Tuesday, August 12, 2014

ABC's, 123's, and Mental Health Education

So much has been written and published today about mental illness and suicide since the news of Robin William's tragic death broke yesterday.  In times like this I find myself "peering in" as the words appear.  I read them gingerly and cautiously with fear close behind.

I am afraid, in these days, that those who mean well and wish to offer their form of healing to those who are in despair will lead them further to the cliff's edge.  I've seen this, even today.  Perhaps you have too.  There are the posts and articles about the steps that only the Bible can offer for healing  mental illness.  They read as if to say, "If only Robin Williams had known God, this wouldn't have happened."

I don't know how to address all of this.  I do know that for many years now, I think I have had a pretty good idea of what will make a difference in combating the pain and isolation of mental illness.  It can happen by bringing the dark dogs of depression and other disorders out from the dark and dusty corners, wiping the cobwebs off of them, and placing them into the light.   Naming them.  Holding them up.  Looking at them from all corners and from all angles.  But the key to this exposure is being sure it happens early and often.

When I was a young girl, I spent hours thwarted by bouts of anxiety.  I didn't have a name for it.  All I knew is that when the weather got bad in the winter months I'd spend chunks of my school day looking out the classroom window consumed with fear.  Fear of blizzards, of icy roads, of drifting snow and bad driving conditions.  My dad worked on the road and I wanted him to make it home.  When the snowflakes started my stomach would get tight and my mind consumed.  The fear took up so much space in my heart and mind there wasn't any room left for anything else.  If I tried to turn off the fear and worry I felt I was being disloyal and betraying my role as the keeper of fear.  If I worried, and it consumed me, I was doing my "job" to make sure my dad would make it home at the end of the day.  Seeing other kids excited about the snow or enjoying the coming of a blizzard irritated me.  I felt isolated and old.  I had a job to do, and that job was to worry.  There was no time for fun or games.  If I left my post, who knew what the outcome would be?

When I think of that young girl now, I feel sadness and compassion.  If only I'd had a name for what I was living through then.  If only I could have had someone take that anxiety and put it up on a shelf and studied it with me - helped me to see that my only real job as a child was to "be"... not to worry, not to ensure the safety of others, not to stop the weather if only I prayed or wished or hoped hard enough...

When I spend time in school now, as a parent volunteering or as a substitute teacher, I see the dark dogs lapping at the feet of children nearly every time.  They are nipping at heels and tugging on leashes, and so many of the children I see are powerless to stop and silence them.  No one has given them names for what they're feeling.  No one has illuminated the dark space around them so that they can see their reality for what it is.  No one has said, "This isn't who you are and you don't need to live like this.  Let me support you in helping to find a better way."  I can't think of a more fitting place to do this than in the elementary school classroom.

If mental illness was part of every child's elementary school education, we would be shocked at the reduction of stigma in our communities.   We'd be able to give those things that are held in secret a name.  They wouldn't look as scary and wouldn't need to be as hidden and covered if we knew their names and could call them out.  We'd give children the gift of having a vocabulary to explore their feelings and challenges.  Things aren't as intimidating when you know their name.

If I'd had a name for what I experienced as a child, I'd have had power to control it.  To call it out.  I'd have been able to tell fear and worry and anxiety they were not who I was and were definitely not my job.  I'd have been able to shine a light on the dark places.  I'd have been lighter and laughed more.  I'd have spent more time making snow angels and less time begging God to stop the blizzard.

The Province of Ontario is on the right track with this.  They've started implementing mental health education in all schools and are working to develop mental health literacy among all students in the province.  This is a step in the right direction - one that Manitoba's department of education could learn from.   But there needs to be more.

I want to see more mental health professionals working within the early years, middle years, and senior years of all schools.  This is particularly important in the early years - before stigma has a chance to solidify and settle on young hearts and minds.  I want to see more accessibility to counselling services within schools in the early and middle years.  Having counsellors available one or two days a cycle, or not accessible at all isn't enough.  I want to see Guidance Counsellors having actual legitimate training in techniques and interventions to help students cope.  I want to see classroom teachers incorporating mental health literacy into their classrooms and giving their students the names and terms they need to describe what is nipping at their heels.

I want to see every child who is dogged with depression, anxiety, or another form of mental illness have the voice and the words to point to it and to say, "This isn't me.  This doesn't define me.  I am bigger and stronger, and with support, I will be OK."  Imagine how the world would change if children understood this.  Imagine how the shame and need to conceal would melt away.  Imagine those children as adults, having years of practice, skills, and language at their disposal to fight whatever they struggled with.

Let's work to end the power of mental illness by empowering our children to believe and know that with support, there is hope.

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