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An Interview with Marianne Kuzujanakis M.D.: End of the Year Reflections

Dec 10, 2018 by

Reassure children that there are vastly more loving and caring people in the world than those who inflict pain and sorrow.”  Marianne Kuzujanakis M.D.

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

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1) Dr. Kuzujanakis , as we approach the end of the year, invariably we reflect back on the good, the bad and the sad. Your first reflections on this past year?

At the year’s end, we seek perspective and balance. Too often our vision is clouded or biased by 24/7/365 news outlets and social media. The first step is to unplug and get involved in positive and personal experiences. The world is complex, and while not all issues are easily understood nor solved nor with absolute fairness to all, we each have inside of us the tools needed to grow our own personal emotional gardens. We’ve grown weary of endless wars in foreign lands, the tragic violence in our own cities and towns, and the ongoing virulent politics. But we each have the ability to choose to change our perspective. Anger and hate are contagious, but so is love and compassion. Over this past year the growth in the practice of paying forward and the increase in diversity initiatives are examples of sharing community compassion. We can practice compassion each day. Winston Churchill once said “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” There are countless ways to share compassion and love. Make a point to do one good deed each day, however small, and by doing so not only will you enrich the lives of those around you, but your own life will be equally enriched. Make a point to truly “see” others as extensions of one’s self, each comprising one of a myriad of facets making up the whole jewel of humanity. We became caught up this year in identity politics, a movement whose underlying concept was to rightly bring voice to the voiceless and equality to those who have long suffered without it. However, in the process, we may have greatly oversimplified the richness and diversity of humanity itself. People are wildly unique and should never be reduced into demographic boxes. Young children naturally understand this, embracing everyone with equal affection and interest. Adults can re-learn much from watching young children, embracing their own inner child, and living compassionately by avoiding the pre-judgment and the compartmentalizing of others.

2) While holidays are a special time for some, they are a sad time for others. Can you put things in perspective for us?

Holidays can be brutally difficult times for families who have lost loved ones. This is especially true if the loss occurred just before the holidays, as well as unexpectedly. Holidays are also extremely difficult for those suffering from loss of homes through financial issues or natural disasters, or if parents are going through divorce, or in the event a family member is in the hospital for the holidays. Each of us carries with us a lifetime of memories, both good and bad, many of these memories sharpest during holiday times. It’s not easy to embrace this time of year if one’s memories are punctuated by sadness. This is a time to establish traditions however difficult it may seem that can carry you from one holiday to the next. These traditions can build new memories to cherish and also embrace positive memories of family and friends who are no longer among us. Decorate, cook together, sing songs, tell stories, and look at old photographs. Traditions need not be religious, and can also include opportunities to distribute gifts for the homeless or hospitalized, work at soup kitchens, donate to meaningful causes, participate in a community cleanup day, or sing carols at nursing homes. Or simply be a friend to someone you’ve just met, or someone who lives alone. Perhaps some of you may choose to consciously smile and share a good word for everyone you see. These are special moments and practices that ground us and reveal our humanity. If family does not bring about warm memories, and instead painful ones, seek out friends with whom to establish new traditions. Holidays are the classic time for connecting with others, and it’s important to do whatever you can to be open to making these personal connections. This means sharing a moment with people often overlooked, people who work every day to keep your town save, your children educated, your stores thriving, and the mail delivered. No one can know the pain in a stranger’s heart, so adding to someone else’s joy (and modeling this behavior for children) by even a simple gesture is a first step to spreading a new tradition and sharing in our united humanity.   

3) Your comment above about reassuring children that there ARE good caring, loving, compassionate people in the world touched my heart. It seems that we need to be reminded of this fact. As we enter a new year- what kinds of mental health issues need to be addressed?

The holidays are a time when, even in the best of circumstances, the hectic schedules and responsibilities can cause much stress. For some, this stress leads ultimately to joy as the culmination of efforts results in a happy celebration with friends and family. For others, the hectic time and hyper-commercialism of the holidays leads to cynicism and frustration. Still others find themselves alone, lonely, emotionally hurting, or ill, and unable to focus on what should be the positives of the season. While suicides are statistically (yet counter-intuitively) lowest in winter while highest in spring, being lonely or ill during the holidays can lead to or worsen ongoing depression. Perfectionism as well as its accompanying anxiety about holiday preparations are common, and can be addressed by mindfully realizing that perfection is an unachievable and unrealistic goal. Most children are excited by the holidays, having time off of school, and thinking about the upcoming family celebrations. But over-excitement and the commotion of parties can lead to anxiety. Those children with sensory issues can become easily overwhelmed and anxious in the face of holiday lights, family traditions, smells, foods, voices, music, and lack of sleep. But other children may find themselves alone or without obvious reasons for celebration and are sad, or ill, or missing the routine and safety of school, while now trying to cope in difficult situations. During the holiday seasons remember that not everyone may live comfortable and happy lives, and reaching out to make others’ lives even a little brighter can do much to minimize the stress and pain of this time of year. At the very least, every child deserves a special gift and belly-filling warm meals at this time of year, and donating time and/or money to related causes can help towards making this a reality. The period after the holidays can also cause stress, with some students worried about going back to school, while some families find themselves having great difficulty saying goodbye to visiting loved ones. Those without positive holiday experiences may now reflect on the coming year with sadness and lowered expectations. Remembering that in difficult times to always look for those with helping hearts can lessen the transitions of the season. Keep your own eyes and hearts open to opportunities to lessen someone else’s emotional load. Be equally open to accepting help when you yourself are in need. Compassionate and loving people are everywhere and often found in unexpected places. Given the chance, people have the capability to be awesome. We see this over and again in times of disasters and crises. Throughout the season, and into the New Year and beyond, practicing self-care, mindfulness, and compassion for others (and teaching students to do the same) are powerful approaches to leading less stressful lives and growing happiness.

4) School shootings seem to have caused a good deal of anxiety and apprehension for many children AND teachers.  What can the typical teacher or parent say to their child or students?

School shootings have devastated local communities and families. Due to 24-hour news cycles that repeatedly relive each event, the feelings of being unsafe across the U.S is amplified. Advocating for safe schools is a top priority. But perspective is needed to reassure students that they are safe. Educators are also often overworked with the many other complex concerns of each student that they serve. Balance again is required to address local concerns as well as individual students needs, while also having educators take care of their own emotional needs. Both educators and parents can help alleviate the growing anxieties of students in a number of ways. Limiting exposure to news broadcasts is especially crucial, as elementary students as well as older students can sometimes have difficulty processing the events as singular or newly re-occurring in a 24-hour news cycle. Each viewing of such a traumatic event can cause anxiety and affect the brain of students, thus directly affecting thinking and emotional responses. The same occurs with fictional violence, so it’s important to also protect children from violent movies, television programs and video games. Tell students that it’s perfectly normal to feel afraid, and that adults also experience fear, and share with the student that it isn’t childish to feel that way. Reassure the student that while the media speaks often about school shootings, that in fact school shootings are, in reality, rare. Tell students the educators and administration are doing everything to make sure the student’s school remains a safe and loving place for learning and growing. Ask students if there is something they would like to do to help feel part of the solution, whether art or activism, or reaching out to other students in compassionate ways. Keep a line of communication open with parents, who are themselves as fearful if not more so than students. Provide counseling to any and all students, and be keenly aware that many students have experienced (and/or continue to experience) painful and often unspoken violence in their own lives. No one should feel unsafe in schools, in their homes, or in their neighborhoods. Make a point to know each and every student in your classes, and be aware of their home situations. Some may have parents fighting in our foreign wars. Some may have lost a parent or sibling, or are stressed by family illness. Some may be living in a shelter, or suffer with food insecurity. Some may be witness to domestic or neighborhood violence. To these children, any additional stress may be more than they can handle. Pay attention to distracted students, who may not be suffering with a learning or complex mental health disorder, but may be deeply suffering for other reasons needing clarification, compassion, and care. Tell children, in as many words, that you will protect them. Be an example of a helper. Inspire students to learn to self-advocate, and in the process they can also become compassionate of others. Teach mindfulness as a regular part of education. Teach parents that children can change the world.

5) What have I neglected to ask, or what would you like to add ?

The holidays encompass many differing religious and non-religious festivities, and thus not everyone actually celebrates Christmas. Still, there is much to be gained by every child in watching some of the old holiday Christmas specials. For example, Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer is a story of overcoming bullying, while holding true to one’s real self, which in the end results in a community celebration of diversity. Frosty The Snowman is a story of living mindfully, cherishing each moment, and appreciating seasons as one example of the many cycles of life. In The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, we are amused by the creative rhymes, while all the while sharing a universal tale of redemption and forgiveness. Charlie Brown’s Christmas, while the most religious of these animated programs, need not be watched with religion in mind. This is a story covering many themes, among them friendship, the heart’s wisdom, and the true value of things. These themes resonate with a quote from the book The Little Prince (by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry): “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Positive holiday programs such as these can add to family traditions and instill important personal values. In the process, watching holiday programs together provides important family time to share and celebrate this season with compassion and love…and “seeing” with one’s heart.

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