I am a teacher in New Haven’s public high schools for mental health education. Through the organization Community Health Educators, we bring a complete health curriculum to high schools, which includes a discussion about mental health. I knew that this workshop would hit home with some of the students we teach, but I had no idea the profound lasting impact it would make for many.
As part of the workshop, we go through the symptoms that are used to classify some of the most common mental illnesses including Major Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Bipolar Disorder. Quite often, there is a moment of realization for students when we finish describing symptoms of a certain mental illness. Although we state at the beginning of the lesson that it’s important to keep names anonymous if a personal story is shared, several kids share stories about a parent suffering from mental illness. “So that’s why my mom gets really sad sometimes.” The words depressed and bipolar mean nothing to young adults until they get a sense of what it really means to suffer from those illnesses.
I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to give many students clarity on something that is so integrally woven into their lives – a mental illness in the family. Often I’ve had students come up to us after the workshop and thank us for creating a space for discussion, because in many cases if they have a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, rarely is the topic brought up to these young adults at home.
We even go into this sad fact in the workshops – stigma is something that plagues our society, not allowing for conversation about mental health and its commonality amongst old and young. This stigma is what prevents children and young adults from getting more information even though they are perfectly capable of understanding what a mental illness is. Those with a family member suffering may not have the tools to understand what exactly is happening in the mind of someone they love; they might not understand the nature of the illness or they may blame themselves for the pain of an afflicted loved one.
The stories I’ve heard are heartbreaking, especially ones that include students feeling culpable for a loved one’s behavior. Some kids describe their parents getting upset with “no real reason,” when in reality, the reasons are biological or chemical. The sense of relief some get when real symptoms are put to an ominous name, bipolar for example, a word they’ve heard time and again, is refreshing but also troubling. The labeling of a disease provides clarity for these students, but it also brands someone with a disease that has the potential to wrongfully define them.
So many kids not sitting in our classrooms won’t get this clarity or this open information about mental health. The stigma surrounding open discussion about mental illness not only suppresses those afflicted, but also their children, friends, and people closest to them.
By Tara Campbell.
For more information about Community Health Educators, please visit: http://www.communityhealtheducators.com/about-us.html