The Accidental Ally

The Accidental Ally

I remember getting the late night phone call that two young men from the youth group I led had been arrested and put in jail. They were African American brothers who lived with their very conservative grandmother. On top of being in jail, they had also found out that their grandmother kicked them out of the house, so now they were homeless.

They had gotten into a fight at a local gas station that was racially charged, and one of them used his belt buckle as a blunt weapon defending himself. The local police department arrested them on the ambiguous charge of “Suspected gang violence”.

At the time I was pretty young, single, and lived in a rather large, church-owned parsonage. To me it made a lot of sense for these guys to have a safe spot to lay low and let things simmer down with their families. The problem was, I wasn’t family and I didn’t know how to make that happen.

So, I contacted a local attorney that I knew to take their case pro-bono. He bargained with the DA for the brothers to be under my care for six months with certain stipulations (I.E. getting a job, going to school, obeying a curfew) in exchange for their release and reduced charges.

With that started some of the most important six months of my life learning more about what it meant to be a young black teenager in a small town. I learned about systemic racism, fatherlessness, inequities in the education system, and police brutality. My life was never the same.

But, this post isn’t about that. I’ve been thinking a lot about this period in my life lately, for good reason. I’m so thankful for those months of learning and laughing with those guys. Yet there has been another question nagging me as I’ve considered race in our country – why was it so hard for them, yet so easy for me?

These guys got into a scuffle at a gas station. The video footage showed that it wasn’t much at all, but it was a fight. And it ended up with them in prison, homeless, and with multiple school suspensions. Their entire futures were put in jeopardy for a fight.

I on the other hand was living in a home, basically rent-free, that was WAY too big for me. All I had to do was make a few phone calls to find the right people to help. And for some reason, the DA considered me trustworthy enough to release them to my custody, even though I wasn’t family.

You see, the more I think about this story, it wasn’t that I was special.

I was white.

There should have been zero reason those brothers would have been released to me with such ease. Local law enforcement asked very few questions. There was no house visit. It was just a brief meeting with me, the DA, and their attorney.

For those who do not believe white privilege exists in this country, I ask you to be more self reflective. I’ve always loved thinking back on this time, but what I should have been thinking about is how inequitable everything was. Why was I so easily able to pull strings for their release, yet the hammer fell so hard on their shoulders for a mere fight?

You see, I was an accidental ally. I, through my whiteness stumbled into a situation where my whiteness was able to benefit a person of color. Yet, white privilege was so strong in my mind that I didn’t even understand the inequities I was up against, and yet still used my whiteness to get what I thought was just and right.

I write this during a time of great upheaval in this world along the lines of race. Hard questions are being asked of white people and systems that we have been ignoring for far too long. In so many areas, I’ve been an accidental ally – a white person willing to help when asked, and feel good about myself when my whiteness creates better outcomes for people of color. Most of the time I don’t even realize I’m doing it.

That is how powerful white privilege is.

In this particular story, I was merely an ally. I helped and I learned, but I didn’t use what I learned to challenge the system on behalf of my friends. Now it’s time to be less an ally, and more a co-conspirator. That is, locking arms with my friends of color and using my privilege to affect change at the systemic level.

We at Teen Life believe there is much to be done in the arena of public education in terms of race and equity. As an organization, we believe we can do better in naming race and injustice in the schools we serve and work towards better, anti-racist policies – especially around discipline, justice, and mental health. We want to do this on purpose, and with conviction.

But this is the lane we operate in. Think about where you operate and serve. What do you care about? How are the organizations you care about asking the hard questions around race and equity? How can you be asking hard questions around race and equality to affect positive change in your arena?

We would love to engage with you on this – please comment below with your response!

Chris Robey

Chris Robey

CEO

Chris has worked with teens from a variety of backgrounds for over a decade. He has a desire to help teenagers make good choices while also giving their families tools to communicate more effectively as choices are made.

The Power of Consistency

The Power of Consistency

“How’s your wife feeling?”

This question came from a 14 year old young man at a local drug rehabilitation unit where I lead Teen Life support groups.

And I was floored.

Think about it. A kid whose short life had landed him in rehab was asking about how my wife was feeling. For an adolescent to ask a question so far outside of himself in a setting that involves so much inner work was humbling.

The previous week, I had shared during our “check in” that I was a little worried about an injury my wife had sustained and wasn’t healing well. I didn’t think they were listening.

I’d say only about half or even less of my interactions with these guys seem that successful. They have it really hard, and their situations moving forward seem rather dire. A lot of the time, it just seems hopeless.

In fact, I often dread showing up to this place. It’s just one of the harder aspects of my week because I never know what I’m gonna face.

But as I have grown as a helper of teenagers, my mantra is “you will never regret showing up.”

And I never have.

Working with students is hard because it is unpredictable. Despite being prepared and ready, you never know what is going to happen. Sometimes you hit a home run, but a lot of times you strike out or just get a walk.

What we have learned from our work with students here at Teen Life over the last 11 years is the power of consistency. In a world of chaos and confusion, the steady hand is the one who makes the difference.

This bears out in life and should be instructive for those of us who face resistance: showing up is half the battle. Think about the last time you experienced significant resistance. After jumping in and facing that resistance head on, did you regret engaging with the difficult situation? Was there a moment after that you really regretted showing up?

The life of a teenager – no matter when someone experiences adolescence – is hard. And you know who is the most aware of how hard it is? Teenagers. Whether they are able to articulate the difficulty or not, they are aware of how hard things are for an adolescent.

In my experience it is rarely lost on a student when I show up in the midst of their chaos and do so consistently. I don’t always show up with the right answers, or even the right words, but my presence can make all the difference in the world – especially when it is steady.

Whatever you have committed to in your work with students, please do so with the commitment to consistency. You will never know how much impact this commitment will have.

And, you never know. They may ask you about something that is important to you – like those guys did checking in on my wife.

Chris Robey

Chris Robey

CEO

Chris has worked with teens from a variety of backgrounds for over a decade. He has a desire to help teenagers make good choices while also giving their families tools to communicate more effectively as choices are made.

3 Ways to Help Prevent Suicide

3 Ways to Help Prevent Suicide

 useRecently, I learned of a death by suicide by a prominent pastor – on the eve of National Suicide Awareness Day of all days. It was especially tragic because he was quite vocal about the topic from his writings and the pulpit, even going so far as to establish a non-profit promoting mental health and suicide prevention. He struggled quite publicly with his own depression and mental health and tried to keep the topic front-and-center, especially on social media. 

Yet, he still died by suicide. 

This was a tough one as I have a lot of friends in the clergy and have some unique insight into the stressors they face daily. I can understand the pressures that might bring someone to contemplate such a horrible outcome. But the question is, how does someone who is so vocal to the point of founding a non-profit still succumb to suicide? Is it just inevitable? Is it even preventable? 

After tragedies like this one and so many other high-profile suicides the common refrain is to urge people to ask for help or call the national suicide prevention hotline. These are definitely worthy actions to encourage. Yet, my guess is those who died by suicide likely gave that same advice at some point. 

So, are we missing something here? 

First of all, like most tragedies, suicide is not 100% preventable. Despite our best efforts, those in extreme darkness will choose this outcome no matter the best intentions of those who love them. Yet as those who love students, it would be good for us to understand what might drive someone to take their life.

Numerous studies have shown the actual act of taking one’s life comes by impulse more than we think. Often times we perceive suicide as being planned out meticulously like in “13 Reason’s Why”. Yet as survivors of suicide are interviewed, almost half in some cases report the attempt coming after a crisis less than 24 hours before. In fact, 1 in 4 survivors reported their suicide attempt within 10 minutes of the impulse!

Often these suicide attempts are aided by substance use and deteriorating mental health as well. But the bottom line is this – even though some suicides are long planned out, many more are an act of impulse in the immediate aftermath of a personal crisis!

So, as we talk about suicide, we also need to talk honestly about what is going on with the victim and what we can do to help. We need to understand that suicide can be (but not always) prevented by actual intervention on behalf of the one doing the outcry. While we can encourage the potential victim of suicide to act (i.e. ask for help, call a hotline), there are some tangible things we can do as helpers to intervene. 

• If you suspect someone might be contemplating suicide – ASK THEM. You won’t be putting any ideas into their head that are not already there.
• Never let someone you suspect is suicidal to be alone. Keep doors open and conversations ongoing.
• Remove any means that could complete suicide. Remove any guns, ammo, pills, rope, sharp objects, or anything that the potential victim could  use to inflict self-harm.

Why?
Because 90% of suicide survivors do not make another attempt! When we as helpers take basic actions like being present, asking good questions, and recognizing the impulsivity of suicide, we can save lives! 

It is time we recognize our roles as helpers to those who are genuinely struggling to find their own voice. We have a role to play for our family and friends who have lost hope. To step into this role demands courage and action. 

I highly encourage you to follow some of the research at Means Matter – a study out of Harvard working through the question of impulsivity and the means of suicide. This work has been formative for me as a helper of students to understand more tangible ways to help those contemplating suicide.

Chris Robey

Chris Robey

CEO

Chris has worked with teens from a variety of backgrounds for over a decade. He has a desire to help teenagers make good choices while also giving their families tools to communicate more effectively as choices are made.

Traveling New Roads Together

Traveling New Roads Together

Last month, I had the pleasure of training a group of college students preparing to be camp counselors. My main purpose in the training was to equip them to support kids from hard places. Many of the camps they would be doing would take them into areas of the city where behavioral issues and lack of family support would be likely prevalent.

During the Q&A session at the end, questions kept coming up about how they should handle discipline. One counselor asked, “Can we make the kids do pushups if they are misbehaving or late?”. This is a common form of discipline within sports or camps, and I have never liked it. Personally, I think it can be pretty degrading to a kid to give penance in the form of a pushup – but despite how much I despise the approach, I answered – “Yes.”

But I had a caveat.

“As long as you do the pushups with them.”

The group laughed, but the point was taken. When you make kids do pushups for misbehaving, is any connection made? Or are we further cementing our authority and power? However, when we do pushups with the kids, connection is created and there is some sense of shared responsibility.

Because if the kids are constantly misbehaving or late – does the fault completely lay on their shoulders? Or is it a power play for the adult to dish out the discipline without also taking some of the blame? 

As helpers of students, we often forget the power of vulnerability and connection when it comes to how we correct. It is much easier to point out the mistakes with our kids. It’s much harder to admit our culpability.

This concept rang true to me as I read through a recent study on teenagers and cell phone use commissioned by Common Sense Media. The main takeaway of the study showed that 1 in 3 teenagers take their cell phones to bed and report checking their phones multiple times overnight.

Simply put, this is a horrifying trend. Numerous studies have confirmed the “blue light” emitted by screens should be eliminated at least 30 minutes before bed, and cell phone be removed from the bedroom for any chance of quality sleep. Why on earth would teenagers do this to themselves?

Well, because we do. The same study reports 61% of adults check their phone within 30 minutes of going to bed. Simply put – we adults have developed some nasty habits with our devices and our kids are watching.

An interesting thought that came out of the same study showed the number of teenagers who think their parents are spending way too much time on the phone went up by 11%. But teenagers own assessment of how much time they spent on devices was more muted. While they thought their parents spend way too much time on the phone, they felt like their time was just about right.

This study highlighted how teenagers can develop really unhealthy habits and suffer loss of sleep and health as a result. As an adult it would be easy to just tell a student to not take their phone to bed. If so, prepare for a fight.

It’s like this in so many aspects of our parenting and mentoring of students. We are quick to point out their issues and tell them where they should change, but even with the lightest of scrutiny, we as adults aren’t doing much better. 

This isn’t just about cell phones and sleep. It’s how we deal with our stress. It’s how we self-medicate. It’s about our anger. It’s our discontent. Do we not realize our kids are watching us, even if they seem aloof?

This offers opportunity for connection. For example, if you know your teenager is taking their phone to bed, you likely are as well. Instead of laying down the law, why not share your own struggle and create a plan to deal with it together?

Or maybe you struggle with anger or outbursts. Maybe acknowledge that with your kid? Apologize? Even ask for help?

When we choose connection with our teenagers, we build relationship. It’s the harder road, but it is one that acknowledges our humanity as well as respects where our teenager is developmentally. 

We cannot ask our teenagers to travel roads we do not presently travel. By choosing vulnerability and connection, we choose to travel those roads together.

Chris Robey

Chris Robey

CEO

Chris has worked with teens from a variety of backgrounds for over a decade. He has a desire to help teenagers make good choices while also giving their families tools to communicate more effectively as choices are made.

A Common Sense Intervention That Saves Lives

A Common Sense Intervention That Saves Lives

Growing up in a rather sheltered environment and experiencing the “military brat” existence of moving every 3-4 years, I never really understood or heard a lot about mental health issues amongst my peers as a teenager. We didn’t watch a ton of TV or movies, and most of the music I listened to was pretty tame compared to what was out there at the time. Plus, when you move a lot, most of your time involves getting to know new people – not necessarily understanding the challenges and stresses facing your friends. I didn’t really understand what depression or anxiety looked like, nor really cared much to talk about it. I was too busy trying to keep up and worrying about myself. 

It wasn’t until I started learning how to play guitar that I heard much at all about depression and suicide. There was a ’90s Christian band called “Caedmon’s Call” that featured a dark (by Christian music standards) song called “Center Aisle” lamenting a friend’s suicide. I remember being enamored by the complexity of the chords as I was learning guitar, but I was more struck by the intense emotions of the chorus line:

 “What crimes have you committed, demanding such a penance?

Could have waited for five more minutes and a cry for help.” 

This was the first time I had ever considered that suicide could become an option for a person feeling distraught or out of options. 

It made me wonder if any of my friends had ever considered suicide as an option. While I have experienced seasonal depression, I haven’t ever gotten to the point where I wanted to end it all. But, the more I learned, the more I understood the dark places people go to when they feel there are no other options available. 

The World Health Organization estimates suicide as the second leading cause of death of people 15-19 years of age. As someone who works with and loves teenagers, that isn’t just maddening – it’s a mandate for us to take action. For those so young in life to think there is nothing else to live for is an indictment on so many things. But instead of pointing fingers, let’s look at what could be some very promising research with a surprisingly simple conclusion.

In a recent JAMA Psychiatry article, research was outlined on a study of 448 adolescents admitted to a psychiatric hospital for suicidal thoughts and tendencies. Within that group, they formed a control group (this group received no treatment other than hospitalization) and a treatment group. The treatment group was asked to identify four adults in their lives that they perceived love and support from moving forward. Those four adults were then trained in suicide education and support measures and asked to check in on the teens after they left the hospital. These adults also received coaching and support from the study writers throughout the process. 

After ten years, the study checked back in on the control and treatment groups and while statistically small, the results were impressive. The control group had 13 deaths while the treatment group only had two. When you break the numbers down, even conservatively, the death rate drops by over 50 percent! 

I have to stress again that the numbers are way too small to draw any definitive conclusions, but for me it speaks to something incredibly important about our (yours and mine) work with teenagers – ADULTS MATTER

I think this study important for the following reasons:

  1. The students selected the supportive adults
    • It is so easy to feel alone as you struggle through depression and suicidal thoughts. To be prompted to identify people who care in and of itself is a healing exercise. And by selecting these adults, a connection is made that cannot be easily broken. 
  2. The adults accept the invitation
    • No one is forcing these adults to participate. But, if a struggling teen asked you to be a part of their recovery, wouldn’t you help? 
  3. The adults learned how to support the teenager
    • So many adults feel like they know what is best for a teenager. We were teenagers once, right? But a learner is a leader in this case. The presence of an adult who is willing to do what it takes to support the struggling teenager has significant influence. 

To me this isn’t just about suicide, though if it saved more lives, I would be screaming this from every platform I have. But, if the presence of a caring, informed adult can potentially save a life, how much more can it help a struggling teenager? The life of a teenager can be overwhelming and full of pressures. If more adults looked and saw the opportunity to learn and ask good questions, imagine what an encouragement we could be! 

I encourage you to read further on this study and the implications here and consider partnering with organizations who are putting volunteers out in the field like Teen Life here

Chris Robey

Chris Robey

CEO

Chris has worked with teens from a variety of backgrounds for over a decade. He has a desire to help teenagers make good choices while also giving their families tools to communicate more effectively as choices are made.