My post t is going to be based off of personal experiences, and my own studies and certifications in Child and Adolescent mental health, as a reflection of Trussell’s review of current approaches in schools to promote mental health which include practices and curriculum design. Mental Health and trauma are two things very near and dear to my heart, having experienced trauma myself. Upon coming to the North, I realized just how much the kids experience trauma and illness. Indigenous communities have higher rates of mental illness and death by mental illness. Indigenous males also have much higher rates than anyone else across the country. Our boys need our help and love. Unfortunately many of these communities don’t have access to mental health practitioners and can’t or don’t know how to find help. I grew close to some students and I was blessed they chose me to open up to and talk to about what they experience. They trusted me with their stories and secrets, and listen to me and my own stories that relate.
In Canada, one in give people will experience a problem with their mental health in the course of a year. Unfortunately, we have an epidemic of limited resources and professional help that is readily available for a vast majority of the public. Those who have the socio-economic means to achieve help are often cut off after 8 sessions of therapy by their insurance for being ‘cured’. I just wanted to share my experience so that others can be aware of the significance of word choice and the difficulty of opening up to an authority figure. In March of 2015 I was experiencing daily panic attacks, had stopped eating, and had been sleeping for an average of 4 hours a week (4 hours asleep for 164 hours awake). Ultimately my school work became a total shit show, and despite the fact I had wanted to receive my doctorate so desperately my brain was on autopilot: survival mode. For the first time since I was 13 - I went to someone to express what I was going through. Through the tears, all I can remember is him saying "it sounds like you have poor time management." I can't remember 2015, it's a black hole in my memory totally...but I remember exactly where I was and how I was sitting when I heard that. In January of 2019 I was assaulted by a student, and many men in my life told me it was my fault. Unfortunately, the first thing I thought of was how much support my female students in Indigenous communities DO NOT have, simply because they are Indigenous, they are women, and sexual assault is not spoken about. It made me wonder how these events they experience have impacted their own learning and education as it has affected my own.
I don’t share my story for sympathy -and many of us don’t. Rather, t to bring awareness to those working with youth or young adults. You may never know what someone is going through, and your student may never say boo. If they do, however, please understand that what you say next will say more about your character than anything else. I never asked for wacky brain chemistry that would lead to depression or GAD or insomnia...just like someone with cancer didn't ask for their cells to rapidly multiply uncontrollably. Yet somewhere down the line because my disease is invisible, me not attending class or finishing work becomes my fault and I receive a penalty. The more I work with students, the more I realize their experiences mimic mine. That’s concerning. That’s a problem. If you’re sick, you’re told to stay home. Is mental illness not having an unwell brain – a sick one?
The disability caused by depression is similar to the disability from MS, severe asthma, chronic hep B or deafness. PTSD is experienced comparable to paraplegia. Mental illness can be a major ause of long-term disability, so no doubt it impacts their learning and understanding. If the brain isn’t working, how can they learn? Mental health accounts for half of employee absences due to illness each year in Canada; think about it if these are students. Missed days = no learning. Mental illness causes consistent late arrivals, lack of cooperation, decreased productivity, increased accidents, difficulty thinking, making decisions, making excuses for missed work, displays of anger. All of these impact the abilty for one to learn and grow as a student.
When I say “no, they didn’t, it was their disease”, it’s because to me, it really is. It is the disease; not having control over your own brain is a part of the disease. Reframe your words, and you might be able to reframe the way you see an illness of the mind. Imperfect mental health is not bigoted or limited, anyone can live it...and often, more often than not, you know someone living through their experiences with poor mental health. Even Kate Spade. Even Anthony Bourdain.
Our students are blasted with images about mental health frequently, unfortunately, much of it is glorified. One such example is my dear friends over at Netflix, and their show 13 Reasons Why which is being touted as a visionary series reaching out to teenagers and young adults - said to accurately portray youth and youth lives. Full disclosure, I haven't seen the show so my thoughts are formed purely on the premise of the show alone. I cannot possibly sit and idly binge a show about a high school student who succumbs to deteriorating mental health. Touting it as a show which discusses suicide already takes away the severity of suicide; how it becomes the final choice for someone in pain and sees no other option. Suicide doesn't kill. Someone doesn't kill themselves. Depression kills. Depression is an illness that can lead to death when untreated - yes, like cancer, yes, like an autoimmune disorder, and yes, like diabetes. So I've heard the show progresses by highlighting these videos which explain why the protagonist comes to her finite decision. Is that not passing blame? Is that not pointing fingers? Suicide is messy, suicide is tricky, suicide is not easily simplified and clear and cut that someone finishes their life because of something someone has done. A deteriorating mental state can certainly be contributed to others, but to pass blame off completely disregards what other emotions and thoughts are occurring in a young mind. You can't simplify mental health OR suicide by saying "yes, these people are to blame, go get 'em". It removes the justice from the protagonist and those involved. Her exposing other people who've affected her negatively comes across in two ways (in my opinion). One, suicide was the only way out of negative peer-to-peer interaction. If you're going to open up the discussion on how negative interactions can impact deteriorating mental health, then make sure you include how people can get help, find help, and what help looks like. Show that there are possibilities for people whose brains are attacking themselves. Second, and I definitely read this somewhere but the sentiment needs to be shared, it implies suicide was the only way for the protagonists voice to be heard. So again, show kids there’s another way - another path.
At the end of the day, the show is missing something huge. Deteriorating mental health and suicide go hand in hand - there is a small percentage of people who make a finite decision and are not mentally unwell (re: the young boy who took his life because his girlfriend pretended she had died) BUT an unwell state of mind DOES contribute big time. Did you know 1 in 5 Canadians have trouble with their mental wellness? Almost one half (49%) of those who feel they have suffered from depression or anxiety have never gone to see a doctor about this problem. 10-20% of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or disorder – the single most disabling group of disorders worldwide. Suicide accounts for 24% of all deaths among 15-24 year olds and 16% among 25-44 year olds. So if you're going to address something that so intricately is related to mental health let's bring these issues up. Let's use this show to discuss something that is killing our kids, our youth, and our future. This show should be using the hour per episode to talk about how to get help successfully, not how to respond with a last resort. Use the time to show how treatment, CBT, and medication can help. Use the time to show kids and teens that there are lots of ways and lots of opportunities that are available if we remind youth they are there. In fact, this show can be used to help us rally to get MORE funding and MORE access to mental health clinics. I believe talking about things with our youth that they do experience and see can actually help us in the long run, and more important, help them. I know this show is demonstrating how words have consequences, and I definitely believe that is important - we should be highlighting that more often to the youth. It is telling of the times we live in, definitely, and words are so unbelievably powerful. In fact, more shows should depict how words and actions can cause severe reactions. But, the larger message of help and the possibility of help shouldn't get lost, too. Moral of the story – students are aware of these events now more than ever. Why aren’t we doing more to talk about it?
Here's what I see is important for us going forward as educators, and what we can do to bring real change:
1. Make it known mental health problems are common
2. Understand professional help is not always on hand, and we need to have ways of handling these situations
3. Reduce stigma – because it is a barrier to assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and support
4. Encourage people to seek help
5. Include mental wellness in curriculum, do daily check ins
I also encourage everyone here to get Mental Health First Aid training. I had it covered by PD funds, so it is possible!
1. How can you bring mental health into the classroom?
2. Why do you think so many educators are uncomfortable talking about mental health, and what can we do to change that?
ALSO thank you for reading my terribly long post. It is a subject that has impacted me personally, but one that has impacted my students. I’ve gotten phone calls at 3 am from students saying they were going to jump off a cliff. I’ve called RCMP monthly because a student has mentioned suicidal tendencies. I have kids addicted to drugs and alcohol. It’s here, and its prevalent, and it breaks my heart to see.