The Screenagers Podcast

Love Ambush: How To Be A Mental Health Warrior

Discover the powerful strategy of a "love ambush" and becoming a mental health warrior. In this episode of The Screenagers Podcast, Dr. Delaney Ruston unveils the transformative impact of showing up unannounced to support those facing mental health challenges. Through personal stories and practical advice, Dr. Ruston unveils an approach to combatting isolation and building a caring team.

episode notes


I'm Delaney Ruston, physician, and filmmaker of the Screenagers movies. This summer, I'm recording podcasts based on my Screenagers Tech Talk Tuesday blogs and calling these blogcasts. Today, I'm talking about how to be a mental health warrior, specifically the idea of a love ambush.

We've all been hearing that for over a decade, the rate of young people reporting mental health problems has been climbing. Clearly, one lever for helping young people who are struggling is to get them and their families professional help, such as counseling or seeing a doctor like me, and that is incredibly important. But it's not the only lever. All of us can be part of helping. It's the opposite of how we have approached that situation as a culture for far too long. People outside of families might see that things aren't going well, say for a friend who they note is not hanging out with peers anymore. But they don't feel like they should help, or they don't know how to help. And so we've, unfortunately, been led astray because so much of helping people get through hard times is about all of us working together and feeling empowered and knowing how to do that

So I want to share a story that offers a strategy that anyone can choose to help any young person or family who might be struggling. A while back, after an especially busy day in my clinic, I was biking home and decided to stop by my old neighborhood to see if my former neighbors were home. I was really happy they were, and they invited me in, and we started chatting on their back deck. They were expecting a couple for dinner not long after they arrived. They offered for me to keep hanging out a little bit longer to meet their friends—let's call them Jason and Sarah. While we were talking, the topic of kids came up, and Jason mentioned that their son was in college. That was all he said.

Later, when I was talking about mental health advocacy, I noticed that Sarah's expression had changed. She looked more serious. Eventually, she said, "Our son is not doing well. At the end of this past year in college, he had a real mental health crisis. He even became delusional for a short time." Well, it turns out that their son, they explained, was living with them this summer, and they were doing all they could to get him appropriate care. But things were extremely fragmented, and they weren't getting sufficient help. Sarah explained that her son was really withdrawn, with lots of symptoms of depression. Jason said, "We try to get him to do things with us, but he just refuses all the time. We tried to get him to be active, but it only takes a walk now and then." Sarah said something I hear all too often: "We feel so isolated and alone." We discussed resources they had found, and I shared some others that they hadn't heard about. Eventually, though, I leaned forward and offered them the following advice: "It's so common that our efforts to help our own kids don't work well, and what we need is a brigade of other people to show up unannounced at our door at different times. This can be one of their friends showing up with a basketball. It could be a family friend showing up and saying, 'Hi, I'm making this new dish I've never cooked before. I thought of you, so I'm here to pick you up, and let's go do it.'"

The key is just showing up. It turns out that this primal social behavior kicks into gear when people we know show up at the door. It's part manners, part curiosity, part being flattered that you know others are there for them. When I really saw this in action, is for my daughter Tessa. As shown in one of the Screenagers' documentaries, she was going through clinical depression for quite a long time. And yet I noticed when people came over a couple of times looking for her, and it did get her out of bed and there to the door to meet with them. At that point, I started to call this a love ambush, and I have started to mention it to patients and different families and have gotten really good success when people have done it. I went on to tell my neighbor who had offered to do this to help their friend's son. Once people are at the door, the goal is to say, let's go and do this quick thing, or I would love your help with this right now. This is what this ambush of love is – it's all about not calling before because a person's most likely, who's dealing with mental health challenges or just isolating, they're going to say no so often. But having someone there where their brain can't kick in and push against the request can be so effective. 

At this point, in my interaction with everyone on the porch, I could see that both parents of the son who was struggling were leaning forward, and their eyes were big. I leaned in, and I chose my next words really carefully. I said, "Here's the thing: This takes vulnerability. It means sharing with different people what is happening in your family, that Cole (and that wasn't their son's real name) is going through a hard time. And you need a team of caring folks to help you. This could look like talking to some of Cole's and your friends — like Stephen, my friend and had already offered to go by and see if you come to cook with him. If possible, the idea is to create a schedule of people agreeing to come by and do this." At this point, Jason, Cole's father, looked at his wife and said, "You know, if our son had cancer, it wouldn't be strange to do this. But with this, it's different. But it makes sense. I can see doing this." Sara, the mother, agreed, and we all started brainstorming people they could reach out to and different activities to which people could invite their son. I said, "Look, the truth is that there will be times when he will say no, but the occasional wins are huge. And you'll be building a team that not only helps him but you both as well. And gosh, you're giving people the opportunity to help, and people love feeling needed." Well, after our encounter, I learned that my friend Steve actually did go over and invited their son to go to the international store with him and cook some food.

Another example is somebody who worked with me on the most recent film, a student at UW. She and I were going to shoot something for the new film, and she was telling me about a high school friend who was really isolating back home. I told her about Love Ambushing. Soon after that, it was a holiday break, and she came back to town, and she said, "Delaney, you won't believe it, but another friend and I went over to our friend's house, and they came out with us, and it went so well that we even did it another time. And I want to thank you so much for letting me know about that."

Each one of us can offer to do a love ambush. Think right now. Do you know a family in which a person is struggling? We don't have to tell them that's the name of what we're doing. But it captures the theme of what I'm talking about. It can be a couple of people going, and it can be a family. It can be a teen going to another teen's house and saying, "Hey, let's go play frisbee for 20 minutes." This is not about making sure the person struggling has a fabulous time. Instead, it's the tiny positive moments and the sheer act of going out with someone that really builds on itself in a positive way. And even if the person says, "You know, no," the fact that someone came to the door wanting to spend time with them that's something that will boost their mindset for that day. What is so key about this is that we are countering not only that young person struggling with isolation but the whole family's feeling of isolation. That's huge. Summer is a great time to do this because many people even get more isolated than during the school year.

That's it for this episode of The Screenagers Blogcast. I've been your host, Delaney Ruston. And please email us at Let us know what themes you want to hear this summer. Meanwhile, you can find hundreds of blog posts at and many resources.

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