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Utah teens must build resilience in a more complex digital and real world


Utah teens must build resilience in a more complex digital and real world

Apr 16, 2024 | 4:25 pm ET
By Alixel Cabrera
Utah teens must build resilience in a more complex digital and real world
Duncan Kirkwood, speaker and author, talks with parents about resilience at Churchill Jr. High School on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Photo courtesy of Granite School District)

It took 40 tries to get to the right formula for a multi-use oil that is now ubiquitous in hardware stores. Its eventual brand name highlighted the number of errors that came before the manufacturer succeeded. 


At first glance, the story may sound irrelevant when shared in front of dozens of parents who gathered at Churchill Jr. High School’s auditorium on Monday night, but it was meant to demonstrate one big value in the school — resilience.

On Monday morning, Duncan Kirkwood, a Buffalo, New York author and speaker specializing in building resilience among young people, delivered a speech in front of about 500 students in the Millcreek school. In the evening, he shifted gears to address parents. The talk was important, he said, because nowadays school-age children, who are exposed to social media and a complex political climate, can struggle to find coping mechanisms. 

“There are two issues that the majority of schools are dealing with,” Kirkwood said. “No. 1 is mental health. And No. 2 is social media, and social media splits into self esteem or bullying. Those are kind of universal topics across the country.”

Kirkwood is a veteran who trained soldiers on resilience and found his speaking career while researching positive psychology after failing in two runs for office in New York. His goal is to help teens to see failure and adversity in a different light, he said. He also helps them identify their thoughts on their value or roles. All that, to guide them into shaping a new perspective and a new vision for their lives.

In Utah, Kirkwood said, he sees a mix of issues that could have an impact on kids’ mental health; many feel the pressure to be “amazing, perfect and great,” whereas others deal with other concerns, such as depression.

If the students receive and apply a message to be kind, he said, “they’re more resilient, they have more grit, they’re kinder to people, they’re more present, because they know where they’re going.”

According to the Utah Student Health and Risk Prevention (SHARP) survey, the percentage of students who experienced moderate depressive symptoms jumped from about 62% in 2019 to almost 67% in 2023. The 2023 numbers also indicate that more than 17% of students have considered suicide and many worry about their school environment, with over 41% of them concerned about gun violence or an active shooter situation.

Utah teens must build resilience in a more complex digital and real world
Students present a panel during a parent night focusing on mental health at Churchill Jr. High School on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Courtesy/Granite School District)

Bodie Lorenzon, an eighth grader and student body president, listened to the morning assembly with his peers with enthusiasm. The club had prepared for Kirkwood’s visit, reviewing his material, making banners and organizing invitations for the parents’ event. The message of resilience resonated with him.

“Life is pretty hard sometimes. You can’t just get pushed down and never come back up. You’ve always got to come back swinging,” Lorenzon said. 

He has seen stress, anxiety and depression among students at his school, so he’s grateful to learn techniques to help them, he said.

And parents can help their kids improve their mental health by also building resilience themselves, Kirkwood said. Throughout the day, he used research from the Positive Psychology Center of the University of Pennsylvania, mixed with encouragement to find a sense of purpose and be present, to translate to students and their parents how to apply those resilience tools.

During the three years he has been in the business of helping people build resilience, Kirkwood has heard stories of how his message resonated among different communities, he said.

“I’ve had students that are trans come and say they were thinking about not trying to go to college, but now because of this thought, they see that they can be great and that other people have the problem, not them,” he said.

Some parents acknowledged they had a hard time understanding how their kids were under such pressures, as they didn’t experience them themselves. 

For many children who thrive in school, being captains of teams and scoring the highest grades, the sense of self worth to keep up or exceed that work may be consuming, other parents said during the discussion.

Some of them also expressed concern about a widespread issue in Utah schools: vaping. This year, the state Legislature passed a bill that would ban the sale of flavored electronic cigarettes, with the exception of tobacco and menthol flavors, a policy that sponsors argued is meant to help remove the vapes that plague school bathrooms.

Some parents want their children to make the decision to not pick up a bad habit by themselves, one mother said, and wondered how parents can support them. 

For Michelle Tate, the school counselor, who helped organize the event as part of its mental health week, the message of kindness was a highlight.

“Around the country now are dealing with more anxiety, more behavior issues, forgetting to just maybe stop and think before you respond. So we teach a lot of that,” she said.