Kevin: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, public schools have seen a rise in student mental health concerns. Since early 2020, 70% of public schools report an increase in student requests for mental health services, while 76% saw concerns arising in staff about their students’ mental health. What are students struggling with today and why? What is emotional wellness, and how can we encourage students to find it? What roles should schools have in supporting students’ mental health? And what new resources should they provide to help all students in need? This is What I Want to Know, and today I'm joined by Mike Veny to find out.
Kevin: Mike Veny is a public speaker and author on emotional wellness and mental health. His mission is to empower young people and adults to discover the gift of mental wellness so they can experience personal growth. Mike shares his story with mental illness and speaks to students and adults on leadership, motivation, mental wellness, and suicide prevention. Today he joins us to discuss what students are struggling with and how we can support them and their mental health. Mike, welcome to the show.
Mike: Thank you for having me. And hello to your listeners and viewers.
Kevin: This is really an important show for us. In fact, we're having a couple of episodes where we're talking about the mental health, wellness, emotional wellness and well-being of students in this country, and you've dedicated your work to that. So we're going to get to it, but I always like to talk to folks about how they ended up doing what they do. And I was intrigued when I did some research on you and we looked at some of the work you've done. You were actually a musician and a drummer, and I grew up in a household where my younger brother was a drummer. And while that's a great thing to be able to do, it's not always a great thing to listen to at midnight when you are trying to sleep.
Mike: It's funny, as we're talking right now, literally three feet away from me are my drums. So, there was a part of me that was almost gravitating towards “Let me go play.” I started playing in fifth grade, and it was school band. And the reason I started playing is that it made me feel good. It felt very good to take a drumstick and hit the drum; it felt good. And at that time in my life, I was battling a lot of behavior problems, and drumming was this thing that would calm me down and center me more than anything else. So, I became a professional drummer, doing a lot of corporate work in New York City, not with any popular artists or anything. And that became my career. And nowadays, my company — we actually do corporate drumming in the workplace. So, I do team building with educators, with leadership, and it's kind of like a drum circle. I bring my drums in, everybody sits in a circle, and they play with me, and we get happy, and they pay me: that's my job.
Kevin: You mentioned earlier that when you started playing in fifth grade, you had had some behavioral challenges; when did you first realize that those challenges were something that you really had to begin to address and face up to?
Mike: It was at the end of first grade that my parents put me in Catholic school, and they put me in Catholic school with the intent on me getting strict education and better behavior. And I was told I was bad. And basically, it was a lot of angry outbursts, and to the point where I would go into rages. And I was hospitalized for the first time in a mental hospital the summer between fourth grade and fifth grade. And throughout my school years, behavior problems led me to be hospitalized in a mental hospital three times for extended periods. And, trigger warning, I'm going to say something very sensitive: I attempted to die by suicide at each time.
Kevin: And what turned things around for you? Because that's a lot to go through, Mike, at such a young age.
Mike: That's a great question because the way I see it right now is I'm still turning things around; I think it's a process. But I did have a major turning point when my mom actually found a performing arts high school for me to go to. That really changed for me. It was the end of 10th grade; I had been expelled from three schools, hospitalized in the mental hospital three times, several suicide attempts, lots of self-harm, violent at home, and on about five different mental health medications. And no school wanted me. I thought I was going to get to quit school. But my mom asked me what would make me happy. And I said, playing the drums. And no one had ever asked me that. And I was told I needed to behave and get coping skills, but no one ever asked me that. And that was a game changer because I got to do the thing that I loved.
And the arts are one of the ways that you do that, by encouraging people to get involved. It all boils down to we all are wired very uniquely. And the arts allow us to express different parts of ourselves that sometimes we might keep hidden or subdued for whatever reason. You get that kid who's really quiet all the time, but you put them in the musical, and they're the star of the show. And yeah, that's an opportunity for that. And so in a lot of schools right now, they're defunding the arts, you know, or teachers and the administration see the arts as this extra thing that's nice, and they know it's good for kids, but “let's focus on the core things.” Yes, we need to focus on that, but we also need to focus on the arts because it helps with all those other things. And it teaches young people self-care. It gives them an outlet. And that's really awesome about it.
Kevin: This idea of having a robust music arts, performing arts program, extracurricular activities, physical program: all of these things create the whole experience for young people. And you're right, that’s the challenge that school districts face. I do think, though, we're getting better at it. And you travel around the country and visit many schools, and people have warmed to your message as I understand it.
Mike: Oh yeah. I mean, I get to speak; a lot of times I do professional development for staff and faculty. The beginning of the school years sometimes, and I’m working with just administrators and my favorite: students. I get to work with the students, love them. Middle school especially, that's my favorite group. And I get to share about Transforming Stigma; that's the name of my book. And that's something that I think is so important because mental health right now is the most popular topic in the world, if you think about it.
Mike: It really is. Yet, no one wants to talk about their own. To those of you listening, do you want to talk about yours? Most people don't. So there's a stigma, and a stigma just so you know, because people throw out this term all the time: it's a mark of shame. People are ashamed to talk about it. They feel that they're bad or something's wrong with them if they are experiencing it. And I just want to let anyone know who's struggling out there: it's okay if you're struggling; it means you are human. There are two reasons that the stigma exists that I want to bring up, and I think it's very important to remember this.
One is what I call the law of confusion and frustration. We as humans don't like to be confused. We really don't. And if you think about the pandemic — let's say 20 years from now, a child comes up to you and says, we learned about 2020 in class, the pandemic. Can you tell me about it? How the heck are you going to explain 2020 to somebody? I mean, and that's one of the reasons it was so stressful because it was confusing, complex and frustrating. And mental health challenges are confusing, complex and frustrating. The other reason is that no one likes to feel like the quote-unquote “weird one.” And this starts in kindergarten when we're sitting in groups and they're calling each other weird. What we're doing is we're figuring out, starting in kindergarten, who's in the group and who's not in the group. And when it comes to mental health, we often feel that if we're struggling, we're going to be outsiders.
Kevin: You said mental health is the number one issue that's being talked about around the world, where there's a whole different dynamic with young people, where the world's coming at them fast, they don't have a chance to develop the brain the way that you know could 30-40 years ago. So, because of technology, because of social media, because of the full exposure of adult issues that are integrated into young people's minds at a very tender age, what are some of the key issues that you've seen young people struggle with as you visit schools?
Mike: Oh, I'll give you two right now. One is, when I talk about anger; anger's one of my favorite subjects, by the way. And I've learned that anger is one of the best emotions you could ever have. And it's a very useful and healthy emotion when you learn how to work with it. And I talk to kids a lot about it, because this comes up. I did a survey of teachers around the country and things they saw with their students in classrooms, and anger was at the top of the list. And one of the things I remember about being young and getting angry is I felt like the emotion would take over. Like I was the emotion, kind of like the Incredible Hulk.
And it wasn't until I became an adult and learned to be able to pause and identify emotions that I realized, no, I'm Mike, but I'm angry at the same time. So, when young people are struggling with emotions, they become so overwhelmed. They're not used to them like adults who've had the time and practice to learn, to just analyze things, and get through it. And that's one of the things that makes it difficult. The other thing is: it's not just students; it's our culture. So, the moment we finish this recording, the moment we're done and everything gets uploaded properly, chances are I'm going to pick up this device right here and if you're watching this, I'm picking up my phone or some kind of mobile device, looking at my watch. That's a cultural habit that adults are doing and our youth. And one of the reasons we do that, I think, is because we don't like to be uncomfortable with just stillness, space, maybe awkward silence.
So, the phone provides us a little bit of safety: see how many likes I get on my post or whatever. So that's a challenge. And it's not something that I necessarily see in youth; I see it just culturally throughout the world. I was talking to these educators in Wisconsin, and one of the things I reminded them, one of the best things they could do for self-care in their school community, is to be a role model. Be a role model. If you're sitting, telling your students to put away their phone, but you've got your phone on your desk and you're texting away or whatever, it's not helping. So it's really important to be a role model and take that time to look into their eyes and see their humanity, so they can learn about one-on-one conversations.
Kevin: You're so right. I think that society as a whole is now wired in every sense of the word. And we don't take time to take time. And with young people, as I said, I go back to the brain development issue. Their brains haven't developed, and they don't know how to modulate things, how to be reflective. They're more reflexive: this is what happened; I'm mad; I'm going to do something about it. And another area where this is sort of played out even more is just the suicide rate and the attempt of suicides. When you talk with young people, does that anger help drive some of what we're seeing with the suicide issue? Or the self-harm issue? Because that is a growing phenomenon that also exists in many of our schools.
Mike: Oh wow. Okay, I'm going to try to answer this as succinctly as I can here. When it comes to self-harm and suicide, I believe personally from my own personal experience and talking to others that it's a solution. We have a problem, we want a solution, we want the pain to go away, we want the numbness to stop, whatever it is. And when we self-harm, there are three reasons why people self-harm. One, to take away the pain and that's what I did when I self-harmed. The second reason people self-harm: this can actually become an addiction. And the third reason is they think it's cool. I don't know what to tell you about that one right there. But those are the reasons people self-harm, and when it comes to a suicide attempt, oftentimes it's a spontaneous decision. It's not always planned out, but it's a solution. People think it's a solution: I just need to end it all. And what we need to do better is to teach people to get in touch with their emotions and pause and articulate uncomfortable emotions and share those with others and bring it into the conversation.
Kevin: Yeah, it's interesting; a couple times now you've reminded me when I want to sort of segment out and say young people, you say, okay, it's everyone. And then I'm also struck by your reference to the fact that you told the teachers in Wisconsin they're role models. Oftentimes we do sort of, if we're an adult, we look down and say okay, what are we going to do about these young people? What are we going to do about this problem here? And the reality is that young people are a reflection of us.
Mike: Absolutely. No, I've said to these educators, and I've said this to multiple groups, our youth are more perceptive than us. I mean, think about when we were kids; we knew what was going on. They know when you're having a bad day, they know who's sleeping with who on the staff. They know that. And so you can't fake that stuff. You can't just pretend it doesn't exist and separate it. That's why it's so important to, as an educator, take care of yourself. And this is a time for educators that is so important because we've got more than 50% leaving the profession right now. I mean, this is turning into a crisis. So, it's really important that we do everything we can to support educators. And those of you that are listening who are educators, I really encourage you to double down on your self-care.
Kevin: So let me ask you about this: the phenomenon of trauma because people have mental health challenges. But then, there are also these traumatic occurrences that take place in folks' lives and a lot of young people's lives — they're bring it to school; they don't know how to deal with it. I mean, how would you recommend that people bring to the forefront some of those traumatic experiences that have contributed to some of the challenges they have?
Mike: There's a book that has taken over the world of mental health called “The Body Keeps the Score,” that talks about how we score trauma in our physical body. And trauma: sometimes people think, when they hear that word, it's like civil war in someone's life, like the worst thing possible. But no: trauma is subjective. I mean, you could have looked at me the wrong way in kindergarten, and that affected me for my whole life. And now I can't look at people or I get triggered or something like that. And that really happens. So when it comes to trauma, it's really important to do two things: to start talking in therapy and have conversations. And I encourage everyone: you can always do self-care, no matter how busy you are. And no, it doesn't have to be meditation. People hear that word and they get all freaked out like, whoa, that's a spiritual thing.
No, just fighting your mind, fighting, closing your eyes for a second. The brain is not meant to just go and go, and that's how life is set up for all of us. So I think quiet time is so important. When I started meditating, I got to really learn how to meditate about a decade ago. It was the weirdest thing, quieting my mind. It was weird because I would've never thought that was even possible. And many of you listening are thinking, how is it even possible to quiet my mind? This is why it's important that we do bring it into our personal lives and our school community. So, I absolutely agree with you on that.
Kevin: So, let me ask you about this notion of emotional wellness. You talk about it; what is that definition? And how do people get there?
Mike: That's a great question. My mission statement is to support people in discovering the gift of emotional wellness. And I got to that mission from the dark pain that I've been through with emotions. When I see my mission statement, sometimes, I'll be honest, I get angry because I'm like, I know what it's like to struggle. But emotional wellness is really about showing up for all your emotions. That's it. Showing up for them. And oftentimes it's these difficult emotions, anger, grief, and fear I talk about a lot, that people just don't want to deal with. If you don't want to even talk about — it's like that's negative if I bring up anger, grief, and fear. But those types of emotions are important emotions. It's important to learn to work with those emotions because when you do, it's a game changer. And here's an example: this goes, actually crosses over a little into emotional intelligence stuff, fear. When you don't deal with it, it becomes anxiety. You’ve got anxiety; it's going to make it worse.
But when you learn to sit with fear and feel it and talk about it with a mental health professional, it quickly transforms into vision and courage. But you’ve got to be willing to do the work. Grief is another one. It will lead to depression if you don't have it. You’ve got depression; it's going to make it worse. But when you learn to sit with your grief, as painful as this is — I know this is very painful because a lot of you out there are grieving right now — over time it will transform into joy. But you have to do the work. And anger, my favorite one of all, anger's my favorite emotion. We think of danger and hostility and violence. Those things aren't good. Anger by itself is just an emotion. And anger, when you learn to express it in a healthy way and talk about it, it quickly transforms into passion, decisiveness, and successful leadership. So, this is why emotional wellness is so important because those dark, difficult, overwhelming emotions are superpowers that people don't even know about.
Kevin: Yeah, very powerful, Mike. Going back to, we have a lot of school leaders, administrators, food district personnel, teachers that listen. What advice would you give teachers, administrators, who want to provide more emotional support for students? What are some of the things they should be doing? And what kind of environment should they be creating in the school or classroom to allow for that kind of support?
Mike: Great question. Number one, I'm going to say this over and over again, for all of you listening and watching, take care of you. Make sure you're taking care of your wellness, number one. Because no matter what tactics and tools and strategies you learn, it won't matter if you're not okay. Number two, when it comes to administrators, supporting teachers is so important right now. And I believe that administrators can do a better job of supporting teachers during this time. Teachers are overwhelmed more than ever before. And again, more than 15% are leaving the profession right now. So, things are just getting worse.
And so it's really important to eliminate unnecessary requests of teachers. And, in fact, I talk about this. I have a course on my website, a free course for principals and administrators on how to support your teachers during this time right now; it’s seven minutes long, really easy. You can totally take it even if you're busy. But it really talks about making sure that you listen to what they need and make sure you're not overwhelming them with things that are just unnecessary. That's really important right now. We all have to be role models for each other, and we all have to be willing to ask each other the uncomfortable question. Are you okay? And be willing to listen to someone's answer.
Kevin: Mike Veny, thank you so much for joining us on what I want to know. Terrific conversation, thank you.
Mike: Thank you.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Spotify or your favorite podcast app, so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. And I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know, using #WIWTK on social media, that's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit Stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous; thank you for joining What I Want to Know.
Mike Veny is a public speaker and author on emotional wellness and mental health. His mission is to empower young people and adults to discover the gift of mental wellness so they can experience personal growth.
Mike shares his own story with mental illness and speaks to students and adults on leadership, motivation, mental wellness, and suicide prevention.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.