Stress is (Mostly) Good & Mental Health Awareness

Stress is (Mostly) Good & Mental Health Awareness


Over spring break, one of my sons played his favorite song as we rode along in the car. He asked, “Dad, what is the name of this song?” Clueless to his music (and most music, to be honest), I replied, “I don’t know.” He chuckled and said, “Dad, you should know this song. It is kind of about you!” A little later, I will circle back to this tune by Twenty One Pilots.

Sometimes, I feel that Google News is looking at my calendar and serving me stories directly tied to what is happening in a given week at school. (If you work in tech and know this is happening, don’t tell me. That will just scare me). With Mental Health Awareness Day on the calendar for Friday, I was not surprised to see this article atop my news feed: “A Fresh Approach to a Crisis: A group of researchers posited another explanation for the youth mental health crisis: too much discussion.”

The article covers research suggesting that the mental health crisis among young people is caused, at least in part, by how much we talk about mental health. Ellen Barry writes, “This hypothesis is called ‘prevalence inflation.’ It holds that our society has become so saturated with discussion of mental health that young people may interpret mild, transient suffering as symptoms of a medical disorder.” When adolescents self-diagnose and label themselves as “depressed” or “anxious,” they are more likely to feel powerless and exacerbate rather than assuage their negative feelings.

While I, and plenty of PhD-professor-types, disagree with some of the conclusions that the researchers make, there are elements of the prevalence inflation theory that resonate. Barry concludes the article, “A generation is growing up fluent in the language of mental health, something that will benefit teens who badly need treatment. But others may apply medical diagnoses to the normal, painful adversity of growing up. The ‘prevalence inflation’ hypothesis asks us to keep an eye on those excesses. People hurt after breakups and struggle to adjust to new schools; negative feelings aren’t always a sign of mental illness. They can even teach us resilience.”

Back to Twenty One Pilots. The name of the song that my son thought I should know was “Stressed Out.” Yes, my son was calling me out for too often being stressed. My boys also tease me for “always having a headache.” I laughed at his joke and listened to the song. I also realized that I need to talk more about how stress is a normal, healthy part of my – and all?– lives. Earlier this week, I was stressed because I had agreed to speak to education leaders across Marin about our digital well-being initiative at MTS. Yes, I got a headache. And yes, I got the speech done, met some incredible school leaders, and am glad I did it. I have learned to see stress – and other negative feelings – as an essential feature rather than a fault of being human. 

Periods of stress, sadness, and other negative emotions are human, and they can, indeed, teach us resilience. Our Mental Health Awareness Day draws awareness to the breadth of human emotions and the importance of mental health. They also learn that they can come to teachers and other adults for reliable information about mental health rather than turning to TikTok influencers. We also spend time with our students learning techniques – many of which I employ myself – to help us name and mitigate the impact of challenging emotions. This Friday and every day at MTS, we help build resilience while supporting those who need more significant help.

It turns out that the catchy tune “Stressed Out” is about the stress we all face as we grow up. We can normalize a healthy response to stress by highlighting how stress motivates us and then dissipates. Now, when that song comes on in the car, I turn up the volume and sing along, showing, I hope, that I am not always stressed out. As I sing along, I prove that instead, I am “cringy.” I am not sure which one my boys like less, stressed or cringy.

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