Learning from Our Losses on a Day of Remembrance

By Jayson Blair

Thirteen years ago today I was standing near the edge of the Brooklyn Bridge, looking across the East River as the World Trade Center burned. Today marks the 13th anniversary of the September attacks on New York and Washington. This has always been a difficult anniversary for me, and so many others who were touched by the attacks. My mind wants to shut out the horrors of that day, to minimize the attacks by telling myself how much worse they would have been if they had happened later in the workday when more than 40,000 people could have been in the buildings. And when I cannot shut it out, I feel sorrow and guilt that we, as journalists, did not pay more attention to the clarion call that came on February 26, 1993, when Ramzi Yousef, the cousin of the author of the 9/11 attacks, detonated a 1,336-bomb under the North Tower.

We knew of the possibility that some other terrorist would come back for those buildings. To be sure, the 1993 attack led to changes and a strong response by government and aggressive investigations by media. But was it enough? Could we have done more to have helped the 3,000 people who perished? Could we have done more to have helped prevent the suffering of so many others?

The point of rehashing the past is not merely an ephemeral exploration of guilt and sorrow. Part of the reason we study our history is to learn lessons. This year, those lessons of 9/11 that enter my mind each year were juxtaposed to a photograph that one of my colleagues, Katie Stout, took on the campus of George Mason University. Yesterday, September 10th was International Suicide Prevention Day. The picture captured 1,100 backpacks lying on the ground, each representing one of the more than 1,100 college students lost to suicide each year. If they had included markers for all the people who commit suicide in a year – more than 40,000, the equivalent – it would have covered the entire George Mason University campus. It would have almost filled the trade center on a busy day. The picture was haunting.

As anyone who is touched by suicide knows, the news that a loved one has taken their own life comes out of the blue like those planes on 9/11, shocking the system and leaving us confused. But as the dust settles, there are also lessons there to be learned. Some of them relate to warning signs that we can pick up. Others relate to rationalizations we make and minimization we apply. But one of the lessons has to do with survivor’s guilt. As any warrior who has lost someone in a battle will tell you, it is very easy to fall into survivor’s guilt and get lost in your own pain, sorrow and anger.

Brian Malmon was a bright and charming student at Columbia University in New York. Students who wrote about him in the Columbia Daily Spector, the daily student newspaper on campus, said Brian “wowed audiences with his performances, enlightened readers with his journalism and inspired friends with his wit.” But Brian had returned home to Potomac, Maryland in 1999. He took his life with a gun on March 24, 2000. What many of Brian’s friends may not have known was that he had developed the symptoms of schizoaffective disorder, a combination of the persistent psychosis of schizophrenia with the powerful mood swings of bipolar disorder. In 2000, according to federal statistics, there were 29,266 Brian Malmons.

Estimates suggest that each suicide immediately affects six other people (175,607). Based on the suicide rates from 1997 to 2010, it is estimated that there was more than 6 million survivors of suicide – loved ones who have had to live with the aftermath – in the United States.

One of those survivors is Brian’s sister, Alison. Alison founded Active Minds, a national organization that, as they say, “uses students as the driving force to change the perception about mental health on college campuses.” Alison created a group on her campus at the University of Pennsylvania after her brother died and that group has grown into a network of 399 chapters across the country. Alison has learned many lessons from the loss of her brother and has helped others carry forward those lessons. It was Alison’s chapter at George Mason that laid out the backpacks.

On this day of remembrance for 9/11, let’s not forget about yesterday.

Remember the 3,000 who died on September 11 and the 40,000, the same number of people it would have taken to fill those buildings who will die from suicide this year.

And let's not forget the lessons we can learn from our losses -- the ones that Alison did when Brian died; the ones that led to that powerful remembrance and image yesterday that might remind someone to ask for help, to lend a hand or do something else that makes a world of difference.

Three Ways to Help Your Child Function More Effectively This School Year

You know beyond a shadow of a doubt that your child is smart and talented. Standardized tests may even support your opinion. Yet, you don't see your child's gifts reflected in his or her school performance. Teachers complain about disorganization, inattentiveness, lack of follow-through, messiness, inability to sit still, lack of effort, inappropriate behavior, or taking too long to complete tasks. You hope so desperately that this year will be different, that maybe your child will finally get the perfect teacher.

Chances are that even the best teacher will expect your child to conform to an environment and structure that may not suit him or her very well. Some kids shine most brightly outside of the system's box. But since you can't change the perimeters of that box, you will have to help your child learn to shine within it.  The following techniques will enable you to provide a hefty portion of that help.

First, impose structure at home. Ironically, problems that include disorganization, messiness, and difficulty getting things done on time are exacerbated by environments that mirror these tendencies. Therefore, it is vitally important that you serve well-balanced meals at the same time everyday; that you establish inviolable routines for chores, homework, and getting ready for school; that household items, especially those that your child needs, are always in the same place; that your child has clean clothes at his or her disposal that can be put out the night before; and that you manage your time and your child's effectively so that you are never the cause of your child's tardiness.

Second, strongly reinforce positive behavior and ignore negative behavior. Kids who have problems with executive function don't get much in the way of praise. On the contrary, they are always the target of disapproval, which further exacerbates their symptoms. Catch your child doing something right every day, and make a big deal of it, and let bad behavior pass unnoticed. This can build new confidence and bring them out of the fog of inattentiveness that leads to all his or her other problems. Teach them as well that they don't have to be perfect to be loved and valued.

Third, spend a half hour every night playing a family game. This can be a board or a word game, or any game that requires both focus and interaction. Make it an enjoyable time, but also take note of what your child does well and poorly and how he or she responds to setbacks, losing, and winning. This will give you a window into your child's social behavior in school, and enable you to devise a plan, perhaps with an ADHD coach, that fosters improvement in that area.

The most important thing you can do, however, is remember that you do not want to change or lose faith in you child's basic self. The school-structure box is a fact of life, but doesn't define your child or your parenting. But by implementing the techniques outlined above, you can help your child make this year's school experience happily different, with or without the perfect teacher.

Outsmarting Your ADHD At College

Like ADHD itself, college life tempts with irresistible distractions and inviting risks, so trying to cope with ADHD symptoms in such an environment might be more difficult than you expect. When a distraction, such as a party, presents itself, and you have a paper to write and a quiz to prepare for, your mom won't be there to keep you on track. But you can employ a few simple techniques that will serve you well and still allow you to partake in much of the fun and excitement that college has to offer.

One deceptively simple technique is self honesty. This requires admitting to yourself that you are unlikely to forgo an evening social activity to study; it is admitting that you intend to perform well and know you can, but will have great difficulty making yourself sit down to do your work, even without distractions; it is admitting that you have trouble getting up in the morning, and are at risk for missing those early morning classes. It is true that you are beginning college with a clean slate, and that anything is possible for you. But recognizing your weaknesses is the best way to keep them from defeating your strengths.

Once you have honestly confronted the challenges to your success, devise a game plan to outwit them. For example, if you know you won't be able to resist those evening dorm parties, plan to visit the library after your classes during the day and get your work done then. Make the evening party a reward for work performed, and don't allow yourself to attend any social gathering if you did not do your work during the day.

Even at the library, or wherever you choose to work, you might find it hard to buckle down. You see a friend, you log into Facebook, or you decide you'll have more energy for schoolwork if you go to the gym first. Begin with the most difficult task, and promise yourself that you only have to do the first problem, or write the first paragraph, or read the first chapter. Only continue if you feel engaged. Otherwise, your promise to yourself won't mean anything next time. Chances are though, that you will feel engaged and energized to continue. If not, at least you made a little headway.

If you can't for the life of you get out of bed in the morning, try to avoid registering for early morning classes. If that is not possible, get a loud alarm clock that you place far enough away from your bed that you must get up to shut it off. Set it so that you have enough time to get ready and eat a little something before class. Promise that you will reward yourself with a nap later in the day, and keep the promise.

Lastly, be fully present in whatever moment you have chosen for yourself. If you are at a party, don't spend it stressing about schoolwork. If you are writing a paper and hear laughter coming from down the hall, take a few deep breaths, count to ten, and remind yourself that you have chosen this time to focus on your paper.  Mindfully choose your activities, and always honor your choices.