"No Man is an Island" ...even if Bob Ross never painted one...

In the previous blog article I was writing about Screen Time, and to attempt to segue that subject into this next article I want to rely on everyone’s history with screen time (and if you’re younger, your screen time savvy) to bring up Bob Ross. Remember him? The “happy little trees” guy with the perm on PBS, teaching us all how to paint. I saw an article on Mr. Ross recently that mentioned some fun facts about the artist, including that he never asked for any pay from PBS for his work, that he did over 400 paintings on that show, that he received (in one source) up to 200 fan letters a day at times, and that if a regular writer of those letters went silent that Mr. Ross would call them up to check-in on them. Awesome, right? It was this last factoid that drew my attention, and it’s the jump off point for this blog.


I’ve spent more than half of my career so far in mental health regularly operating as a crisis responder, and it’s pretty well known among crisis workers that the Spring is, maybe surprisingly, a difficult time for a lot of people. In fact, there have been several widely publicized suicides already this past week. We crisis workers and therapists know to expect an increase in calls, an increase in suicidal reports and behavior amongst our clients and communities, and an increase in general unhappiness for our struggling clients. This trend is also identified and the nationwide statistics easily found online. In my experience, this trend often surprises people when we talk about it, and I wanted to bring some attention to this problem.


If you and I have had a conversation about this in person, then you have likely heard my theory about why this is. While it is just a theory, and not scientifically tested, I think it still holds some water. Simply put, when the weather warms up and the majority of the population ceases their hibernating habits and begins the ramp up in activity levels that Spring and Summer are so well known for, those with mental illness don’t necessarily rise with them, leading to a building sense of the seriousness of their impairments and disparity between themselves and “the norm.”


During the Fall and Winter months, there is an increase in synchronicity between the daily habits of an individual without clinical depression or clinical anxiety and those of a person with that concern. For example, in the winter, probably both kinds of people are spending a lot more time indoors, both are bemoaning the cold, both spend more time in bed, more time on the couch, both are likely to spend their time staying home, and so on. Accordingly, if you are a person with clinical depression, you may look around during the winter months and feel more akin to your fellow citizenry, less different, less of an outlier; and as such, less depressed or impaired by your anxiety. And then Spring comes. All of those people acting just like you are now starting to be out more, smile more, travel more, go to farmers markets, go to parks, walk around the streets, and plan more activities.  Suddenly now you don’t feel so similar, and it can become a lot more apparent that maybe you aren’t like the rest of the people you might see day to day.  This is the depression talking, or the anxiety talking, but it can be hard to not listen.


There is a lot of research out there that supports the idea of social conformity, the idea that we have an internal drive to match attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group norms. The inverse of this is social non-conformity, a sensation all of us have felt at times I’m sure, and one that is identified as being often uncomfortable. Imagine being the only person to show up to a party that didn’t know it was a costume party, or being that person trying to walk one way on a sidewalk when everyone else is going the opposite direction. In our situation with the seasons, it is the realization that the way you feel, the drive you have to do things, the thoughts you say out loud or in your head no longer seem “normal” like they may have felt a month ago.


Clearly there is a problem here. It’s a problem known to the healthcare community and emergency response communities that choose to acknowledge it, and there are initiatives and interventions being put in place every year to combat this trend. Supporting those when they come up is helpful, and yet this isn’t the purpose exactly of this blog. I want to provide an action step, just like with the last blog (and those to come) that is individual, that connects to your mental health, and to that of others.


I want to come back to Bob Ross and what we can take from his example. And no, I don’t mean for you to go out now and paint happy little trees on gleeful little mountains with ecstatic little birds on them, probably only Bob could really pull that off. Rather, take a minute to think about those in your circle.  Think of your friends, your family members, the people that are regular parts of your life.  Maybe it’s the cashier at the convenience store you see every morning, or your coworker, or your neighbor, or that friend you made at the dog park. Have you seen them lately? Do you have a friend who seems to continue to turn down offers to hang out or join you and others lately? Who haven’t you heard from lately that you used to hear from regularly? Have you checked-in with them since it started warming up? And would it hurt you to drop them a quick message or phone call? Maybe they’re just busy, and maybe they’re starting to feel like the world is shifting and leaving them behind.


The magnifier of hopelessness is feeling alone as well. When we care about others, we have the individual power and mandate to not leave them behind, even if unintentionally. We are stronger together and sometimes we need to remind others that we are still with them, still part of their strength. Accomplish something more today you can feel proud of, and check on someone you haven’t heard from. Maybe they’re doing great and you can celebrate with them. Or maybe they’re not and you can remind them that they matter and aren’t alone. Either way, you did it right and can feel good about that.

Some thoughts about "Screen Time" and Mental Health

There are so many different issues and areas of life that we have control over and impact our mental health; however, arguably none has been increasing in quantity as steadily over the past 30 years than “Screen Time.” I put this phrase in quotes because it deserves the special attention, is often misrepresented, and as a term, it turns out, isn’t truthfully very helpful. However, it is a term in common usage, both professionally in the health care arena, and colloquially in pop psychology and conversation. Regardless, and without question, there has been a drastic increase in the amount of screen time we all partake in on a daily basis, but there is a surprising lack of clarity regarding the research of its effects on our mental health…or maybe it’s not so surprising when you think about it.

The research data being generated suggests that screen time in adolescents correlates to problems in mood control, emotional understanding, impulse control, and numerous other problems. There are studies done with brain imaging that support this conclusion as well. The answer typically suggested to us is to moderate screen time more, create limits for children regarding screen time, create limits for ourselves regarding screen time. That people are “addicted” to the Internet, or to their cell phones, or to their video games or TV and need to stop. Kids need to play outside more like the old days. Seems logical, right?

There’s a problem, though. In truth, there are multiple problems with the conclusion that the answer to screen time’s negative effects is less screen time. First, a large amount of the studies being done on this subject don’t discriminate between the type of screen time and the associated problems. They don’t account for differences in screen time that are video games versus Instagram, or Facebook versus Tinder, or Sesame Street versus Jersey Shore. The data on the effect of the types of media on mental health, both developmental and incidental, just isn’t there yet.

Second, to conclude that we need to be telling adolescents/young adults/etc. that they need “less screen time” is antithetical to nearly all of the trends in our current country and global business marketplace. Staying competitive in the marketplace these days nearly requires digital sophistication and savoir faire, and directing the up-and-coming generation to spend less time honing these skills is confusing to them, especially when they know more than the older generations do about the power available to them through screen time.  Imagine telling a future author they’re spending too much time reading, or a future farmer they’re getting too dirty playing in the garden. The future for most Americans is going to involve immense time engaged in the digital world, and having the skills to operate that world are already essential skills for the modern American.

So the obvious question now is: what are we supposed to do? The obvious answer is: we don’t give up. Screen time is associated with, not causing these deficits in coping and social skills. (This doesn’t excuse internet/porn/video game/etc addictions, there is always a point at which we are overly dependent upon a mental drug and would benefit from moderating it.) The downfall for coping and social skill sets has been that their normal methods of acquisition have not yet evolved along with the technology that has also placed demands on all of us. Now of course we would all benefit from more sunlight and exercise, but we need to stop trying to demonize the technology and instead look at the opportunities for change that we missed, or could miss in the future… because like it or not, the technology isn’t going away. 

So here’s my proposition: Whether you are a kid, or an adult, or a parent, or a guardian, look at your (or your child’s) screen time as an opportunity when you can.  Look for ways it can help you learn about life, about emotions, about coping.  Be evaluative of your entertainment. The true enemy here is escapism, imagining that screen time is leaving our lives behind, not supplementing our lives as they are. When you can, ask more from yourself and others online. If you’re a parent, talk with your children about the social lessons they learn online instead of getting on them for being online in the first place. If you’re an adult or a young one, hold in your mind that your “digital self” is just your real self being projected on a bigger screen and that you are accountable for that person. The problem has been that we haven’t been taught/haven’t been teaching how to exist with a digital world, which is why it sometimes seems to have devolved into The Lord of the Flies.

If all of that seems too complicated, start with this. After 1 hour of screen time, ask yourself (or your child): “What did I learn?” Did you learn that 1+1 = 2 because of counting on Sesame Street?  Did you learn that playing Solitaire on your phone calms you down a little? Did you learn that even though they’re entertaining, maybe the people on Jersey Shore aren’t the people you’d trust with your secrets? Did you learn that you felt a sense of pride finishing higher on the leaderboard on Call of Duty today than you did yesterday? I might occasionally find things in my “Screen Time” distasteful, but as long as I can connect that reaction to who I am in real life, I am learning from it.

The First one...a bit self-indulgent perhaps...

Starting a blog feels like starting a conversation with a stranger you can’t put a face to and know nothing specific about. I’ve looked at composing this first post with a sense of anxiousness and excitement that I’m sure any reader of this can relate to, whether it is because you have also started a blog at one point in time or have just had to meet a stranger and didn’t quite know what to say.

I suppose at least one of the things I would want to know, having been the stranger reading a blog for the first time, is why? Why do what you do? Why go into private practice? And Why did you create this private practice? So I will attempt to answer, simply and succinctly, these questions now.