Education & Mental Health- It’s time to examine current practices and make changes NOW

Good morning, Good afternoon, Good evening world, wherever you may be. It’s Ocean here, and again, I cannot sleep. It is 2:07am where I am and my circadian rhythm is off. Way off.

I think I’m depressed. No. I am depressed.

I’ve been off work again for a while now. I haven’t been sleeping for awhile. Years even.

I have had a lot of ideas in my head. Things I want to write about. Things I need to express. This may get dark. Really dark.

I’ve decided this piece is going to be about mental illness and the education system. I think it is a commonality in most places that there has been an explosion of mental illness within the children we teach today. I am a high school teacher; so I speak from that perspective. I’m sure, or I hope, that the issues I see are not as prevalent in the younger grades as they are in the demographic I teach.

Two years ago, a student who I taught took his own life. It came as a surprise. Z was a very pleasant young person. He arrived at my class every day earlier than everyone else, would sit in his seat and ask me how I was doing. I’m not even sure if I asked him how he was. I probably did. He probably said he was having a good day. There were no signs. He was always so concerned about the feelings of others though… maybe that was a signal.

On New Year’s eve of 2015/2016, he took a jump off of a high roof and said goodbye to the world. Apparently, he was having issues with a girlfriend.

I know a lot of people tend to blame the victim in these cases- I have heard people say that suicide is a very selfish act. What most people don’t know about me is that I was very depressed in my school days. It started slowly in elementary school from being bullied and continued into junior high/ middle school. I thought about taking my life a lot. It wasn’t about wanting to die, but feeling like things were so terrible that I couldn’t see any hope of it getting better in the future. We recognize that bullying today is a very serious thing. For me, I developed a deep mistrust of people. The kids who bullied me would switch from pretending I was one of their best friends to pulling some sort of stunt to bring me back to the reality that I was not well liked.

quad-pedal-boat-green-lakeFor example, one time two older girls in my neighbourhood who were the “cool kids” invited me out for a ride in their pedal boat in the lake. I was excited, so I went. Then it was getting close to my supper time which was always an hour earlier than when everyone else ate. So I asked them to drop me off at the shore. They took me close-by to the shore to where the water was about waist deep and told me that they just didn’t have the time to take me the whole way. It was April, so the water was pretty cold. I said, “Come on, it’s not that much farther, you can take me into the dock.” But still they refused. Feeling that I’d been duped yet again, I climbed out of the boat and into the waist deep water wearing my long jeans and sneakers. I was soaked from the waist down. And cold. very cold. They laughed. “You didn’t really think we weren’t going to take you all the way to the shore,” they said. Well, of course, I thought that. Based on all of my prior experiences with these girls, I had no reason to think they were joking. This just one of the more mild experiences of the kind of bullying I endured. It led to me becoming very socially isolated and awkward because no matter what I did, I was picked on for it. I came to believe that people couldn’t be trusted and that true friends were few and far between.

Image result for sticks and stones will break my bones butSo I became a very sad and depressed young girl, with high anxiety in social situations, always having in the back of my mind, Can I trust these people? Feeling socially isolated, uncared for, and like no one understood, I started to think that life was not worth living; that things would never get better and what was the point? You may at this point be wondering, where were your parents? Well, this was the 1980s, and parents were a lot different then. When I cried because my feelings were hurt from being bullied, I was told that there was no reason to cry- I wasn’t physically hurt, that I had to grow a thicker skin and stand up for myself. I remember specifically my mother saying “When the kids make fun of you, you just tell them, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” So I did. And the neighborhood kids threw rocks at me. Thanks, mom, for your stellar advice.

Every teacher comes into the classroom with their own past histories of school experiences. Many of my classmates during teacher training and my colleagues now were “the cool kids” in their school kids. A lot of them, I think, went into teaching because their best memories were of playing sports and being popular. I went into teaching for two reasons mainly. One was that I already knew I was good at it; I was often the student in class who understood concepts the teacher explained and was able to put those concepts into language my classmates understood. Another reason was that I wanted to be able to support the kids who didn’t fall into those roles of being the typically sporty, cool kid. I have a knack for connecting with the kids who suffer from mental illnesses and over the years, I like to think I have made a difference for a lot of kids who have felt hopeless. I am not afraid to share with them my own struggles from my own school days and how glad I am that I didn’t take my own life. I try to remind them that high school is only 4 years of their life and that things after high school do get better. It’s just a matter of making it through.

But back to my student Z. As I said, I don’t believe Z thought about the consequences his actions would have on those of us left behind. I know he didn’t; he was in a moment of deep distress and took the only way he could see out. But those feelings are still left behind with all the lives he touched. I’m sure most students have no idea how much their teachers care about them. I’m sure if Z knew the impact his act would have on his parents, friends, and teachers, he may not have gone through with it. But I’m also sure that in that moment, he just wanted his pain to end. Even so, I feel so much guilt for not having recognized the signs, for being so caught up in advising extra-curricular activities and not taking the time to build the relationships and trust with my students so that I would be a person they can turn to. Two years later, I still can’t get Z out of my head and the pain of losing a kind-hearted young man with hopes and dreams of being a crane operator.

Teachers today don’t just teach subjects and students. Teachers today often take on the roles of guidance counselor, confidants, and even parental responsibilities. We often pay for kids to have a meal at lunch when we know they don’t have money to eat. We pay for school supplies for kids who we know can’t afford it; we buy jackets and mittens for kids who can’t afford it. Teachers have become more than just educators. We bridge a much needed gap in how our social system is set up. There is just simply not enough human resources or money to provide support for all the kids with mental illness or who live in poverty, and our students are paying the ultimate price in too many cases.

As a system, we add to the stresses that kids face with standardized tests, and focusing so much on getting the grades, instead of actually learning the material. All of these things also add stress for teachers. Education systems need to be updated and changed. Supports need to be in place for students and teachers dealing with emotional distress and mental illness. Education around how to deal with anxiety and depression, as well as where to go for help is desperately needed. How many more students have to die before we make drastic changes to an archaic public education system created in the 19th century for the sole purpose to train people for factories? The system is defunct and all stakeholders should be working with teachers, those with the education and training to know what works to completely change the system instead of a top-down approach where politicians decide policies that don’t help kids learn at all and just pile more and more stress on both students and staff in schools alike.

I leave you with this amazing take on how archaic our education systems are:

Sources:
Pedal Boat photo. Green Lake Boat Rentals. <http://greenlakeboatrentals.net/boat-rentals/&gt; November 13, 2017.

Robinson, Kenneth. RSA Animate: Changing Education Paradigms. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U&gt; November 13, 2017

Sticks and Stones Quote. Pinterest
<https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/323837029429635078/?autologin=true&gt; November 13, 2017.

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