We are a practical, online educational resource dedicated to promoting and supporting the mental, emotional and behavioral wellbeing of children, teens, and young adults.
We initiated The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds as an educational resource four years ago. Our mission has not changed.
But we have learned so much since 2013 — about our audience’s needs and desires, and how we could be most effective in conveying sound guidance that is easily accessible, understandable, practical and backed by evidence.
Our learning curve was steep, enlightening, and frequently surprising.
The landscape of development, mental health, wellbeing, and the multitude of influences on our social, emotional, and behavioral lives is not easy to navigate. Nor is the complexity of how family, relationships, culture, and society play into the trajectory of our lives. Even when identifying steps we can take as parents, professionals, teens, and young adults to improve the quality of our lives, how could we convey helpful ways of coping, adjusting, and living that really make a difference?
We began with a focus on parents. After all, parents are the mainstay of their children’s development and are responsible for guiding their future. Thus, we began addressing parental needs and interests. However, we found that almost a third of our audience were young people themselves. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that teens and young adults are themselves hungry for understanding how to manage life’s challenges.
And so, we made a shift.
Our blogs and podcasts needed a dual focus. In addition to the needs of parents, we added a greater focus on the interests of high school and college age individuals and paid far more attention to the challenges youth face in the world.
We learned that among the greatest problems children and adolescents face are learning difficulties of all sorts. It’s not simply that they are so extensive, it’s that they are complex. It can be hard to wrap one’s head around how to find effective ways of tackling these difficulties through schools, in after school programs, and at home.
We learned that caregivers, teens and young adults are all concerned about societal forces facing us daily. What is the impact of digital media in our lives? How do we cope with economic and cultural inequities? How can we minimize stress in a climate of terrorism, marginalization and outright bitter polarity?
We learned that it’s not simply what we say, it’s how we say it, and in what format. And we learned that we had to give our advice not simply as professionals but as human beings who struggle and celebrate the same way everyone else does.
We knew about the stigma of mental illness and psychiatric disorders, as well as learning and attention issues. We knew about the feelings of shame associated with stigma, along with personal barriers for seeking help. And we knew the key to defeating stigma was having open conversations about our lives and emotional challenges, so that we could begin to shift what is considered “normal” and acceptable in our society.
But we did not appreciate how to open the door to these conversations, and how to demystify the misconceptions – if not outright misinformation – often found online, in a world in which even seasoned professionals can have a hard time navigating. In the end, we found that the best means for opening this door was by sharing real stories about real lives, and by modeling the very conversations in which we hoped to engage others.
No one wants, needs or should ever worry alone. We needed a way to build community.
Seems pretty simple.
But sometimes doctors can’t get out of their own way and shed the formality, if not façade, of having all the answers. We don’t have all the answers by any means. But we have ideas, experience, and training, both professional and personal.
You told us that these issues were important and we needed to respond.
After taking stock of our mission, vision, and objectives, we settled on a number of core principles, values and methods.
Storytelling has been used for thousands of years as perhaps the most important means of learning. This has been true in all civilizations, in religious and spiritual communities, in families, even in children’s books. Our brains are wired for learning through stories.
The role of The Clay Center is educational. Since we don’t provide clinical services or make referrals, we need to shed light on mental health and wellbeing in the most effective manner possible. And that is through narrative.
Narratives are driven by emotions. The feelings evoked by stories become integrated neurologically with the cognitive centers of the brain that capture concepts, meaning and values. Our wiring connects the emotional centers in our brain to our attention and motivation, and to our appraisal of deliberation and action.
This very same integrative wiring is the foundation of our own internal narrative that informs who we are, where we came from, and what makes us tick. When we have a coherent autobiographical story line, we feel coherent and integrated. It’s how the brain works.
Stories not only help us understand ourselves, they connect individuals through shared experiences. Every family—every community—has its own story. Sometimes they reinforce what we already know; sometimes they become vehicles for enlightenment and transformation.
And stories are co-created by the storyteller and participant. Just think about telling a story to a child. How often do we answer questions, make observations and even modify the plot? How often when we read from the Bible, or Torah, or Koran do we ask self-reflective questions about the meaning and motivation, or consider alternatives? It happens all the time. Stories are embedded in a dynamic, interpersonal and communal realm.
We will increasingly use narratives in our blogs, podcasts, and films as a vehicle to open conversations and foster asking questions.
Let’s look at an example.
In making the short film, Can Children Get Mental Illness, filmmaker Eric Lu went to Boston Common and asked a bunch of people if they thought children could have mental illness. The responses were remarkable and captured the many underpinnings of psychiatric and social emotional problems facing young people – biological and genetic vulnerabilities, family problems, learning issues, societal factors, and interpersonal struggles, including abuse. Furthermore, the subjects wondered about how we can work with kids, learn from them, and treat them differently. Issues of shame, stigma, and fostering hope were all raised.
The film stirs us up. It raises questions. It stimulates thinking and conversation. And the responses that became the film were laced with personal stories.
When we reflected on how folks learned from our material, one thing was clear. One size does not fit all. Some folks learn from visual media, some from listening, others from reading, and still others through social media engagement.
But perhaps the single most important media appears to be film and video. So, a new key focus of ours is using film and video as our primary educational media.
This will not take away from the content we have always shared through written and audio content. Our blogs will keep coming, as will episodes of Shrinking It Down on SoundCloud, Stitcher, and iTunes. Everyone digests information and stories in their own way, and we will continue to meet you where you are, including on social media.
The Clay Center cannot fulfill this mission alone.
As we venture into our own multimedia mission, we should not and will not be isolated from other media outlets. We have something to contribute, and not just to the public. Often, we help inform professional journalists about their coverage of mental health and wellbeing and in making psychological sense of current affairs.
We will continue to weigh in on tough issues including mass shootings, natural disasters, use and misuse of digital media, national affairs, public policy and advocacy. We will not be afraid to take on controversy, but will always attempt to fight polarization and remain balanced. Keeping an open mind and listening to others matters, as is true with any constructive conversation. This is another avenue through which we hope to keep the momentum going.
The Clay Center is unique in many ways, but perhaps most important to me is that we will not segregate who we are from what we do. We reveal our personal as well as professional stories, while never treading on the privacy of our patients. All that we do is hand crafted. We write, direct, and film our own films and podcasts, including soundtracks for production. Our work must always be honest and direct so that all who join us in this conversation know who we are, and trust us enough to share their own stories and provide feedback on how we can continue to grow in a way that serves the needs and interests of those who are seeking guidance.
With every production, we will try to appreciate the impact of our work on real lives. Do folks get it? Does it open conversation? Does it change the way we parent, or conduct our family lives? Does it change institutional infrastructure? Without outcome measures, we cannot know that the Clay Center makes a difference.
However, we are confident that we can change lives through media.
We welcome your feedback and involvement in our mission.