Jon Mattleman is the Massachusetts clinical director of Minding Your Mind, an organization that provides mental health education to adolescents, teens, and the adults in their lives. With over 35 years as a therapist and presenter Jon grounds his work in delivering tools and techniques that can be implemented in real time to make meaningful change. He holds a BA from Clark University, and an MS in counseling from the University of Hartford. In addition to his work with minding your mind, john continues with private practice to offer presentations, consultations and consulting services. We spoke last week. This is an excerpt from our conversation, which you can hear in its entirety on the Embark podcast. embarkthepodcast.com.
LS: So how are you doing? I’m pretty anxious these days, and probably not alone.
JM: We’re in a unique period of time…inundated constantly with these huge stressors. And it seems to be increasing by the day.
LS: What are you seeing among teens, your primary constituency?
JM: A quick statistic: 25% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 considered suicide during COVID. The CDC said 31% of Americans nowadays say they have anxiety. So, we have teens with a highly reactive brain. And we know special teen populations have been very impacted. Anyone who has any kind of disability or special needs, or for anyone who has a specific challenge, like an eating disorder, especially young people, this has been incredibly challenging.
LS: What is anxiety, and what are typical symptoms? What are some of the special circumstances around Covid?
JM: One of the mistakes we make [about anxiety] is either you have it or you don’t. There are gradations of it. Let’s take OCD, for example, obsessive compulsive disorder. We need to be a little OCD now to wash our hands. But if I’m doing that 50 times an hour, that is beyond what is healthy. Now [after Covid] …a lot of people will have PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of that will be short lived, when we get back to whatever our normal lives will be. But you know, there’s no timeline for the virus, there is no timeline around Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some people will be retriggered by a sight, a sound, a smell, even the word Corona. It’s going to be very dramatic.
LS: How do we recognize [anxiety]?
JM: They are some signs — feeling powerless, but we’re all feeling powerless. Having trouble concentrating. I tend to look at the behavior. I think of it like an iceberg. You might see a behavior in yourself or your child, or your teacher, student, you know, someone who was very negative, someone who’s defiant, someone who has outbursts, someone who has sleep issues. When I am anxious, I over plan. And there’s a reason for that. I’m trying to control my world. Anxiety really is about we can’t control things.
LS: What do you do with the person who doesn’t realize that they’re anxious?
JM: In our culture, we are so good from the neck down. Can you imagine if you broke your leg and you waited two days, two months, two years, or never to get hell? That’s ludicrous. We don’t do that in our culture. But that’s what we do around issues like depression and anxiety. We wait those two days, two weeks, two months, two years, or typically never. There’s the issue of shame and stigma. And when you think about it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially when I tell you that 31% of people now say that they have anxiety, that’s like a third of the people in this country. Wow.
LS: Doctors can prescribe an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication. And then we start using other types of substances like alcohol, and I have nothing against alcohol. But these days, how much of a help or deterrent is alcohol to managing that anxiety?
JM: When people are stressed out, they’re going to gravitate towards something that’s easy. It gives us something that gives us some immediate gratification. But the reality is that doesn’t help us in the short term really, beyond, you know, a couple hours or certainly in the long term. And it takes some courage and it takes some grit to say, ‘you know what, I’ve got a problem. I’ve got to do something about it.’ One of the best things we can do for self-care is actually incredibly accessible and free, and that’s taking a walk. But we’re not really so good at doing that so we have to learn that. The final thing I’ll say about that is, whatever gave you gratification or was your self care in the past, may not be accessible right now. You can’t go to the gym safely. You can’t go to a movie theater. So, we really have to learn what is working for us now. And then we have to use them.
When I am feeling anxious, the very first thing I do, I make my bed in the morning, made my bed. It’s accomplishable. It has a beginning, middle and end. The next thing I really encourage people to do is to give up perfection, The happiest people I know, live in the moment.
LS: One of the talks that you give one of the presentations is called generation anxiety. And I’d love to hear more about that. Are you still presenting it as this is going on? And what’s the feedback that you’re getting?
JM: This is the most anxious generation. And part of that is we have a more anxious 24-seven world, and part of it is now we’re talking about it more. But we know that this anxiety is crippling some people. It’s taking away some enjoyment from other people. And then when anxiety is out of control, it competes with almost anything else– an academic challenge and athletic challenges, social challenge — it almost always wins. That’s how powerful anxiety is. And that’s why parents need to really focus on this, dealing so they know how to respond [to their child] in helpful ways. They can also model good behavior.
LS: Do you see any rise in anxiety or stress or depression, because of the internet because of social media?
JM: You know how people used to bully during lunchtime and recess? [Social media] is the new place to bully, and people feel emboldened to do that sort of thing. We know that to be true. And we know the more time [spent] online correlates with more anxiety. But again, it’s more what we’re doing. And when kids are online for school all day, they want some sort of relief.
LS: These times are challenging for anybody. For people who do not have the means or access, [to professional counseling] what resources are available for people who are going through atraumatic time, or maybe even a time of crisis? Where can people find a qualified therapist?
JM: In the Massachusetts area, there are lots of cities and towns that subscribe to the William James interface. And if your town subscribes to that, you all you have to do is contact them and let them know your insurance, the issue, you know, whether it’s yourself or a child, and that is their job to find a therapist for you. And they’re excellent at it. So that is certainly a resource that every parent in Massachusetts should know about.
We’re lucky in Massachusetts, relative to some other states, we really offer a lot of resources. And even with that, you know, we’re not reaching everyone. There are resources like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, an 800 number, or the text line. [Regardless of where you live] you can research what resources are available and have them help you with that. Because that’s what they do.
Learn more about managing mental health in uncertain times, visit mindingyourmind.org
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255
National Alliance on Mental Illness – call 800-950-NAMI, or visit nami.org