MindMatters Panel: Module 4.5 Understanding friends and peers

Julia Zemiro:
Hello, I’m Julia Zemiro. When I was in high school, I used to think “I’m too young to have this many embarrassing memories” and that was even before Facebook was a thing. Sometimes I felt like a character in an American teen movie but apparently I skip the part in puberty where I get really attractive, my parents buy me a car and everyone wants to be my best friend. My parents weren’t mean but, let’s face it, they probably were the kind of parents who would switch off the Wi-Fi at night. Sometimes being a teenager was awesome but it was also stressful, humiliating, boring, frightening and hard. It wasn’t until I got out of high school that I realised, at some point, high school sucks for everyone. Fortunately for me these days, the embarrassing memories of all the stupid things I did become great stories to tell on television. So, I’ve pulled together this group of people to share their teenage experiences and how they managed to survive high school, as well as clinical psychologist and family therapist Andrew Fuller to give us some tips on exactly how to do that. So let’s meet them. Ned, Ashley, Loren and Habib. Andrew, what do we mean by mental health? It’s such a broad term.

Andrew Fuller:
Well mental health’s really… flexibility, I think. It’s the flexibility to approach your life and have multiple ways of solving problems, multiple ways of connecting with people. So it’s the relationships you have with other people, it’s the relationship you have with the events in your life, which you can be flexible with, and it’s also the relationship you have with yourself I think. That idea of being prepared to regard yourself as someone of worth, someone of merit.

Julia Zemiro:
How does physical health play into that?

Andrew Fuller:
Well physical health and mental health are of course incredibly interlinked so, partly, by looking after our bodies we can start to feel better about ourselves.

Julia Zemiro:
Now we’ve got some teenagers here, I mean, just some of them. Some of them have already left school and are at Uni and some are still at school – that will be you Ned. What are some of the biggest issues teenagers face at school?

Ash:
Well I guess I experienced a lot of bullying and peer pressure and I didn’t really fit in with anyone. So a lot of the pressure on me was just trying to find enough social people to be around, to have that social element in my life so I wasn’t just studying all the time. I guess parents also, not everyone can have parents that are happy with whatever marks they get and so they get pressure from their parents to get A plusses all the time.

Julia Zemiro:
Ned what about you?

Ned:
Teachers tend to put a lot of pressure on you, when it comes to studying and focusing on your work and it’s kind of tough to do that because the pressure they put on you is too overwhelming and you just can’t take it.

Julia Zemiro:
When you have each teacher saying “My subject’s important” “No, my subject’s important” “No my subject’s more important.” Is that something you face as well? That every teacher thinks –

Ned:
You have every teacher saying that. Every teacher is important. They also want to feel important, so they’re going to say that anyway.

Julia Zemiro:
They want to feel important. That’s a good one. What about you Habib? What were the things that you remember in adolescence that were particularly difficult? 

Habib:
Well for me, I’ve been here for 8 years in Australia so when I came here, from the start, it was very difficult because I had little knowledge about writing, reading and talking to people. The only words I started learning was basically the F words from the start, which was a good start but it got me somewhere but not everywhere. As I moved into high school, it got really tough for me and my friends. There was only really about two or three Afghans in my school, which is how I met my best mates. Every lunch we used to get out and have fun but the thing was that we were standing out like we were different from other people. But, at the end of the day, my teachers in the school were supportive for us and everyone and we did learn, through the hard way, that there’s other ways to deal with all the stuff that goes on around the school.

Julia Zemiro:
What about dating? I didn’t date anyone in high school, I want to make that completely clear. But is that still a stress in adolescence? That whole thing of wanting to go out with someone?

Ash:
Well I guess. I found at my school a lot of people were defining themselves by the relationships that they were in. So a lot of people were like “Oh I can’t go out. I don’t have anyone to go out with. I don’t have a boyfriend to go out with.” But I guess, yeah, it is a pressure because everyone’s like “Well why don’t you have a boyfriend?” and – 

Julia Zemiro:
Ned, what about you?

Ned:
I think, because our school is an all-boys school, they tend to talk about girls a lot.

Julia Zemiro:
Hormones. Let’s speak about them, hormones. Do you feel it kicking in as an adolescent? Do you actually start going “I felt like I was normal yesterday. Today I’m going berserk.” 

Ash:
You almost can. Like it’s not an instant thing, but you can tell over a few months that you suddenly, you know, if you’re a guy, you’re probably more aggressive. I don’t really know, I’m not a guy. If you’re a girl, yeah I notice that I sort of snap a bit easier and I was a bit more, sort of, not aggressive but like ‘snarky’ is the word my parents have always used. I guess I was noticing guys a bit more.

Julia Zemiro:
Hello – there’s a few here. Year 12 is a big stressful time. How did you cope with year 12 Ash?

Ash:
I put a lot of pressure on myself to even make it through high school. And then, when I finally got my score, I wasn’t entirely happy with it but I knew I’d done my best and because I pushed myself and that pressure I put on myself it was, yeah.

Julia Zemiro:
It’s a lot. It’s a lot of pressure.

Ash:
I made sure that I was breaking away from my study every so often. Taking a break, going out, talking to people, relaxing as well as studying because if you study the entire time, you’re just going to end up stressed and over worked and you won’t do your best and to just remember that your marks don’t define you.

Julia Zemiro:
They certainly didn’t define me in year 12 I can tell you that. Let’s not talk about maths. Ned, what about you? Because you’re still there.

Ned:
I’m currently finishing year 12. I am coping well with it but they still tend to put a lot of pressure on me but I sometimes tend to ignore it.

Julia Zemiro:
Good. Sometimes you’ve got to ignore. Loren, what about you in terms of year 12 stress? How was year 12 stress for you and your friends?

Loren:
Year 12 wasn’t actually that bad for me. I used year 11 as a practice run, so, Ned, I hope you use year 11 as your practice run. And I actually had a pretty good time. Don’t forget to have fun and pace yourself, and try your best, but don’t kick yourself if you don’t do as well as you would like because there are so many ways to make it in this world. I went on a gap year, after my year 12, working full time and volunteering for “Young and Well” and I met so many people and I realised that you know there’s a whole world outside of school, just waiting for you.

Ash:
There’s always a back way or another way into a course you want, so like, Deakin has is it MIHT or MIT or something and you do, like, a year through them and then you can get straight into a course you want. So there’s no point worrying unnecessarily that you’re not going to get straight into your course.

Julia Zemiro:
What are some things that could have a negative effect on your mental health?

Andrew Fuller:
Life, generally.

Julia Zemiro:
Life. But this is the thing: if we could all just agree to that and go “Life’s hard. How do you deal with it?”. There are the beautiful moments but there are moments that you need resilience and strength.

Andrew Fuller:
That’s right, I reckon, you know, everyone really, has tough moments. None of us escape without it. You know, all of us at some stage have to look in the mirror at ourselves and go “Well, that’s all I’ve got on offer really. That’s as good as it gets, pretty much. I could go to the gym but, really, am I going to change much about it?” It’s sort of about learning to accept that sometimes life has ups and downs and sometimes you’ve just got to ride your way through it and, you know, not like a passive person and you can try to fix whatever you can, but it’s a bit of a hit and miss affair.

Julia Zemiro:
So here’s a question for all of you. What are some of the times when the mental health of you or your friends wasn’t so good?

Ash:
So year 10, when I was just adjusting to having depressions and my first year I was seeing a new counsellor and a new psychologist, it was up and down a bit. But, in year 12, it was definitely the worst, kid VCE and all my friends were focusing on VCE 2 so, your friendship group doesn’t break up but you don’t have quite as much time for each other. I think a lot of my friends noticed because I’m a very talkative person. I will talk on and on and on in lunch time and they usually have to shut me up. They noticed, because I was pretty much silent all the way through lunchtimes, and they were like “Something is wrong here.” One of my friends actually, at one point, dragged me to the Counsellor’s Office and said “Sit here and wait for her to come out and you are going to talk to her.”

Julia Zemiro:
And you got through it. I mean, year 12. What sort of help did you seek out?

Ash:
So, I think that year I was seeing Sarah, the psychologist in school but I was also seeing a psychologist out of school. Plus, my parents and my family were very, very supportive. They were always making sure I was alright but not pushing me to be all right, sort of thing.

Julia Zemiro:
Did you ever feel like “I see someone at school, I see someone out of school.” Was it all too much or were you genuinely thinking “This is so important to do this because I feel like I’m getting some peace of mind, if nothing else.”?

Ash:
At the start I refused to admit that I needed, like even though I was seeing the counsellor every week, I refused to admit that I actually needed that and I think middle of year 12 was when I realised that hang on, I actually need help with this and I need to put in the effort and I was putting in so much effort then with my depression and my work and so it really did make me feel a lot better, putting the effort in. I guess it was also realising that it was ok for me to need help. It was a big part of me actually seeking help.

Julia Zemiro:
It can be that simple can’t it Andrew? To look out for your friends and sort of say “Are you alright?”

Andrew Fuller:
Yeah that’s right. I think that’s what a great friend does, is that really for us. And sometimes by calling it out and saying “Are you ok?” or “Do you need to talk about something?”. Sometimes we just pause and stop in our tracks and go “Actually, maybe I do.” It’s sort of like, your slow realisation that actually getting some help, actually was going to be helpful, which was an extraordinary insight for you to finally get. Probably after that poor counsellor spent weeks with you, struggling away. I’m sure that people are generally kind of good hearted about those things.

Julia Zemiro:
Loren, you actually had a friend who was ill, and you saw her behaviour changing, and then you did something about it and that’s a very tough call, isn’t it? How did that pan out for you?

Loren:
At the beginning it was tricky because we didn’t know what is was. So she had borderline personality disorder – still has it – and I didn’t know my boundaries, I suppose, as a friend.

Julia Zemiro:
So sometimes a problem in adolescence is not happening to you necessarily. It’s happening to a really good friend. And you can’t ignore it.

Loren:
I can’t actually pick a particular point in which I thought something is wrong, but the way that my friend interacted with other people was difficult in that she would confide in us. This was all pretty serious stuff and there was nothing that we could do to help her. She would have very intense relationships. So she would think that you were her best friend or she hated you. We could tell that she was experiencing some really intense emotions and quite often they were laid onto us. We copped a lot of it and there wasn’t much communication with the teachers.

Julia Zemiro:
So at what point did you think, is it up to us to say something? Like we have all this information but shall we tell anyone? Should be share it?

Loren:
Yes. A few months in, we decided, we have to meet with the counsellor. Tell her what’s going on. And we did and that made things a lot easier and even easier when the school hired a psychologist. That made a huge difference because the psychologist had experience with similar situations.

Julia Zemiro:
And you can’t be expected to deal with that obviously. But you are the one who kind of set of the alarm bell if you like. Yes, so all these things we’ve talked about, the things, the stresses you can feel as an adolescent. How do these things affect our mental health? 

Andrew Fuller:
Enormously. I think that the sort of pressures you can put on yourself, the idea that somehow you’ve got to conform to some sort of perfect body type for a while, or work out at the gym, and fit in with the cool kids. Often teenagers aren’t much good at looking out for themselves. They kind of believe, whatever’s going on right now is the thing. And you’ve got to believe that entirely. If someone says something rotten to you, as people do from time to time, you think “Wow, that’s true. That’s about me. I’ve got the wrong body shape or weird stuff.” And so you can spend a lot of time as a teenager tormenting yourself on the basis of what people have offloaded because they themselves are feeling bad about themselves and so it’s easier to put you down and feel better about myself. It’s kind of crazy.

Julia Zemiro:
So what can you do to improve your own mental health?

Andrew Fuller:
The way I like to think about improving your mental health, is about optimal growing conditions. If you have ever been to a garden nursery and you’ve seen those plants, and the plants sort of come with a little plastic sleeve, and it will say something like “if you plant this plant and give it shade and lots of water it will flourish. It will grow.” Now all of us, have our own optimal growing conditions. We have the conditions under which we thrive best. And it takes a while to think about those and then to think about “How do I, as much as possible, put those situations, all those circumstances, around me?” See, for some of us, we really like to be busy and do all sorts of things. Other people like times of quiet. Some people like to be, physically, really active. Other people like to have more rest. It’s okay; you like what you like and it really takes a bit of thinking to think about “How do I specify and really gather those optimal growing conditions?” Now most people will never get to that. They sort of just react to life so, as life comes and whips them on the nose and gives them situations to deal with, they kind of just deal with it and never think “Well how do I step back from that for a bit and find my own optimal growing conditions?” So it might be worth trying to find out what they reckon they might be.

Julia Zemiro:
I think I have about four things in my optimal growing conditions and one of them is a lot of sleep, I can tell you that. Ash, what about you?

Ash:
Take breaks while you’re studying is definitely a huge one so, every 50 minutes, take a 10 minute break. Get away from your studying is definitely a way to bring you up.

Julia Zemiro:
What about you Loren?

Loren:
There’s one thing that I wish I had done at school, and I can really recommend mindfulness meditation. So I’ve been trying to do that every day for about two months and it really helped me to get through the Christmas period in retail, because I was working in a bookstore. It really helped me to stay calm during stressful situations and it gave me a bit of a break as well. But, while I was at school, I actually rode my bike to school every day.

Julia Zemiro:
So exercise again, and concentrating, because a bike on a road, you can’t just you know tune out, you’ve really got to see what’s going on.

Loren:
Yes absolutely. Seeing friends as well, also is a good stress reliever. So don’t miss that party just because you have a SAC or an assessment on Monday morning.

Ned:
Don’t worry. I’m not missing out at all.

Julia Zemiro:
I have a feeling Ned wouldn’t at all.

Andrew Fuller:
One of the things I find, that I often suggest to people that I work with, it’s often really useful, is to create two play lists of songs. One play list is the real ‘pump up’ songs but then there’s another play list you create, which is a sort of ‘bruised by life’ songs – you know those ones. You’re having one of those moments and it’s a tough day, and you kind of want to hear a song that… somebody else in existence has also shared this kind of feeling, and they’ve felt a bit hurt and battered by life and so often it’s good to listen to that sort of sad play list first, and then kind of go “Right, I’ve had enough of that” and then get the music that pumps you up.

Julia Zemiro:
That’s a great idea. There’s a whole show in that. And probably about nine apps as well that you can probably get.

Loren:
There is actually an app for that, that someone called Stoian Stoianov is developing at the moment.

Julia Zemiro:
I’m loving it! Alright: final question. Now we know – or maybe we don’t – but you’re not alone in having to deal with all of this, so who can you go to for help?

Ash:
Anyone, pretty much. Like, I went to see my GP when I first realised that something was – well my mum took me to the GP and they will help you and they will talk you through everything and they will tell you what’s going on. Anyone around you, you can talk to.

Andrew Fuller:
One of the things, of course, that you’ve got to be a bit careful of is, often we first go to our friends but sometimes are friends are dealing with the same crap that we’re dealing with and they have no idea how to deal with it either.

Julia Zemiro:
At school, Ned, who would you go to if you to ask for help?

Ned:
I am honestly very thankful to have a few people to go to. I have a lot of teachers, a couple of friends. I even talk to my mum, and she’s the best person to talk to.

Julia Zemiro:
Even your mum! That’s amazing, that’s great because they’re the parents and you know, you think that would be easy but it’s not. But you get on really well with your mum and you can have that conversation?

Ned:
Yeah. Once you actually have that first conversation, even if it’s kind of nerve racking to talk about, she’s like the perfect person to understand and is always there for you.

Julia Zemiro:
What about you Habib? 

Habib:
My school is a really supportive school. I like all my teachers, except one. The thing with my teachers is, in the class, if I wasn’t feeling that good or my mate wasn’t, I used to just say “Sorry Miss or Sir that this thing happened. I won’t be in class. Can you email me this?” and the next day in school they would get me out of class and ask if everything was alright. The good thing with my teachers as well is that, towards the end of the day, they help me as much as they can and they say “I’m sorry it’s out of my capacity, I can’t help you anymore”. But they point me in the right direction and they got me someone that can help me out and so everyone has that you know. You need to have a great bond, you know. You need to find that right person and it makes it way, way easier for anyone.

Loren:
And just to add to that, there are a lot of resources out there, that are online or are apps and you can talk to a counsellor through email or instant message if you’re not comfortable talking to someone face to face. 

Julia Zemiro:
And finally Andrew, how do you know when you need help? Because Ash’s being very brave in saying she didn’t even know and she said “I don’t need any help. “ We’ve all done that, you know, “I’ve been to counsellors too” and you kind of go “I don’t need to go there” and then you realise – “Oh no, you really needed to talk”. How do you know?

Andrew Fuller:
I think when you get into loopy thinking, when you kind of find yourself dwelling on the same issue, going around and around in your head and you’re thinking “Well I thought about this yesterday and the day before that and the day before that.” And you go “I’m not getting anywhere” and then you just realise, you need another brain – somebody who sees life differently, whether it’s your mum or whether it’s a psychologist or whether it’s your teacher. Whoever it is, basically, who can kind of give you a different slant on it, and shift you out that loop. Because we all think loop-ily from time to time.

Ash:
I guess it is sometimes hard – things like that – because everyone does experience it differently. So I guess it’s just, asking yourself whether you feel like you’re still the same or whether you feel different. I mean I know it's hard to admit to yourself that you have a problem because I’ve been through that. But once you realise that something might be a bit off you’ve just got to try and tell yourself that “Yes you do need this help” and it doesn’t make you any less of a person to need the help.

Julia Zemiro:
Lovely note to end on. Thank you Ash. And in the meantime, start making those playlists.