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July 14th, 2019 | The 23rd Times

By July 10, 2019No Comments

Teaching Our Children to “FRIEND” their FEARS

by Deena Baxter – Florida Weekly

Marketing Southwest Florida as paradise is a great way to attract tourists and businesses but viewing our community through rosecolored glasses can blind us to the realities faced by families dealing with challenges, including mental illness. The result is we leave the most vulnerable among us stranded and feeling hopeless.

Here’s a picture of hopelessness. Our youngest son, Kevin, suffered through his ’tween and teen years with undiagnosed mental illness. It took 25 years for a proper diagnosis – bipolar mental illness. By then he was forging ahead untethered, leaving a trail of damaged relationships, job losses and squandered opportunities in his wake. He spurned our attempts to help and befriended pot and alcohol. Broken people hurt: Hurt people hurt people – themselves and others. Sadly, Kevin died by suicide in 2012.

His loss has had a long reach. It’s colored my world view in unexpected ways and made me more aware of suffering. I agree with journalist David Brooks: “Suffering is a great equalizer.” It leads us to wisdom and makes us more aware of circumstances that can make or break people. It encourages compassion by walking in another’s shoes.

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That’s especially true for young people who deal with serious mental illness. They aren’t looking for pity; they don’t want to live in isolation and be branded. They don’t want to be defined by their mental illness; it’s part of what makes them human. They’re looking for ways to embrace life and achieve their full potential. But the family tree is only as strong as its weakest branch and the same applies to our community. The branch is struggling. It needs care and feeding to thrive. How we care for those fragile branches speaks volumes about our commitment to whole health.

Here’s a picture of hope. Collier County Commissioner Andy Solis and the Mental Health Advisory Committee are addressing the gap in county-wide mental health and substance abuse resources and seeking to make those resources available, affordable and accessible. Initiatives like NCEF’s Beautiful Minds and Lee Health’s Kids Minds Matter zero in on infants, children and teens. There are hugs we should welcome: NAMI Collier’s award-winning Health Under Guided Systems is a free community based children’s health program that addresses the early intervention and identification of social, emotional, behavioral and mental health challenges for children ages 3 months to 18 years.

More broadly, Blue Zones of Southwest nine powers promote whole health, including exercise, life-purpose, rest, smart eating and right relationships.

Whole health is critically important in today’s world. Rapper Pitbull said it well: “Our society is so connected, we’re disconnected. People are taking so many pictures, they’re missing the big picture.”

The big picture is children and teens are being exposed to entertainment, real and fake news and more on TV and online that amplifies The Fear Factor. Armageddon, death and destruction attract viewers and advertisers; fear feeds on itself. The downside is children are exposed to too much information that’s not age-appropriate. It’s driving the increase in anxiety, depression, substance abuse, behavioral issues and suicide. Let’s find ways to communicate about climate change, school safety, immigration and other timely topics in ways that don’t leave children petrified.

Art can help children and teens safely express and communicate their fears. Sit with your child and encourage them to journal, draw a picture, or write a poem or song about their fears. Let them name them. Then do it yourself. Making friends with our fears is a priceless mental mending skill. That’s the bigger picture.

About the Author:

Deena Baxter launched The Surviving Suicide and Sudden Loss Project in partnership with National Alliance on Mental Illness of Collier County in 2014. The project’s mission is to promote life-affirming mental wellness. It includes a book, a creative arts website: and mental health advocacy and outreach. The book is titled “Surviving Suicide – Searching for Normal with Heartache and Humor.” All profits flows to NAMI of Collier County.