CHILD DEVELOPMENT: by Kevin DonnellyNews Weekly
Equipping our young to cope with suffering and loss
, August 17, 2013
Winston Churchill described it as his black dog, Britain’s comic genius Spike Milligan wrote poetry about it and, more recently, Liberal politician Andrew Robb took time off from parliament to deal with it.
Depression is a physically exhausting and emotionally draining feeling of despondency and despair that can cripple one’s life. Based on a recent survey of Australian men aged 16-25, carried out by the Young and Well Co-operative Research Centre, the problem is ever-present.
The Australian survey of 1,400 young men found one in five felt life had little purpose, 27 per cent were worried about depression and 40 per cent said they were experiencing psychological distress.
That mirrors overseas research, where there is increasing evidence that many young people are disengaged, uncertain about the future and lack the resilience and courage to deal with adversity.
Why are so many young men afflicted with depression and what needs to be done?
One answer, as argued by American Holocaust survivor and author of The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976), Bruno Bettelheim, begins with education.
Forget much of contemporary children’s literature with its social realism about broken homes, drug addiction and peer-group pressure: for Bettelheim, traditional fairytales and archetypal myths teach about overcoming adversity, dealing with uncertainty and loss and being brave enough to confront impossible odds.
Classic stories such as The Iliad and The Odyssey also show that, although the gods are often capricious and unjust, courage and ingenuity can win the day. Boys, in particular, need strong male role models they can emulate. It shouldn’t surprise that the old Victorian readers included stories about Gallipoli, Simpson and his donkey, and Scott of the Antarctic.
In schools and at home, teachers and parents need to stop wrapping children in cotton wool and give them the freedom to be physical, to take risks and to confront and overcome fear. Boys have a special need to be physically challenged, to range freely and to compete one against the other.
As noted by Anthony Sheldon, a British-based teacher and unofficial biographer of Tony Blair, “it’s through facing fear, facing physical hardship and facing personal deprivation that we learn about compassion, about ourselves, and we grow up”.
Instead of pushing the self-esteem movement in education, where children are always applauded, teachers need to tell children when they have failed. Schools also need to jettison the victimhood mentality, where being disadvantaged becomes an excuse for under-achieving.
When most of what happens in schools, ranging from the curriculum to teaching styles, has been feminised, it’s also time to realise that boys learn differently from girls, especially when it comes to learning to read; they need a more practical, structured and hands-on approach.
While in an increasingly secular and materialistic world it may sound strange, there is also the need to awaken in children and adolescents a spiritual sense of the world.
When celebrity culture rules and young people are consumed by the narcissistic and superficial world of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, it is vital they understand that much of this life is illusory and ephemeral.
The great religions of the world deal with eternal, existential questions about happiness, fulfilment, the nature of good and evil and how to cope with suffering and loss.
Unlike much of contemporary Western culture that is driven by commercialism and immediate gratification, religion also teaches that this world is far from perfect and that to be human is to be vulnerable to loss and pain.
While frustrating and difficult to accept, religion also teaches that there is much about life that is inexplicable and beyond our control. To cope after suffering loss, we need to accept that there are larger forces that direct our fate, and the fate of those we hold close, and that often the best thing to do is to throw ourselves back into life.
An important part of coping with depression is the realisation that there is often no such thing as closure and that the best one can do is to find ways to alleviate the pain.
For Milligan it was poetry, for Churchill painting and for Robb it appeared to be early morning exhausting swims. Witnessed by many of the world’s great composers, artists and writers, it is also important to realise that depression can be channelled into something creative and that it need not be wholly destructive.
Depression also needs to be shared with others and, especially for men, there needs to be a realisation that it is not a weakness to admit how debilitating it can be and how difficult to overcome.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is director of the Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute and author of Educating Your Child: It’s Not Rocket Science! (available from News Weekly Books). This article first appeared in The Australian, July 27, 2013.