within our classrooms and our curriculum at all levels.

As we navigate the days ahead, it is essential to bear in mind that all lives are comprised of both sorrow and joy. Of greater importance, however, is knowing that despite the pain of broken plans, broken dreams, broken hearts we do not traverse this life alone.  We each, in our own way, matter and we are all worthy of love.

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