UNDERSTANDING OCD: THE 5 ASPECTS WE NEVER TALK ABOUT

By Jenna DiLossi, Psy.D., NCC, LPC 

Center for Hope and Health
Ardmore, PA

Have you ever experienced thoughts that seem very strange or out of the ordinary? What about thoughts that you know are illogical yet still produce distress when they pop in your mind? Aside from being strange, do these thoughts ever scare you? Do they ever make you wonder if you are a horrible, dangerous person? Do you have certain behaviors or mental acts that you have to do, NO MATTER WHAT….even if they are inconvenient, take up a lot of time, and cause conflicts with your loved ones? Well, answering “yes” to some/all of the above-mentioned questions might indicate the presence of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (otherwise known as OCD). OCD is often portrayed in media as a quirky character (e.g., Monica Gellar, Monk, etc.), the punchline of a joke, or as an adjective used to describe someone who is anal retentive. Despite this portrayal, specialists understand that OCD is certainly not a joke, the sufferer is not simply quirky, and it is not synonymous with anal retentiveness. The reality of this psychiatric illness is that it can be debilitating and often causes impairment in many domains of a person’s life. The general public typically understands OCD in terms of contamination fears, excessive cleanliness or orderliness, counting, and superstitious beliefs. And while all of those aspects can be true for OCD sufferers, there are other domains within OCD that are less understood and kept quiet due to sufferers’ shame, embarrassment, and fear of being judged by others. Below are the top 5 aspects of OCD that are misunderstood and/or not discussed in the public:

1) The difference between obsessions and compulsions.

OCD is an anxiety disorder that is comprised of a cycle of obsessions and compulsions (also referred to as rituals). Obsessions are recurring thoughts, images, ideas, or impulses that are unwanted and intrusive. All of us have strange thoughts that pop into our mind, and these thoughts might be dark or make us think, “Wow, where did that thought come from? That was random and weird…moving on.” For OCD sufferers, however, there is no moving on and they do not chalk it up to randomness. They perseverate over the thought and become extremely distressed by it, regardless of their age, intelligence level, or ability to “know it sounds ridiculous.” The content that pops into the minds of OCD sufferers just feels real and is impervious is logic. Compulsions or rituals are strategies that sufferers use to make themselves feel better– to lower their distress and anxiety. Strategies could include overt behavior such as repetitive checking or washing, covert behaviors such as seeking reassurance or re-reading content, or mental acts such as repeatedly replaying the events of an evening or repeating special words to themselves. While it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between these two components of OCD, doing so is very important in the treatment process.

2) Harm obsessions.

Harm obsessions are characterized by thoughts, images, ideas, or impulses of hurting oneself or another person. Examples of this type of obsession could include thoughts such as “What if I pick up that knife and stab my mother” or “What if I yell out a racist slur on the subway.” One of the biggest misunderstandings of this obsessional domain is that sufferers are not actually suicidal, homicidal, or aggressive at all. In fact, these obsessions terrify OCD sufferers. And while they begin to fear their thoughts and believe that they are a danger to themselves or others, they are typically the least dangerous people we know. Furthermore, sufferers might begin to avoid objects that could produce harm (e.g., knives) or interacting with other people altogether, as OCD convinces them that avoidance is the only way to ensure safety. Not surprisingly so, this obsessional domain is correlated with a lot of social isolation and depressive symptoms.

3) Sexual obsessions.

Perhaps the best-kept secret amongst OCD sufferers are obsessions that are comprised of sexual content. Despite being so under-discussed, this obsessional domain is extremely common in OCD. Sufferers might experience thoughts related to their sexual orientation, sexual aggression (e.g., rape), or pedophilia—all of which are NOT congruent with what they actually find sexually arousing or pleasurable. These obsessions typically produce an excessive amount of anxiety, shame, and embarrassment. Examples of sexual obsessions are as follows: “What if I am gay and I don’t know it yet;” “What if I just molested my niece when I changed her diaper;” “What if I raped someone last night when I went out and I don’t remember it.” Common compulsions for these obsessions could include repeatedly mentally reviewing the sequence of events, seeking reassurance from a loved one, or strict adherence to safety behaviors (e.g., only nodding hello as a greeting instead of hugging a loved on). Avoidance is also quite common here– again, to ensure others’ safety. Many OCD sufferers who experience these obsessions judge themselves harshly and believe that they are a terrible monster of a person (particularly in the case of pedophilic obsessions.) One of the first steps in sufferers’ recovery process is to learn that although these obsessions might produce a lot of shame and questioning of one’s character, they are merely a symptom of the illness and have no implications on their character.

4) Just right.

One of the most overlooked domains of OCD is the rigidity and incessantness of needing things to be “just right.” The reason this often goes unnoticed is because perfectionism runs rampant in Westernized culture. Many of us strive for perfection or like to do things in our special way that feels “just right.” In the case of OCD, however, this degree of perfectionism, orderliness, or rigidity become maladaptive and impairing. It can result in excessive tardiness, missed deadlines, or complete avoidance of tasks altogether. The OCD sufferer might spend countless hours re-reading or re-writing a term paper or even an email to a colleague to ensure that it is free from error or that they articulated their points in the most effective and efficient way possible. One might also spend hours cleaning and re-organizing the whole house before being able to sit down and begin math homework or keep putting off a decision about which paint color to choose because they might not have found the best one yet. This obsessional domain often feeds on an inherent feature of human life, uncertainty. OCD wants people to live in the world of absolutes and complete certainty, which is most often impossible. Many individuals with OCD experience reluctance to give up this part of the illness because they attribute their successes to this “thoroughness” and fear that they might become a “slacker” in the absence of these rituals. The irony, however, is that it often results in their biggest fears: a series of recurrent failures and incomplete tasks. Breaking this crippling cycle of perfectionism begins with learning how to tolerate uncertainty, mistakes, and “good enough.”

5) Religious scrupulosity.

Many people believe in a higher power, engage in religious rituals and traditions, and aim to behave according to their morals. Furthermore, it is true that plenty of these people find great fulfillment from their faith. Unfortunately, OCD can turn religion and morality from fulfilling to fretful. Scrupulosity is a domain of OCD that is characterized by a pathological level of guilt related to moral or religious issues—this can manifest in believers and non-believers alike. These individuals may find themselves preoccupied with fears about heaven and hell, spending the majority of their waking hours praying or reading religious script, or being terrified to act in an immoral way (e.g., ignoring a person in need or drinking alcohol). OCD often “attacks” what people care about most, so it is not uncommon for OCD to manifest in scrupulosity for those who care deeply about their faith or morals. While sufferers may still genuinely care about their faith at their core, religious rituals, prayer, and desires to follow the word of their faith become associated with a great deal of guilt and fear rather than joy and inner peace. Conquering scrupulosity does not mean that religion and morality are erased from one’s life, but rather that they can exist in a person’s life in a way that is rooted in peace and fulfillment rather than fear and guilt. This process may involve consultation from a clergy member.

Many people with OCD believe that they need their OCD to succeed or that their compulsions and avoidances are needed for survival and safety. It must be stated that OCD can be quite convincing to both sufferers and their loved ones, so it might often feel easier to just give into the cycle rather than challenge it. Challenging it will result in a lot of temporary discomfort, distress, and anxiety. And it will not feel pleasant to challenge it, but this is the way to recovery. Help is out there! OCD specialists exist and are trained in a specific form of Cognitive-Behavior Therapy called Exposure and Response Prevention (commonly referred to as EXRP or ERP) to help sufferers overcome this encumbering illness. This treatment successfully treats OCD symptoms by activating what makes it tick the most. Specialists will help sufferers break free from the chains of OCD by systematically exposing them to their biggest fears in the absence of compulsions. Although this treatment can feel difficult and frustrating at times, the gains can be life changing and incredibly empowering.

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Jenna DiLossi is a facilitator for Minding Your Mind and co-founder of the Center for Hope and Health in Ardmore, PA. Dr. DiLossi specializes in the treatment of eating disorders and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). She co-founded the Center for Hope & Health, LLC. (CHH), which is a treatment center that offers specialized evidence-based treatments for eating disorders and anxiety disorders. She formerly worked the Renfrew Center for five years, received specialized training on the most cutting-edge treatment, completed her doctoral dissertation on body image and perfectionism, and has been featured on Fox 29 to provide her expertise on the topic. She is currently practicing as a Licensed Professional Counselor in Pennsylvania, but is separately completing post-doctoral training through the University of Pennsylvania at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety (CTSA) with the intent to obtain licensure as a clinical psychologist. She completed two Master of Science degrees and a Doctor of Psychology degree from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. Throughout her doctoral training, Dr. DiLossi has gained experience with a variety of diagnoses and clinical issues from clinical placements at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Cognitive Therapy and Drexel University’s Division of Neuropsychology. In addition to her work at CHH and CTSA, Dr. DiLossi is also an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Saint Joseph’s University.

What’s it Like Going to College with an Eating Disorder? by Jenna DiLossi, Psy.D., NCC, LPC

Living with an eating disorder and learning to manage it is challenging during any time of the school year. For a student who is leaving for college, whether it be for the first time or returning, this takes on a new level of challenge, and sometimes an entirely new strategy.

In this video, Minding Your Mind’s Jenna DiLossi, Psy.D., NCC, LPC, provides thoughtful advice and considerations for these students and the adults in their lives to help navigate this time in a healthy and productive way.

The Center for Hope and Health provides treatment for eating disorders and anxiety disorders including PTSD, OCD, and panic disorder. Utilizing evidence-based treatments, CHH provides therapy that is shown in the research to work while also offering the most time-efficient outpatient strategies to achieve a strong recovery. Contact them toll free: 866-739-3083 or local: 610-645-5311.

 

Behind the Smile, by Michael Garuiccio

Let me preface this by saying, I am not writing this for any reason other than wanting to tell part of my story. I am not looking for pity, or social media responses. Simply, I want people to know that the truth can be misleading. That the people who look the most put together, can be the most broken. Mostly, I want to say what I have been feeling needs to be said aloud. Maybe it will resonate with someone else. Maybe it will not.

For those who know me well, mental health is an important topic for me. On the surface it would make sense, being that my roommate and good friend has survived multiple suicide attempts and has taken on advocacy as a vocation and profession. One of my close friends from high school died by suicide suddenly during our freshman year of college. So naturally, this issue has been close to my heart. However, unbeknownst to most I have struggled on and off with depression for more than a decade. So literally, this has always hit home for me.

In 2015, my roommate Drew attended a gala in New York raising money for his job, a non-­‐profit that does mental health education programs for young people across the country. When he returned from New York, Drew was blown away by what he had seen. The event, A Celebration of Life, was started by a group of fraternity brothers at Vanderbilt University who lost one of their brothers to suicide. To try and raise awareness, they threw a concert to raise money for mental health advocacy. Years later, as these men had grown into their careers and moved across the country, they had decided to turn it into a gala. The event had 300 young professionals come together in New York City and raised $125,000.

Drew had told me this, and said to me: “This is an amazing event, we can do this.” For me, it was a no brainer. I would do whatever I could to help Drew along the way. A Celebration of Life: Philadelphia was born. The months went by, and we began to see it come together. Sponsors, donations, ticket sales; the vision was becoming reality. We were incredibly excited for this amazing night that would not only raise money for our cause, but also would bring so many incredible people together to celebrate life (and party all night).

The night before the gala, I was out with some friends in the city. I had gotten to a bad place mentally, via alcohol. This had become a pattern for me at that time. Drinking and going out would be a vessel of hope for me. The possibility of making new friends, and meeting someone, was always exciting and made me hopeful of change regardless of my mental state.

Unfortunately, drinking began to open mental barriers I have developed over time to hold my anxieties and depression at bay. I would begin to fall into deep depressive states late at night after drinking, and over time it would grow into suicide ideation.

That night, I began to think about and dwell on the loneliness I had felt for much of my life. I sat on a street corner by myself in the night crying, feeling hopeless and not able to see change. I walked to a parking garage in the city, and climbed the stairs to the top. The same parking garage Madison Holleran jumped off of two years earlier. For whatever reason, I had always felt a connection to Madison. She and I had never met, but she died the same week my friend had. We were struggling at the same time, in the same city, for many of the same reasons. I was always walking in the city, out and about. I would wonder why we never crossed paths. Maybe we could have connected; maybe we would have become friends, maybe.

I stood at the ledge, looking to the street. Thinking on my life. Thinking of my struggles. Wanting to simply not be sad anymore. As I stood there, I began to think more of the change I was desperate for. For whatever reason, I made a phone call. I called a friend, who honestly today I cannot tell you who it was. They did not answer. I called another friend, no answer. I called one last person, at 4:00am. My friend Patty, at 4 o’clock in the morning, answered the call. Patty talked to me for what seemed like hours, though it was probably closer to 20 minutes. She got in her car and drove to pick me up. She took me to her office where in the early hours of the morning, she talked me through and developed a new plan to get my mental health on track.

I was worried now that I would not be able to attend our event, which was so important to Drew and me. After some sleep, I had come back to a manageable place. We had our event, and it was a great party that lasted deep into the night. We are now going into our third Celebration of Life:Philadelphia now having raised over $150,000 combined over the first two years.

I tell this story, simply because in a time in my life where I am struggling for much different reasons, I wanted to tell some truth about my past. That you never really know someone simply by surface. That pictures rarely tell the truth. That someone who looks so happy could have almost attempted suicide just 24 hours before.

Mike Garuccio blog

I hope that if you are struggling, you have the courage to reach out. I know I would not be here today, if many times over I had not reached out for help. I still struggle every day, but I have the tools to beat mental illness. I will always try to help and support those who need it, to the best of my ability. Whether it is through our advocacy work with A Celebration of Life, or simply a hug or phone call. Please know, there will always be someone who cares.

Always,
Michael

’13 Reasons Why’ warning is a start, experts say, but they want more

By Alessia Grunberger, CNN
Updated 4:00 AM ET, Thu April 5, 2018
Read this article online

(CNN) Almost immediately, Kate was hooked. She’d seen advertisements for the hit Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” and heard that some friends were watching it, so she gave it a try.

“Within one or two episodes, I was completely hooked and was super into it and felt really emotionally involved in it,” she said. “And, so I, essentially, sped through the whole show … which is not easy to do when you are working and also going to school. But I ended up doing it.”

 

Kate, 25, is a victim of domestic abuse and sexual assault, and she has depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. CNN agreed to use only her first name in order to protect her privacy. She didn’t watch “13 Reasons Why” because it was enjoyable as much as for its relatable — albeit graphic — content.

 
The 13-episode drama, which was released in March 2017, follows the fictional story of a teenager named Hannah Baker who takes her own life, leaving behind 13 audio recordings on cassette tapes. It sparked a national debate about mental health and suicide and prompted some mental health professionals to warn that “13 Reasons Why” could pose risks for viewers, especially for those already struggling with mental health issues.

'13 Reasons Why' tied to rise in suicide searches online
“Ideally, we hope that young people will avoid Season 1, as it was proven to increase Google queries about suicide, and several local mental health service providers have reported increases in instances of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts among their clients as a result of the series,” said Laura Horne, director of programs at Active Minds, a mental health organization that works with young adults.

 

Fans of the bingeable show, however, commend the series for raising awareness about suicide and shedding light on how to spot warning signs of depression or suicidal thoughts. A second season is planned, but its release date has not been announced.

 

In response to the controversy, Netflix has taken extra steps to provide viewers with more resources on mental health, bullying and other tough topics. The changes, which are the result of a study commissioned by Netflix to look at the impact of the series, include the addition of a warning video that will air at the start of each season, an after-show that features the cast and experts, and more crisis information and suicide prevention resources online at 13ReasonsWhy.info.

 

“Soon after the Season 1 launch, we saw global conversation explode on the controversial topics covered by the series and understood we had a responsibility to support these important discussions,” Netflix said in a statement. “To understand whether and how the series opened dialogue between teens and parents, we commissioned a global research study with Northwestern University’s Center on Media and Human Development, which has an active research focus on the impact of media on children and teens.”

 

Viewers want more resources

The study found that “nearly three-quarters of teen and young adult viewers said the show made them feel more comfortable processing tough topics.”

Responding to concerns over the possible impact on vulnerable viewers of "13 reasons Why," Netflix said it "had a responsibility to support these important discussions."

 
Opinion: Why '13 Reasons Why' is dangerous

 “To the extent that Netflix is helping us have a better conversation about depression and other mental health diagnoses that contribute to suicide, I think that part is good. I just think the follow-through could be improved a bit,” said Lauren Caldwell, director of the American Psychological Association’s Children, Youth, and Families Office. She suggested that Netflix play its introductory video before each episode, add “more depth” to its viewing guide and air its after-show following each episode. 

Netflix didn’t respond requests for comment on this story.

 

Other mental health experts agree that the efforts are a step in the right direction but say they don’t go far enough.

 

Attention, not understanding

 

” ’13 Reasons Why’ brought an astounding amount of attention to suicide,” Active Minds’ Horne said. “It didn’t bring understanding about this one crucial fact: that suicide is preventable.
Why teen mental health experts are focused on '13 Reasons Why'
“We believe Netflix had a responsibility to add crisis and other resources for Season 2 because that context is crucial,” she said. “The new resources are a plus, but not having seen the second series, we don’t know if messages about prevention are embedded within the show itself in a way that better balances safety and accuracy with entertainment.”

 

Overall, viewer Kate was pleased to read that Netflix was incorporating new ways to better protect and inform its viewers. But she thinks the streaming service shouldn’t limit airing the advisory message to once a season. “I think it’s good that they’re having this video at the beginning of the season,” she said. “However, I don’t really know if a video at the beginning would help as much as a video at the middle or the end, because it seems to go pretty downhill, at least in the first season. And I don’t always know how likely … people are to reach out about the things that they’re feeling during the show. I think the video is a good effort, but I wonder what kinds of real-life effects it’s going to have versus it’s more Netflix being able to have a disclaimer like ‘oh, we know this is triggering; here’s our blurb about it,’ ” she said. 

Kate also said the show made her feel more depressed.

 

“I really identified with (Hannah) from past experiences and knowing how low she can get. And I felt lower and lower and lower as I watched her get lower and lower and lower.”

 

Discussing tough topics ‘important’

 Despite its negative effects on Kate, she said, it’s important to have shows that discuss such tough topics. She suggests a warning screen at the beginning of each episode, urging viewers to take a break. “Even something as simple as that, because I think especially in the first season, it was really suspenseful and really easy to go from one episode feeling really crappy to another episode feeling even crappier.”
 
She also suggested that Netflix broadcast messages throughout the show, asking people to hit pause if they need a moment to process the content.”You know how they have the ‘are you still watching’ reminder?” she asked. “It could be something like ‘hey, maybe take a break from watching’ or ‘this episode is going to depict x, y, z. If you’re not comfortable with that, consider reading a synopsis online.’ “

 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-TALK (8255)
 
Trevor Lifeline
1-866-488-7386
 
Trans Lifeline
US: 1-877-565-8860
Canada: 1-877-330-6366
 
Crisis Text Line
Text “741741”

Therapist seeks to work with KCSD on school safety initiatives

By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer
Originally appeared 03/20/2018 01:22PM in Chester County Press, www.chestercounty.com

On February 14, a mass shooting occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that resulted in the deaths of 17 people and the wounding of 17 others.

It became one of the world’s deadliest school massacres on record, and just the latest in a continuum of school tragedies that have burned names like Sandy Hook and Columbine into the consciousness of America.

As she watched the events unfold on television and social media over the next few days, Winden Rowe, M.S., a Kennett Square resident, therapist and the mother of two teenage sons who are students in the Kennett Consolidated School District, feared that the Florida shooting, on the heels of countless other tragedies just like it, had become just the latest stopping off point for a once seething rage against violence that was tapering off on its way to full acceptance.

She wrote a letter to KCSD Superintendent Dr. Barry Tomasetti that detailed her rage against complacency, both in the community and what she perceived was also true in the school district itself.

In short, Rowe wanted to work with the school district on finding ways to address the causes of school shootings, not just reactive protocols. “Silence in anything is cosignatory, and irresponsible in this matter,” she wrote.

The letter, which was later published in the Chester County Press, invited Tomasetti and district officials to explore the possibility of opening up a dialogue in an effort to “break the silence and demonstrate to our children that we are not willing to go on another day acting as if this is not a national crisis,” she wrote. “Please come to the table. Please offer more than a ‘We understand your concern.’”

She received it.

On Feb. 27, accompanied by her friend Colleen Kauffman, a mother of five who currently has four children in the school district, Rowe met with Tomasetti and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Michael Barber to further a dialogue that in many ways, the school district has already begun to have with the population it serves.

During the meeting, Rowe and Kauffman asked the Kennett school district to create district-wide efforts that recognize potential warning signs in students whose actions may be triggered by stress and trauma, which could subsequently lead to negative health outcomes, mental health concerns and violence. Rowe encouraged the Kennett school district to adopt the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE) questionnaire, a 10-item self-report to identify childhood experiences of abuse and neglect. The study, conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, proposes that childhood trauma and stress early in life, apart from potentially impairing social, emotional and cognitive development, indicates a higher risk of developing health and behavioral issues later in life.

Among the ten questions on the questionnaire are:

Prior to your 18th birthday:

  1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you, or act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
    No___If Yes, enter 1  __
  2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you or ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
    No___If Yes, enter 1  __
  3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way or attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?

“One of the things that came up in dialogue was that there are two branches of discussion regarding school violence – regulations related to security and safety, and approaches to mental health,” Rowe said. “The overarching one for me, given my training, is wellness, and wellness gets overlooked but is the primary and most important aspect of prevention and building resilience in communities, so that we don’t see these incidents happen again.”

In the case of Nikolas Jacob Cruz, the 19-year-old convicted of the Florida shooting spree, “he faced a lot of adversity in his home environment that wasn’t being addressed,” Rowe said to a group of residents she met with on March 14 at Anchor Fitness in Kennett Square. “What we know about him is that he faced a lot of adversity in his childhood development. What we know about children with higher ACE scores are that they are far more likely to have poorer health outcomes caused by stress, and a higher likelihood of being incarcerated and involvement with the law.

“This is not a report card that means that something is wrong. It means that things have happened, and if you’re addressing the outcomes, this is where you go in order to treat the root causes. This is where the plumbing issue exists, but rather, we go clean up the spill.”

Since it was first introduced in the 1990s, the ACE questionnaire has helped lay the foundation for growing recognition of the prevalence and impact of childhood adversity, stress and trauma on children and youth. Rowe said that the ACE questionnaire is being incorporated into cities and towns, who in turn infuse it within schools and law enforcement systems.

‘Executive function’

Rowe said that living in a stress-filled environment contributes to a life imbalance, which makes it more difficult for the individual to access “executive function,” a self-regulation system that allows an individual to plan, focus attention, remember instructions and juggle multiple tasks successfully.

Using the analogy of seeing a bear in the forest, Rowe said that the first reaction is to run, “but what if you’re the kid in the home, and the bear comes home every night?” she said. “What if you have to go home to the bear every night? What if school is the bear, and you’re an under-functioning student who’s not quite cut out for the system?”

While the Kennett school district does not administer an ACE questionnaire to students, there are several measures in place that provide each student with social, academic and personal lifelines. The Student Assistance Program (SAP) at Kennett Middle School and the Kennett Intervention Program (KIT) at Kennett High School provide additional resources for students and their parents who are in need of support, and is staffed by trained social workers, counselors, teachers, administrators and nurses.

In addition, teachers in the district are trained in suicide prevention, opioid training and mandated reporting which, in accordance with Pa. Act 126 (2013), requires that all school and independent contractors of school entities provide child abuse recognition and reporting training to all employees, including contracted substitute teachers who have direct contact with children.

Several years ago, Dr. Terri Erbacher, an author, school psychologist for 15 years and professor of psychology at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, met with school staff in order to provide the district with a screening instrument that counselors and social workers can use to asses students at risk.

“Based on the results of the risk screening, we move forward with with a recommendation for parents,” Barber said. “It is our own tool that was vetted through professionals in the field.”

“The ultimate outcome is that we find out more about the students and what may be the cause for what’s happening,” Tomasetti said. “They yield the same outcome [as the ACE questionnaire], even though they are not necessarily the same instrument.”

‘Minding Your Mind’

The Kennett school district is about to take another step to address mental health in its schools. On April 17 at the Kennett High School auditorium, beginning at 6:45 p.m., the district will welcome a presentation by Minding Your Mind, an organization that provides mental health education to adolescents, teens and young adults, their parents, teachers and school administrators, and the community, in order to reduce the stigma and destructive behaviors often associated with mental health issues. Minding Your Mind student presentations help students learn to recognize the warning signs of mental illness in themselves and their friends, and teach students that mental health issues and illnesses are common and treatable.

“Some of our constituents might think that mental health really isn’t a school district’s responsibility, but our staff’s point is, ‘We know it is,’” Tomasetti said. “We wish it wasn’t, but we know that there are kids who come to us who have difficulties.

“Everyone can sit around and ask who’s job is it to do this, but we’re going to do whatever we can in working with parents to give our kids the best education possible,” Tomasetti added. “We want them to be high achievers, but we also want them to be good citizens. A lot of times, because we have a lot of students in our school district, they tell us things. They tell their teachers things, they tell their counselors things that maybe they don’t tell other people. We look at this as a collaborative effort. We’ve got to help where we can help.”

Barber referred to the meeting he and Tomasetti had with Rowe and Kauffman as “a continued discussion on school safety, and what we can do to best support our students and parents, from a mental health perspective – continuing the conversation about what’s being done and what we can continue to do to best support our community.”

Rowe and Kauffman said that they plan to extend the conversation beyond the KCSD and into the community. They are currently in discussions with Kennett Flash General Manager Andrew Miller to begin hosting TED Talk-like seminars at the venue.

“Our kids, born after a certain date on the calendar, think that [school shootings] are a part of the normal world,” Rowe said. “For those of us who didn’t grow up this way, we’re watching these school shootings and thinking, ‘This is totally insane.’ Our goal with the district is not to ask about safety issues. We know that they’re handling that. We don’t want to talk about guns in schools, or have debates about mental health. Our goal is to talk about how can we infuse wellness into this school district.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email rgaw@chestercounty.com.

Anxiety Over School Shootings: Finding proactive ways to deal with worried feelings

by Rachel Ehmke
Originally appeared on Child Mind Institute www.childmind.org

 

Anxiety over school shootings has become a common fear in America. When something that once seemed unthinkable happens with some regularity, added to our feeling of horror that it’s happened (again!) is another kind of alarm: Could this happen at my child’s school?

And many parents have begun to worry whether the news of school shootings, along with the active-shooter drills most schools are now conducting, are frightening children in a damaging way.

Responding to this concern, Jamie Howard, PhD, director of the Trauma and Resilience Service at the Child Mind Institute, says that parents tend to worry about school shootings more than their children do. “Even though they’re the ones going into school every day, I just don’t hear a lot of kids worrying about it,” she says. “When children are younger they’re more egocentric. As they get to become teenagers this changes.” This developmental selfishness is a quality that often protects younger children from the kind of anxiety that the adults around them are experiencing.

This is good news for parents who worry about their children feeling afraid. But kids are very good at picking up on the fears of their parents, and if they sense that Mom or Dad is afraid, they will take notice.

Unhealthy anxiety

Psychologists sometimes describe anxiety as the body’s internal alarm system. You want your alarm system to go off if there is a threat nearby. But sometimes the alarm is triggered too easily and you are alerted when there isn’t any danger at all. Or maybe there is a threat, but it doesn’t actually warrant a full-fledged alarm response.

The way school shootings are covered on television and discussed on social media is intense. We can hear about the tragedy throughout our day, often for several days, whenever we look at a screen. Besides making us feel upset and frustrated, it can also make us feel less safe. “Because it’s so horrific and scary and important it dominates the media and therefore our minds, and we think of it as a much bigger threat than it is, explains Dr. Howard. “The more you watch, the more it tricks your mind into thinking it’s an increased probability of occurring.”

School shootings actually are not very common, so while they are a threat, the likelihood that one will personally affect you is slim. In Dr. Howard’s words, “some anxiety is warranted, debilitating anxiety is not.” If you feel that you are more anxious than you should be, a good first step is always to take a break from any media that might be focusing your attention in an unhealthy direction.

Related: How to Avoid Passing Anxiety on to Your Kids

Look for ways to be proactive

Because anxiety is meant to prepare us for action, it makes sense to channel the worries you are feeling into something proactive you can do. One of the things Dr. Howard recommends is forming a parent group at the school. Assessing what the school needs, getting involved in the planning process for drills, and having ongoing conversations about keeping the school safe can make worried parents feel better.

Likewise, participating in political activism or efforts to support mental health and wellness in your community can make you feel like you are making a difference. It also sets a good example for your children, who may want to get involved, too. Many of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School began lobbying lawmakers after the tragic shooting at their school, and they inspired students across the country to think about ways they might make their own voices heard. Participating in a school walkout or even just getting their opinion across in a conversation with a parent can make kids feel like their thoughts and values matter, which will feel reassuring.

Talk to your children

Parents are sometimes afraid to bring up school shootings with their children, because they don’t want to scare them. But children will have often heard about a school shooting that is getting a lot of attention in the media, and bringing it up can actually alleviate any anxiety they might be feeling. Avoiding potentially scary topics can make them scarier to children.

These discussions are a chance for you to answer questions that they might have and provide some reassurance. While you can’t promise that their school will never have a shooting, you can in good faith tell them that school shootings are actually very rare and remind them that they practice drills at school to keep them safe.

If you aren’t sure what to say, you can always ask your kids if they have any questions. Use common sense about how much detail to go into, and try not to use euphemisms or fuzzy language, which can make a young child’s imagination run wild.

You can also take this opportunity to share important messages that you want to communicate. For example, Dr. Howard suggests saying, “If a classmate of yours is struggling, we don’t do nothing. We don’t gossip about them. We tell a grownup so they can get help.” Or if your child is a teenager, and another student says or writes something scary, the same advice holds: they should let an adult know.

Active shooter drills

Most schools today practice active shooter drills. The goal of these drills should never be to scare children. Just as we don’t use fake smoke in fire drills, schools don’t need to use fake guns during active shooter drills. Schools who try to make the drills as realistic as possible risk scaring students (and teachers), and miss the point of these drills in the first place.

Schools have active shooter drills to get everyone used to their safety plan. “The more you practice something, the more you rehearse it, you lay the mental tracks so that you decrease the tendency to freeze in the case of a real emergency and you can go quickly into action,” explains Dr. Howard. “In the military you do realistic drills because you really will be in combat, but this is a low-probability event. You just need to lay the tracks so you decrease those few seconds of reaction time.”

When teachers (and parents) talk about the drills, they should do it with a lot of confidence. They should make it clear that school shootings, just like fires, are unlikely, but, says Dr. Howard, “We are going to be ready if it happens. This is what we’re going to do to stay safe.”