When does it stop being a party and start becoming a problem? Is there a way to steer clear of addiction? Every Wednesday, Mike McGowan, host of the podcast "Avoiding the Addiction Affliction," explores substance use disorders with expert guests. The podcast series is sponsored by the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition.
Original cover art created by
Kelly P. of Kenosha, Wisconsin
Prevention Education Manager and Youth/Teen Advocate at Reach Counseling Services in Neenah, Wisconsin, and a Youth and Teen Support Specialist at NAMI in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley
Anna Bunker discusses the mental health crisis among young people in our country. A forty percent rise in emergency room visits for young women who have attempted suicide and a demand for mental health treatment that has not been met are indicators of a burgeoning mental health crisis for our youth. Anna Bunker is Prevention Education Manager and Youth/Teen Advocate at Reach Counseling Services in Neenah, Wisconsin, and a Youth and Teen Support Specialist at NAMI in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley. If you need help with substance use or mental health problems, help is available. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Kenosha County can be reached at 262-652-3606 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To contact the Hope Council on Alcohol & Other Drug Abuse, call 262-658-8166, or email them at email@example.com. Learn more about the agency’s services at hopecouncil.org
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[00:00:12] Mike: Welcome everyone to Avoiding the Addiction Affliction, a series brought to you by the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition. I'm Mike McGowan. Over the past couple of years, we have seen mental health concerns for young people just skyrocket. That's what we're going to talk about today. My guest is Anna Bunker.
[00:00:30] Anna is Prevention Education Manager, and Youth Teen Advocate at Reach Counseling Services in Neenah, Wisconsin. She is also a youth and teens support specialist at NAMI Fox Valley. Today, we're just going to talk about mental health and our young people. Welcome Anna.
[00:00:47] Anna: Hello. Welcome. Thank you so much, Mike. I really feel appreciated and honored to be part of this podcast today.
[00:00:53] Mike: That's nice. You know, a long title, so tell us, first of all, what you do.
[00:00:57] Anna: Yeah, absolutely. I know it is definitely a mouthful. So what I do as a prevention education manager is I go out into the Winnebago schools. So I'm in 71 schools within the county and I educate students on sexual violence. So I have a pre-K through 12th grade curriculum where I teach about different protect yourself rules, different red flags and warning signs.
[00:01:22] And then also how to help yourself and a friend, if you happen to experience abuse, um, at any point of your lifetime, or if it is something that you have experienced in the past. So just a lot of different preventative measures. Um, the more we talk about it, the more common of a topic it is, and, um, the easier it is for people to really understand and become aware of sexual violence.
[00:01:46] And then the advocacy portion is I specifically work with minors who are victims of abuse. So individuals who have been sexually assaulted or sexually abused in the past, I help them navigate their healing journey and making sure that they get the justice that they need to live well. So this may be working very closely with law enforcement. It is working closely with the medical system, any other resources in the community that they need, um, to live well. And then also, since I am working with, um, adolescents, I do a lot of school advocacy also to make sure that they succeed within that environment. In addition to that, I also, um, am right by my side as they go through courts and any proceedings, um, that they need any other interactions with other people in the community, just to make sure that their voice is heard and, um, they do get the equal amount of justice that anyone else, um, within the community has.
[00:02:48] And then for NAMI for, um, the youth and teen specialist there, it's kind of along the same lines. However, I am an advocate for mental health and I specifically run, um, the teen support groups. So that's something that I also do on a weekly basis.
[00:03:03] Mike: Okay. It's actually spend time in your support group. What, what, what are you hearing when you talk to the young people, what are you hearing about their mental health? Especially in the last couple of years?
[00:03:13] Anna: Absolutely. So, um, mental health has always been a topic, um, that youth and teens, uh, struggle to talk about. A lot of it has to do with the stigma that surrounds it. Um, it is also hard for them to come forward and talk about mental health because they sometimes feel like they are the only ones who may be experiencing it.
[00:03:34] And with the youth and teens that I have worked with over the last couple of years, especially with COVID-19, their mental health has declined. It has been hard for them to have social interactions. They are still able to keep in touch with people through digital devices, whether that's through social media or maybe FaceTime, text message, phone calls, however, um, that is still a barrier that they face as to, um, not being able to have the face to face in-person interactions does take a toll on their emotional wellbeing. Um, face to face interactions, uh, releases oxytocin, which is the happy chemical it's like that for anyone, not just youth and teens, um, and not being able to have that personable interaction with someone kind of puts some a little bit farther behind.
[00:04:26] They don't feel that connection and belonging and those strong established relationships with some other individuals. So another thing is, is having school become virtual. Uh, this year schools have gone back into in-person, but having the virtual aspect. Um, is also the disconnect between social interactions with, um, a lot of youth and teens.
[00:04:49] So there there's a couple of things across the board. Another one is probably. At social media, you look at influencers and you look at people who have these nice extravagant things, whether it is, uh, the newer iPhones or it's probably the higher technologies, or maybe they're living an extravagant life where they are traveling with their family, or maybe their family has, um, a higher um, income than what they may be living, or maybe it's the cooler clothes, whatever it is, staying up to trends that a lot of people see that and feel like they have to meet those higher expectations and not being able to, um, fit in basically, as I use quotations around that, um, it does impact their mental health because they just want acceptance.
[00:05:35] They want belonging, they want to cultivate and create those friendships. And it's just a tough age all around to be at, as they're going through all these different changes, whether it's, um, personable changes. And then also the hormonal changes that they are experiencing at that age, too.
[00:05:52] Mike: I know you work with all the kids, but you know, girls in particular, um, I know you see a lot of them and emergency room visits for suicide attempts among young women are up 40% in the last year.
[00:06:04] Um, you talked to a lot of them. I mean, what is, is that part of the reason that that's risen to is everything you just said?
[00:06:12] Anna: Absolutely. So there are probably a couple of different factors that come into, um, young females who are attempting suicide. There's probably a lot more of light that's being shined onto this topic.
[00:06:25] When you think about, um, suicide attempts and successful suicide attempts, um, it's often geared towards males because they have, uh, more access to lethal means. However gay males do lead with suicide attempts to, there are a couple of different factors. So stress is probably one of the well-known driving factors with COVID-19 there has been financial stress. There has also been, um, uh, stress, of trying to pick up different things around the household. So it may be taking care of the children by themselves, or it may be the burden of other like households, um, things that are going on. Um, It is something that there's such high demands for females um, nowadays that it's hard for them to maybe find the healthy coping strategies or the equal balance that they may need in their life to, um, live well and help manage their mental health. And, um, A positive way where maybe it can lower the risks of suicide attempts. Another thing would be maybe the access to care. So, um, mental health care and medical intervention, it is something that, um, is in such high demand right now. Um, for psychiatrists. Usually about like a six month wait for someone to come in and just see a psychiatrist. Another thing is, is that, um, with counseling centers and therapists, there is a high demand, um, of need and there's wait lists amongst us.
[00:08:02] Um, no matter where it is in the United States, it's just, um, absurd. It also comes down to when people are feeling suicidal and they're having suicidal ideations. That's usually the last result where they feel like it will solve all of their problems and they feel like that is the only solution to no longer having those really deep feelings of suicide is very much of a complicated topic.
[00:08:37] It is something that is hard for a lot of people to understand and, um, wrap their head around is just usually when there's so many different stress factors coming into someone's life. They feel like that is the simple and easiest answer to escape.
[00:08:59] Mike: I was talking to a young man, um, just last week who, um, had twice attempted to kill himself.
[00:09:06] And he said the last time that he did it, uh, was on his birthday. Or was going to be on his birthday and a simple phone call from a friend at school saying happy birthday, convinced him to do otherwise. So it kind of brings me to ask, you know, what are, what are the young people tell you about their connections with each other, but also with the other adults in their life, their parents, their teachers, um, that could serve as a support system.
[00:09:37] Are they feeling disconnected from those as well?
[00:09:41] Anna: Yeah, absolutely. So, um, kind of reflecting back to my teenage years. So I am someone who does live with a mental health condition and as I was navigating my mental health condition in high school, as a young teenager, And also dealing with those emotions. Um, I, I didn't know how to talk about it.
[00:10:03] I also didn't know the resources out there. Um, I also felt like I was a burden to other individuals and that's why I really kept it to myself. Um, nowadays the topic is. More talked about, um, it's something that a lot of communities are actively working towards to, um, break the stigma. And ultimately what I think it comes down to now that I've seen a trends with, um, the individuals I've worked with is just having the good peer support.
[00:10:35] Now it's really great to have friendships, and it's really great to have family members who are in that support circle and helping what that wraparound care. But. Having a peer support is a different type of care. It's a different type of acceptance. It's a different type of understanding because being able to connect with other individuals who have had similar struggles or may be able to relate to those feelings and emotions on a different level, um, really helps them feel like.
[00:11:04] Actually solidified them knowing that they aren't alone walking through that journey. Um, it is a lot easier to open up to someone who has had similar experiences, where they can relate to it on a different level. Now I'm going to someone and talking about different mental health struggles or feeling alone, and, um, the different battles that, um, all of us go through on a day-to-day basis.
[00:11:29] Oftentimes people don't get the response that they need or the response that they're looking for. So you may go to someone and say, you know what? I'm, I'm really depressed. I'm struggling with my mental health, or maybe I'm having some suicidal ideations the often. Um, or the most common reaction would be, um, that person reacts out of fear.
[00:11:51] Um, they also react out of like, oh my goodness, like, let's call 911. Um, they don't necessarily know how to handle those situations. Now, when talking with a peer, you get that acceptance. That's another thing that, um, a lot of people, um, need when talking about their mental health and it also offers that safe space where they don't react out of fear.
[00:12:15] They don't act out of emergency. Sometimes people just need that listening ear. Um, they don't always need that advice that people who may not live with a mental health condition might try to give
[00:12:30] Mike: Well that that would indicate that those groups that you run, uh, are really critical.
[00:12:37] Anna: Absolutely. So the groups that I run, not only is it great that we are able to offer that safe space for them to, um, talk about, um, what they're going through, whether that's something that's going on with romantic relationships, platonic relationships that may be something that's going on at home or at school.
[00:12:55] It also helps them. Um, create strong bonds and friendships with the other teens who do attend those support groups. So I have teens who attend those support groups from all over the state of Wisconsin. So it's nice for them to create those friendships and those relationships and connections with people who are in the immediate area, but also know that there's someone who may be down in Milwaukee, who may also be experiencing, um, the same um, experiences in their life or feeling the same feelings.
[00:13:26] It really just brings that overall connection of I'm not alone. There are other people struggling in my community and then other people struggling across the United States.
[00:13:35] Mike: You know, back in the day. Um, and not that long ago, there were groups in almost every school for kids to, you know, during their study hall or over the lunch period to gather together in the school with trained people.
[00:13:52] And I trained some of them to talk about some of the issues they came to school with or from home with. And those aren't nearly as prevalent as they used to be.
[00:14:03] Anna: Something that I have noticed with people that I have conversed with within school districts is a lot of those in-person groups have kind of taken a halt because of the risk of COVID-19.
[00:14:16] A lot of smaller gatherings might have not taken place. Uh, some are starting up those different clubs or those different support groups or resources within the school district. I think. Um, having those different groups within the school is extremely important because it helps connect the students with one a trusted adult with who is running that group.
[00:14:40] Um, it allows them to be vulnerable with other individuals within the school also. Having connections within a school. And also outside of a school are extremely crucial because they're in school five days a week. Um, it may be eight to three, whatever the school hours are, but they aren't always in school.
[00:15:01] Those friendships that they also create in school are friendships that they can take outside of school, they can see those. Um, individuals outside of school hours, they may see them on the weekends. They can also have, um, communication with those individuals if they are struggling, I wish more schools took the time to create those different groups, because if I had a group like that, when I was in middle school or high school, that would have benefited me so much to feel like I wasn't alone. And I was the only individual struggling with my mental health that I desperately needed um, to talk about my mental health. I desperately needed people to hear me. I desperately needed that acceptance and the understanding of mental health. And that's also something that I see across. Uh, the teams that I work with is they don't feel heard enough and they don't feel understood and they feel like they have nowhere else to turn. And sometimes. They feel like they don't know how to help themselves. And no one is necessarily really taking the time to help them with their mental health. And that's something that they need. They're adolescents. They can't do this alone.
[00:16:10] Mike: Let me, let me ask you first about you and then about the kids that you see. So when you were in middle school and high school, since you talked about this, um, what finally worked for you?
[00:16:20] And, um, if, if you ended up seeing somebody on meds and got on a med, how much did you have to juggle that before you found something that worked? Um, and then what do you also find works with kids nowadays?
[00:16:35] Anna: Yeah. So when I was in middle school and high school, I didn't necessarily know what resources were available. I didn't feel comfortable going to the school counselor. It was something that, uh, I, I truthfully don't know why it was something that I just didn't feel comfortable going to. Um, I thought it was weird that I would see them on a day-to-day basis. I would see them in the hallway. They would know all my issues and all my troubles. and I didn't feel comfortable disclosing that to them, although I really did struggle with my depression and my anxiety. Uh, my primary care provider was able to prescribe me medications, um, in middle school that I was able to start taking to help manage that. I also saw a counselor outside of school to help manage, um, my diagnosis and things were going okay. It was something that I still suffered with eternally. I definitely had my ups and downs. I had days where I was living well on the days where I couldn't even get myself out of bed to go to school. What really helped me and what helped me figure out and navigate my journey through my mental health is. When I went, um, I graduated high school and started taking classes in college. I was able to connect with different individuals who had different backgrounds than me, and being able to relate to these individuals with different backgrounds. It created the safe, vulnerable place where we were able to also talk about our different struggles. And that's what made the peer connection. I was talking to my employer. I worked at the college that I went to and they encouraged me to touch base with NAMI Fox Valley. And this is how I got involved with NAMI. I started a club on campus, but being able to start that club on campus was what really drove me to see other people living well and having those pure connections and knowing that there are other people who live with mental health diagnoses while they're there, they may be hiding a little bit, or they may not necessarily be more comfortable talking about it. But I also took that as an opportunity to show people and educate people the most important part about being open and vulnerable about your mental health. It's not only is that helping you share your story. It's also helping other people navigate their own journey and knowing that you aren't alone.
[00:19:05] So truthfully it wasn't until college that, um, I started taking initiative to help my mental health. Yeah, sorry. There was another portion of that question.
[00:19:17] Mike: That was pretty good. That's what I wanted to ask you. But so with the kids today, then what do they tell you works because we're, you know, everybody's stories like, well, what do we need to do? You know, there there's all these schools that are talking about trauma, sensitive schools and making people aware. And, you know, there's a school I was in recently where they put dots by kids' names, whether they had a relationship with them, not an uncommon thing for them to do. Well, most of the teachers asked for more dots and it's like, well, hold on a minute, because I don't think kids always feel that connection to the adults.
[00:19:50] And as you know, especially as you said, they see them every day. So what do they tell you? They need.
[00:19:56] Anna: Teens have different needs. Each teen has a no person is the same. No need is the same. Every single person has different interests. Every single person has more of a self centered focus for their own mental health. And I have seen a different things such as needing, um, a healthier environment at home.
[00:20:21] It may be feeling lost with their own identity. It may be. The bullying that they're experiencing at school, there is so many different factors that are coming into teen's mental health, where they have different needs and these different needs look different. It may be connecting with a teacher who shows them how capable and how brilliant and how loved they are. Now at home maybe it's just finding acceptance within those family members. Then maybe it's holding a safe, healthy relationship with their parents, or maybe it's whatever guardian that they are currently with now. Um, let's say it's something that, uh, Maybe it's a team and I have worked with multiple teams who are part of the LGBTQ plus community, and them also trying to find their own identity while they're navigating other journeys of their life.
[00:21:21] I think a lot of teens would benefit from mentors who have gone through similar experiences because with these different mentorships, it helps them know that there is a future for them, especially if they are struggling with suicidal ideations, uh, that mentorship can also share their personal experiences and what helped them during their time.
[00:21:48] And also what someone who lived through the similar experiences. So they're able to relate on a different level. Now, other teens may express, you know what, maybe they just need to be part of, maybe they need to come up with some coping strategies such as maybe journaling or exercise, um, and maybe doing an art or craft.
[00:22:09] Um, some of those types of needs may meet uh, some of their mental health struggles, but sometimes teens don't need that. There's a lot of different foundational aspects that come into place with what teens need and what teens want. Um, I don't think there's one consistent answer with what I have worked with, with teens.
[00:22:36] Mike: That's great. Because sometimes when I work with parents, they're looking for one answer because sometimes kids aren't it's it's, you know, try it, throw it against the wall, see if it sticks, you have to sometimes be patient. You mentioned relationships before, when I do talks at schools, it's not unusual for kids to come up and talk to me about relationships and especially abusive ones, whether it's somebody at home, an adult with her home or in a dating relationship? Well, how okay. If you're growing up that way, how do you learn a healthy relationship?
[00:23:06] Anna: Yeah. So a lot of this also comes back to monkey, see monkey do, if there is an unhealthy relationship, uh, that is being expressed, uh, within their home environment or someone that they're very close with, that is the type of love that they know. That is the type of love that they have grown up with and that, uh, relationship bleeds into other relationships that, that individual is going to hold in their life. Whether that teen is holding a platonic relationship, or maybe it is a romantic relationship. Those healthy relationship boundaries and things that they should know. Um, aren't something that teens aren't always aware of. So now with my position, as the prevention educator, I'm able to go out into schools and educate them on different, healthy relationships. So there's different types of abuse. It might be verbal abuse. It may be emotional abuse. It may be physical, or it may be sexual abuse and all these different types of abuse coming into adolescent's or, or the teen's life. Um, that is what they know. They may not know anything else. And if they don't know anything else, how are they able to get the resources and the education and the knowledge to change those unhealthy behaviors? So some of the things that, um, I teach one of the biggest things that I, uh, teach would be, um, setting up boundaries and making sure that respect is the number one thing that is the same across the board. And offering a safe place meeting those emotional needs of that individual, who they're holding the relationship with. Offering that support system, whether that is just being a good friend or being on the side, saying, you know what, I'm here when you're ready. And not everyone needs that support all the time, but just being by their side is extremely important. Um, with sexual violence, another one is practicing, um, safe sexual interaction. So there are a lot of different things that come in to holding a healthier relationship and something that I wish was taught more in school is these different types of abuse and, uh, generational trauma that comes into how these relationship trends are bleeding into their offspring and how we can change those relationships because relationships are something else that is important to our lives. If we don't have a healthy relationship. It also affects our mental health and other aspects of our life.
[00:25:48] Mike: Yeah. And that, that also, I didn't want to, you know, you also work with human trafficking and it would seem that in all of the things you just talked about sets you up pretty poorly to be taken advantage of.
[00:26:05] Anna: Yeah. So let's talk about youth exploitation a little bit. So something that teens look for, whether it is in family relationships, platonic or romantic relationships, society, a lot of them want acceptance and they want to be wanted. They want those needs to be filled. These are needs. It's not a want, it's a need for these individuals to have their emotional needs met. And when it comes to youth exploitation, it often comes down to grooming and with grooming, it is often someone who has a higher power or authority of that minor and they come in and they start building a relationship with that person. And the relationship that is built often has to come down to different needs and wants that that minor is not getting from other relationships or other family members.
[00:27:07] Let's say they come from a low income family and they don't have clothing. They don't have the best shelter. They don't have the access to food that they may want. So there are different components that come in where that person who is grooming the minor starts being able to provide. The minor with those things, maybe it is the newest Xbox or it may be trendy clothing, or it could be even the newest cell phone, oftentimes that a groomer who's coming in and working with the minor and trying to build that trust and relationship, they are providing those different needs and wants because that's, that's what wins them over. And, um, being wanted by someone is something that also feels really good and they might not be able to identify those grooming methods within that, uh, relationship. For us adults, it's very easy to notice those red flags. There's an alert that comes on. We're like "this interaction is not right". This minor, uh, may be at risk of being trafficked. And oftentimes it just comes down to the youth wanting to be accepted. They want to be wanted. And it's also, the groomer is filling different needs that they, um, they might have, whether that's emotional or materialistic.
[00:28:37] Mike: And if we take care of our mental health needs and those of our child. There to a much less risk for all of the things we talked about today.
[00:28:47] Anna: Absolutely. Mental health is one of the most important, um, things that are..., I'm trying to think of how to word this properly. Without mental health there is no health. You often talk about physical health and how you can take your physical health such as eating or exercising.
[00:29:09] It is seeing the doctor on a regular basis to make sure that, um, everything is going well within your body. Oftentimes, uh, mental health is something that is pushed to the side and it's something that comes together with when we have a good mental health state, whether that is, if you live with a mental health diagnosis or no mental health diagnosis, it really cultivates the, the basis of living a healthy life, a happy life, a successful life.
[00:29:41] And I wish it was something that was talked about more to the point where people felt that it was, it's just as important as any other need or important. So we talk about, um, and today's life with, uh, what's going on.
[00:30:02] Mike: That's a great place to leave this. Anna, I really appreciate your time today and your work. Thanks for joining us.
[00:30:08] Anna: Thank you so much. Thank you so much, Mike. I really appreciate you taking the time for me to come on to this platform and also share my expertise.
[00:30:16] Mike: Thanks. And for those of you listening, you know that there are always links to mental health and substance use resources on the podcast website. Thank Anna for being with us today and invite all of you to listen again next time, when we discuss more issues around substance use and mental health disorders, we look forward to sharing the air with you then until then stay safe and please take care of yourself.
[00:30:38] [END OF AUDIO]
The Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition’s mission is to support networking, encourage education, explore gaps, and realize solutions to improve treatment and reduce alcohol and other drug abuse in our community with a primary focus on families.