Saturday, August 12, 2017

Choosing Life

Throughout Pre-Service Training, we trainees were exposed to all sorts of sessions on various topics related to how we could best serve the people of Albania. As Peace Corps is constantly reviewing and revising, it was determined that more of an emphasis needed to be placed on youth development, and my training reflected this orientation. Special focus was placed on cultivating youth through projects such as camps, clubs and events. Two of the three sectors in Albania are school based, Health Education (HE) and Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), the other is Community Organization and Development (COD), which often involves youth organizational endeavors. Since we have been released to our site assignments, most of the Volunteer efforts I am observing are reflecting the emphasis in our training.

As I watched quite a bit of television with my host family during training, one recurring segment of the evening news had caught my attention. There seemed to be an on-line interactive game sweeping the planet, including Albania, that was a teen suicide challenge. According to the reports, Eastern Europe was especially hard hit with this wave of Internet game inspired deaths. It had claimed the lives of young people across the globe, and was alarming public health and educational officials in Albania enough to where strategies and warnings were filling the evening news. The game is called "Blue Whale," and is enough of a phenomena that it has earned a Wikipedia page (eerily informative if you ask me,) and numerous on-line chats and YouTube videos from mental health professionals seeking to stem the threat of this deadly game.

Blue Whale is the name chosen because of the tragic phenomena of whales beaching themselves, seemingly to commit suicide. The game was originated by a 20 something Russian man, who felt the world needed to be rid of stupid people, a creative eugenics one might say, so he designed the game to have a 50 day/step process where he would interact with willing participants and invite them to do increasingly dangerous and scary things ultimately resulting in a social media documented suicide. The Russian court system apprehended the Blue Whale designer, and he has been found guilty of murder and sentenced, but the game persists and has morphed into similar challenges under similar names.

During my practicum and at my site school, I encountered a frequently asked question by the 12 - 15 year old children. After the basic questions of where I am from and my age, I was always asked about the Blue Whale. What did I think of the Blue Whale? I would respond that any thinking person would not listen to or do what the Blue Whale asked, the Blue Whale does not care about you, no one who cared about you would ask you to hurt yourself, the children agreed, but the questions persisted. I also felt my 15 + conversations about this horrible phenomena were woefully inadequate to meet the challenge. How could one convey on a large scale to match the Blue Whale, for youth to choose to embrace life and nurture themselves? What could compete with this carefully crafted program that increasingly lured otherwise normal youth to hurt and kill themselves?

During training, we were given a session on dealing with the "post communist mentality." We were encouraged to conduct leadership trainings with youth to encourage them to think in independent and creative ways. I had some deep conversations with my health sector trainers regarding the challenges the younger Albanian generation was facing. If we are honest, when communism fell in Albania, a large segment of the population was living in the same way they had lived for hundreds of years. At the time, Albania was existing much as North Korea, completely isolated from the outside world and held in a constant state of siege/panic mentality in fear of both the government as well as the rest of the planet. Considering that youth of today in developed countries are having difficulty coping with modernization and technology, it was daunting to imagine how much more difficult it was for the youth of Albania to adapt in such a short amount of time to the stresses of modern materialistic life within one generation.

Another challenge is the competing attention between a secular culture and the reintroduction of religious life after two generations of enforced atheism. Religion gives context to life, as well as rituals surrounding transitions such as birth, marriage and also the entry into adulthood. Confirmation and Bar Mitzvah are examples of ritual initiations for youth entering adulthood. In Aboriginal cultures, we see elaborate initiation practises requiring youth to go out into the wilderness and face their fears through various exercises. In these practises, youth are pushed to their limits, face conflict and learn to overcome using their ingenuity. Modern secular culture does not offer such initiations, so youth, in attempt to mark the great tumult that accompanies the stage from puberty to adulthood,  "initiate" themselves.  We see this attempt at "self - initiation" in modern gang culture, in the exploration of sex and mind altering substances, participation in the military, most dangerously in the flocking to terror organizations.

Teen "self-initiation" is a major factor in the obsession and compliance with on-line games such as "slender man" and now the Blue Whale. The evil side of confronting and challenging the self is seen in all aspects of these exercises. There is a pledge to an over arching principle or being, a series of challenges that go beyond the normal day to day activities, resulting in the transformation of the individual. Tragically, in these games as well as terror organizations, the transformation is physical death as a badge of courage. Young minds lack the physical mechanisms, full Frontal Lobe brain development to be specific where reasoning is conducted, to discern the full implications of their decisions to participate in such deadly endeavors. The deep question is how to meet the realities of a very disheartening world, constant technological media distractions, the physical limits of adolescent brain function and the need for healthy initiations to offer alternatives to video captured suicides.

The purpose of the Blue Whale is to damage the participants, to scare them and overtake their decision making process to the point of willing compliance with directions to harm and kill themselves. When we consider the initiation process, we can understand the attraction on a certain level. Obviously, participation in these cult like behaviors is a cry of pain and disorientation, a desire to transform into the next phase of life. It shows a lack of modern cultures ability to meet it's youth, there is a void, so the question is how does one fill that void?

I was talking with a group of children from my Summer Camp about the Blue Whale. It seemed that the game held all the thrill of my own youth filled memories involving telling scary stories round camp fires until we were terrified to sleep that night out in the wild. I asked the children what they thought of the Blue Whale. I then introduced the concept of an alternative game. I asked them to vote on a color, and then another ocean mammal. We decided, very democratically I might add,  on the "Purple Dolphin" which would be the name of a game where participants would do healthy activities. One of the girls who was interested in science, chimed in, "Oh that will be the antidote to the Blue Whale." Check, she got it, first step achieved.

I started asking my health sector classmates to help coordinate the project. I got some great ideas, and invited a volunteer who is a nurse from another site to brainstorm, compile and design the Purple Dolphin. This volunteer has experience in Psychiatric Nursing, so her input and experience was invaluable. What resulted was a forty-step program compiled into a booklet with activities designed to foster healthy habits, self esteem and positive interaction with the community. Where the Blue Whale commanded that gamers watch horror flicks in the middle of the night, the Purple Dolphin invited participants to watch NASA television exploring the galaxy. The Blue Whale commands gamers to cut themselves and post on social media their bleeding limbs, the Purple Dolphin invites children to do a Yoga Pose, pick up trash, help to cook a meal, offer a complement. Other Purple Dolphin activities follow the Albanian Ministry of Health guidelines for subjects such as Oral Hygiene, Nutrition and Exercise. Purple Dolphin also aims to create a happy sense of self for its participants. When appropriate,  gamers are to post pictures of themselves doing various activities on social media. Each step needs to be signed and witnessed by a caring adult. When the forty-step cycle is completed, the final stage is to promise to choose to do things that will foster a healthy rest-of -their-lives, which they are invited to post and document through social media. The final step is in direct contrast to the posting of a youth falling to their deaths from windows or bridges.

Visiting a local pharmacy on the dental health scavenger hunt in search of tooth paste and dental floss

We created a series of lesson plans that subsequently were used in a one-week summer camp that circled around the concept of the Purple Dolphin. In the beginning, we created pledges with a Purple Dolphin on the page. The children had to stand, raise their hands and promise to choose to live a healthy life. We then used face paints to paint purple dolphins on the children's forearms. This exercise was in direct contrast to the demand that the Blue Whale gives for children pledge loyalty to it, and to create a razor cut image on their forearms or thighs of a whale. The oral hygiene lesson featured a tooth brushing and flossing exercise, a dental health scavenger hunt where the gamers went out into the community to find where tooth paste was sold and were to find dental floss. We had the children go to pharmacies and ask the pharmacist for help, requiring them to list names and prices of these items. Next it was to find a local dentist and list the address, and finally go to a fruit vendor and list the different kinds of apples and what they cost. When the children returned from the hunt, there was a lesson on snacks that do not harm the teeth: carrots, cucumbers, nuts, apples and water. One of the later lessons was on self esteem, where children made "self esteem flowers" writing their names on the center of a paper flower and putting things they liked about themselves on petals to create the picture. We ended the lesson with reading to each child what they had listed, and telling them they were special. At the end of the experience, we had a party and a ceremony where they received certificates of participation.

Learning the delicious joys of healthy snacks that do not harm the teeth

We plan to release the project through a club format at the beginning of the school year. Depending on how it goes, we hope to share the project and have some simple trainings for teachers who would like to have the project in their communities. Another plan is to have a Face Book page where children can post their Purple Dolphin Task pictures, in addition to having them share on Instagram with the hashtag #PurpleDolphin.

Self Esteem Flower Activity

The goal is to shape those frontal lobe brain synapses to choose to live and choose health. With practice, such behaviors as "eating a vegetable" or "giving a complement" become habits. Instead of jumping off a cliff to prove ones courage, life itself can be seen as a daily initiation toward wholeness. Instead of escaping into violence, numbing through drugs,  alcohol and sex, the invitation is to embrace things that enhance life. The exercises are mostly simple things that most youth have access to, the nature of the booklet also allows those who do not have Internet capability to participate.

Children writing on flower petals what qualities they appreciate about themselves

It is my personal hope this catches on, as always time will tell.

May the Purple Dolphin be with you!

1 comment:

  1. Why keep lying to yourself about "the state of constant panic of communist Albania". Unlike capitalist Albania, that produced only thieves, drugs and prostitutes, communist Albania produced lots of art. If you were to take into consideration that the population of Albania is 1/100 of that of US, and scale to take into account for that, communist Albania produced every year the equivalent of US producing 2000 movies per year. And those movies were seen by 1/6 of the world (China).

    The "realism" part of so called "social realism art", is that they try to describe life *realistically*. Albanians didn't made movies about them saving the world from alien invasions, they made movies about their time, their society, their problems and how they affronted them.
    Although artistic, they are almost like documentaries. Now that you understand the language, you can take a peek yourself at communist Albania through these "windows in time".
    Since you are a teacher, here's one from your field: