This column is part of an ongoing series by USA TODAY Opinion exploring the mental health crisis facing Americans.
When I was 11 years old, I saw my entire world get ripped apart. It started off as a normal day at school. Then, in mid-morning, my teacher announced that we would see a movie. I was excited. Who didn’t love the chance to watch movies in school?
The room got dark, the projector clacked to life and the big numbers started counting down: 9, 8, 7, 6 …
What came next was a massive explosion. The sound shook my body as I sat in my seat.
My eyes were riveted to the screen, but I can remember only a few of the horrors that flashed before us: blaring sirens, cities reduced to rubble, screaming mothers with babies crying in their arms, spattered blood and camera pans over endless fields of destruction.
Opinions in your inbox: Get a digest of our takes on current events every day
It was a training film about the dangers of nuclear war – a real concern in 1956, at the height of the Cold War. But a fifth grader didn’t often dwell on such things. I had never seen anything so horrible, and it looked so real. At the end, a deep voice warned us: “This is what will happen when there’s an enemy attack.”
When the lights came on, it was time for lunch. In those days, we were allowed to go home to eat, and I ran home as fast as I could. I called my mom at work and was still shaking as I told her, “Mommy, come home quick! We’re all going to die!”
Existential dread and trauma
We all know how magical a child’s imagination can be – the wonderful worlds they create in their minds. But there’s a flip side to the joyful creativity that can turn a big cardboard box into a spaceship. A child’s mind exposed to real-world fear, without the ability to properly process it, can go down dark passages leading to nothing less than existential dread.
Generations of children have had to face this dread in many forms: The kids who watched the Challenger space shuttle disaster on live television in the 1980s; young people who saw America come under attack on 9/11; and particularly in the COVID-19 era, where children, their parents and their grandparents are all under real and immediate threat from a plague that has killed millions and isolated so many from the friends, family and support structures that all humans depend on for perspective, encouragement and love.
Columnist Steven Petrow:I suffer from depression and anxiety. Our mental health is no joke.
I was lucky in many ways. In the 1950s, I had a mother who was able to leave work immediately, come home and explain to me that the Soviets really weren’t going to bomb us because nobody wants to commit mass murder. (She then got on the phone to the school board and scolded them for needlessly terrifying 11-year-olds.)
Rationally, I could understand her explanation. But the dread lingered. It had entered my consciousness and found a home. For years afterward, every time I heard the siren from a police car or fire truck, I would – at least for a split second – seize up and want to curl into a ball and wait for oblivion.
Even in high school, I’d hear a siren in the morning and be too terrified to go to school that day. This was a specific trauma that affected me, but it was a collective trauma, too – an entire generation of American children was, in some form or another, taught to think of nuclear holocaust as a real threat.
Tools to deal with dark side of trauma
Many years later, I immediately recognized the seeds of another collective trauma on a beautiful day in September when planes came out of the clear blue sky and crashed into buildings.
I was a very different person then. In a material sense, I had everything I could have wanted, including a successful career and a wonderful family. I also had achieved much greater mental peace, having worked with therapists for several years, since my early adulthood.
I had learned a lot about how our brains work, and how to make them work with us instead of against us. In that moment, though, I was once again that little girl shaking uncontrollably as images of death and destruction played out. I reached for something that gave me comfort: my knitting needles. As I started stitching away, I started thinking, too.
Teenage mental health crisis:I’m not counting on my anxiety ever going away
I knew the trauma this event would touch off in all Americans, but especially young people. I knew what that felt like, deep in my bones. If I could help protect one kid, or a couple kids, or a dozen, or a hundred from that trauma, I knew that was what I had to do. In the wake of 9/11, I got to work on that dream. Kids shouldn’t have to wait until they’re teens or adults, like I did, to learn about how the brain works.
That began my two-decade journey to understand the recesses of the mind and to give kids the practical tools to deal with its dark side – the side unleashed when young girls develop body issues after scrolling through Instagram, or young boys get bullied on the playground, or just the daily stress of trying to achieve and keep up with peers.
I talked to educators and scientists to develop a curriculum for students to help them understand the complex chemical reactions that drive emotions such as stress and anxiety, happiness and fulfillment, and when necessary, regulate them.
We found the best research to guide our methods. We work with the top academic institutions to develop curriculum and teaching guides used by more than 7 million students in 18 countries.
We share ideas like “brain breaks” to encourage kids to stay in touch with what’s going on in their mind – the good and the bad – so they know that their brain is their friend. And if they don’t get along with that friend sometimes, if it says things that make them feel bad, that’s OK too – and we help them work through that.
COVID has left kids fearful, uncertain
Today, we are in the midst of a national trauma that could very well surpass 9/11 and approach the heightened terror of the Cold War years. The COVID era has changed our children’s lives in far more real, tangible ways – social distancing, school closures, daily mask use.
Kids are afraid of people, spaces, even the air around them – a level of constant fear not seen in decades. In early 2021, emergency room visits in the United States for suspected suicide attempts were 51% higher for adolescent girls and 4% higher for adolescent boys, compared with the same time period in early 2019.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. surgeon general and the American Academy of Pediatrics all agree that the state of our children’s mental health is now at the level of a national emergency.
This tells us that as a nation, we have failed our children. The few federal and state dollars that get directed to youth “mental health” invariably end up being earmarked for addiction and “crisis care,” addressing only the most severe disorders. There are modest funds once a kid ends up in a hospital. But what about before?
We are not properly funding preventive care and early interventions that normalize the mental struggles every individual has at some level. There are everyday tools for mental fitness, just as there are for exercise and healthy eating; we just don’t teach them in any systematic way to our nation’s children.
Helping children understand the chemical reactions that occur in their mind when they scroll through TikTok or listen to the latest horrifying statistic or headline on the evening news gives them the patience and confidence to put things in perspective, rather than fall victim to the emotions of the moment and end up in a helplessness that leads to depression and sometimes self-harm, the kind we are seeing in record numbers among children.
Columnist Connie Schultz:A lot can go wrong, but humor, how-to videos and plants can help
We live in the golden age of neuroscience. For the first time in human history, we are unlocking the secrets of the brain, and we can apply those lessons to help the people who are suffering the most: our kids.
They don’t need to be over-diagnosed or shuffled through a system that screens and treats extreme cases after they are too late. When I saw those images of nuclear holocaust, I didn’t need a hospital visit. I needed someone to talk to, someone who could help me reason and harness the emotions that had almost immobilized me.
We now know those feelings are present in our kids – in many cases, festering until they break out in fearful, sometimes violent ways.
We will survive the COVID-19 pandemic, but I’m not sure we can survive an entire generation whose collective trauma sends them hobbling into adulthood. We need more research, more preventative care and more early intervention. And there’s still time.
If we get it right, today’s kids could emerge as the strongest generation America has ever produced.
Goldie Hawn is an Academy Award-winning actress, producer, director, bestselling author and children’s advocate. She also is the founder and CEO of MindUP for Life, the signature program of The Hawn Foundation, a public charity with a mission to equip children with the social and emotional skills they need to lead smarter, healthier, happier and ultimately more productive lives.