Struck By Living

Coping with depression and living life to the fullest.

Watching Out for the Gorilla

Open-ended questions with teens reveal unexpected answers

Monday morning my local NPR station (KERA 90.1) played a story "Why Seeing (The Unexpected) Is Often Not Believing" http://www.npr.org/2011/06/20/137086464/why-seeing-the-unexpected-is-often-not-believing. Psychologists Chabris and Simons conducted an experiment on inattention for two years. Participants were asked to jog down a path, remaining focused on the jogger in front of them. Both in light and in night hours, Chabris staged fights near the path to see if the participants would notice. The results were astounding. Only 33% noticed anything at night, 40% in broad daylight. These two psychologists conducted another famous experiment with basketballs and a wandering gorilla http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo. Both these experiments suggest that we overlook obvious things, especially if we are focused on a task.

In our search for the best method for obtaining and maintaining mental health, most of us miss the gorilla, me included. I experienced my own version of unintentional blindness last week with my teenage son.  Thursday night I returned from a conference on suicide prevention. My son met me with the hostile curtness parents of teens dread. Mom, back off, he snarled with a look that could melt steel. Normally, my son is a great kid. Happy, smart, funny, good-looking - okay I'm completely biased. But Friday I almost got a plane ticket to head back out of town. I complained mercilessly to my husband Ken when he returned from a business trip Friday night.

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Sunday, when Ken and I took our son to camp, we casually asked him about some friends from a program he took last summer at UCLA. Our son had two roommates - one from Tokyo and one from Oakland.  Do you ever hear from those guys? Our son volunteered that he'll probably see the one from Tokyo this summer. And the one from Oakland? He killed himself three days ago. Hung himself in the closet.

How did I miss that one? It didn't bother me that my son didn't volunteer the information. I remember being 16. I kept plenty of things from my mother; every teen does. Strangely enough I did not connect the dots between my son's cranky behavior and his friend's death. After my son passed through security, Ken suggested, "Maybe that's why he was such a jerk to you." The gorilla stared back at me, pounding his chest. The situation made me wonder how many times I'm focusing on mental health and suicide prevention and I miss the gorilla in my own life.

My life, like many lives today, is filled with a lot of noise and to dos.  This experience made me realize I need to create some time with my kids with open-ended questions. It won't be easy. My kids' lives are even more full than mine. Often I only get one-word responses that make me wonder why I even bothered to ask the question. But as parents, especially as parents of teens, we have to keep asking. If we don't, the gorilla gets the last word.

 

Julie Hersh is the author of Struck By Living: From Depression to Hope.

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