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5 Ways Teachers Should Support Students With Anxiety and Depression

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Having anxiety and depression can be hard. But having anxiety and depression while in school can be almost impossible. Getting out of bed is hard enough, but getting up and going to school is a entirely different feat.

Going to school could be easier if someone understood how I felt and how hard I’m trying.

Teachers can help to make it easier for students with mental health issues in the following ways:

1. Participation.

If I’m not raising my hand, that doesn’t mean I’m not learning. It doesn’t mean I don’t understand. It means I’m too anxious to participate. Even if the answer is obvious and I know my answer is right, thoughts still circle in my head. What if I’m wrong? What will people think? They’ll think I’m stupid. They’ll laugh at me. They’ll hate me. Don’t downgrade me on participation because my mental health prevents me from raising my hand and answering.

2. Homework.

When the school day is impossible enough to get through, going home to do homework makes the hell last even longer. I will try my best. I will try to get it done. But if I don’t, please don’t be mad. Give me an extra day and I’ll have it done.

3. Group work.

Assigning me a group to work with is not always going to end well. If you think you’re mixing up the people I’m usually with so I can make new friends, that doesn’t help. The problem with assigned groups is the people I’ll be working with don’t always work well with me. This leads to more problems, such as me doing all the work by myself. I’d rather work with people I’m comfortable with rather than people that cause me to be more anxious.

4. Ask me how I’m doing.

School is such a difficult time for most kids, including me. And for people struggling with mental illness, it just adds to the difficulty of school. I probably won’t feel mentally or physically well most days. And no one cares. Because school is necessary. But if someone, even you, a teacher, asks me how I’m doing, I might just feel like someone cares. Make me feel like I matter, like my voice matters. Ask me how I am.

5. Be patient.

If I’m not doing well academically, don’t make me feel worse about it than I already do. I’m sorry I’m not doing well, but I don’t feel well. Don’t get upset over missed assignments or failed tests. Talk to me about it. Find out what made me do so poorly. There are other reasons than a lack of intelligence. Be patient with me and I’ll feel like I matter and I should keep trying to do well.

In the end, school is hard for most kids. So remember, for students with mental health issues, it’s probably 10 times worse. Try to understand what we’re going through to the best of your ability. I’m sure it’s hard for you to see us struggle, so ask us why we’re struggling. Listening and patience will make us feel so much more understood. Remember, we used all the energy we had to come to school, so we are trying.

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Thinkstock photo via Jack Hollingsworth

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The Church Needs to Stop 'Sad Shaming' People With Mental Illness

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I recently heard a sermon about how to find contentment. It was part of an otherwise enlightening series about “how to mess up in life.” In it, the pastor, who I greatly respect, outlined eight ways we end up unhappy based on the choices we make. It was a well-intended list: never having enough, being ungrateful for what we have, feeling entitled to things we don’t earn, etc. But it centered around the notion that happiness is intentional and is a learned behavior. That we can earn happiness simply by working for it. “Be a fountain, don’t be a drain,” he said. “Don’t live with a critical spirit. That just comes from poor self-concept.”

To that, I ask this: Where does poor self-concept come from?

This is exactly the kind of illogic that pins mental illness to the wine-stained carpet at churchgoers’ feet. This is why people with mental illness have such difficulty finding solace in the Church. The Church teaches that earthly possessions cannot make you happy, only Jesus can. They reason that happiness and salvation are intertwined and are interchangeable pieces of life given by Jesus to all who believe in Him.

Well, just because He can offer contentment doesn’t mean He will.

And while it is certainly possible for people of sound mind to align with Christ in ways that achieve a form of happiness, I believe it is equally impossible to expect the same from people with mental illness. Impossible and unfair. 

You can’t teach a dog to sing the alphabet.

And yes, some of us need meds. Most Christians wouldn’t denounce those who take aspirin after heart surgery. Besides, not taking it would increase the risk of blood clots. Likewise, many Christians wouldn’t say, “Screw this little pill — I’ll just pray that God will thin my blood.” They would just take the pill.

Yet many Christians do say, and are taught people with depression should be able to pray the sadness away. The stigma attached to mental illness is so heavy. The shame is so tangibly real. I have been warned by loved ones that even admitting to struggles with depression would have detrimental impact on everything that has gone right in my life: my wife and five kids, a rewarding job in health care. two ministries I have been called upon to lead.

Churches often try to “sell” Jesus to people struggling with mental illness…

“Jesus will solve all of your problems.”

“It is only through Christ that you will find joy.”

“How can you be a Christian and be so depressed?”

“Don’t you know God will lift your burdens if you give them to Him?”

It’s sad shaming.

And it only perpetuates the problem.

I was raised in suit, tie and dress churches in upscale suburban Detroit. The kinds of Nazarene churches that played host to Reagan-era conservatism and Free Methodist ones that awkwardly conformed to 90s liberation. The kinds of churches where everyone knew each other and at the same time no one knew anyone at all. Where ushers exchanged feigned smiles at those who dutifully tithed. Where youth leaders hid behind their insecurities, choir directors puffed their chests as if at symphonies and congregants haggled with pastors who wanted their corporate discounts.

I was never courageous enough to tell my parents about my depression — there was no way in hell I was going to confide in anyone at church. No one cared enough to see through my transparency. I was OK with that at the time.

I’m still OK with it.

I can’t rationalize my depression any more than others can sympathize with it. My depression is the self-deprecating and self-loathing kind. It’s completely unprovoked. It’s silly. I didn’t earn it. I didn’t endure childhood trauma, so it wasn’t borne out of PTSD, abuse, neglect or family dysfunction. It just is. It exists in its own space in the back of my brain and bursts to the forefront when something triggers it. So, it would be absurd for me to expect a church to understand it.

But, there’s a big difference between understanding and trivializing. And this is where the Church can learn and grow.

In some respects, little pocket-congregations across denominations have already made concerted efforts. It’s becoming more commonplace for churches to host depression support groups, sponsor events for suicide awareness and offer pastoral counseling. These are certainly well-intentioned icebreakers for marrow-deep complexities, but they really only scratch the surface.

People with mental illness will continue to struggle with guilt-borne stigma until Christians become honest with themselves. It will stay taboo until there is widespread transparency. It will remain a label until churches lift blame from their doctrines. It will forever be superficial as long as churches hide behind its roots.

It is time to unearth it.

Churches need to take up their crosses and fill the voids that are left by the rest of society. It’s really not an option. It’s a duty. As Christ followers, we are called to provide shelter for people struggling and a safe haven for the oppressed. We are to be all-welcoming and all-loving and reserve judgment for our Creator.

We are to give grace as we have been given it.

Part of this grace is the absolute fact that no two people are alike. No two minds work alike. The things that bring you happiness — faith-inspired or otherwise — won’t necessarily bring your neighbor happiness. They won’t bring me happiness. People can be filled with the Holy Spirit and still be depressed, anxious, suicidal, manic, borderline or have any other host of mental proclivities. Certain salvation doesn’t automatically yield contentment any more than certain death yields misery.

Some of us actually struggle to praise God, and oftentimes we do so in spite of how we feel. It doesn’t come easy for everyone.

We live in a culture free-flowing with antidepressants, yet most psychiatric hospitals are hollow shells of buildings long abandoned. We live church lives of big faith and even bigger bombast, yet even the Bethels of the world cannot stall the exponential rise in pastor suicides. We seek comfort in therapists and counselors, yet our government is trying to strip our insurance of mental health coverage, further extolling the stigma that illnesses of the mind aren’t medical disorders at all.

They are.

And it is time for people who do not struggle with mental affliction – including institutions like the Church – to stop treating it as some taboo anomaly. People do not choose to experience manic depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, anorexia or to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Mental illness is an effect, not a cause. It is always rooted in either genetics or as a result of experience. It originates from somewhere. No one wakes up and soundly thinks, Hey, I want to curl fetal in bed today and sob uncontrollably for hours. Yet, society is conditioned against mental illness.

Please stop.

Stop sad shaming us.

Instead, church, embrace the mind as something that humans will never fully understand. Accept the fact that happiness cannot be forced upon or shamed unto people. Destroy the existential disgrace of “free will or else.”  Turn the stigmatic examples of Biblical exorcism into real life accounts of family members who struggle, but find ways to survive. Deconstruct existing support groups in order to make room for root causes, and then expound on them and work toward healing. Foster transparent environments so that people feel safe being open about their struggles.

Love all. Give grace. Put faith in Jesus — don’t take it from people.

It might be all that they have left.

Follow this journey on Amity Coalition.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Unsplash photo via Priscilla du Preez.

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Why We Need to Take Mental Health 'Sick Days' Seriously

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Yesterday I was feeling sick. I had gone to bed the night before with a headache and was awake at 4 a.m. feeling nauseous. I woke up in the morning with an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion. I got up, got the kids off to school, came home and went back to bed — sleeping for another four hours.

It was after lunch by the time I got out of bed again. I hadn’t done the laundry, washed the dishes or anything that I should have been doing. We ordered Chinese for dinner because I was still too tired to cook, barely keeping my eyes open long enough to check Facebook.

Yesterday though, I didn’t feel guilty for not doing all the things I should have been doing. I was feeling physically sick. Why then, do I feel so guilty when I’m having a bad mental health day and spend the whole day doing nothing? Why am I so hard on myself when it’s mental illness that’s keeping me down? Mental illness should not be considered any different than physical illness. This is the type of stigma I’m trying to break. This is the message I’m trying to get out to people: it’s still an illness, and here I am being judgmental on myself.

Self-stigmatization can be hard to stop. It’s what the world has taught us — that we should be strong, that being “sad” isn’t an excuse not to get on with things. I believe this has become so ingrained in our way of thinking that it’s hard to break out of. But we need to, because it’s just plain wrong.

We need to be kinder to ourselves. We need to accept that mental illness can be, and is, just as difficult to deal with as physical illness, and we shouldn’t feel guilty about that. If we can’t stop beating ourselves up for having a bad day, then how can we expect others to stop? It starts with us. We need to show the world a different way. Show people that it’s OK to slow down and rest when you’re having a bad mental health day, just like it’s OK to take the day off and sleep when you’re feeling physically unwell. We can do better.

Follow this journey here

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Thinkstock photo via Kitzcorner

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When I Blame Myself for My Mental Illness

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My anxiety has been awful lately. It overwhelms me like a flood, and suddenly I’m drowning. As I fight off panic attacks, I struggle to organize my thoughts. I start dissociating, even hearing a voice and flipping between personalities. Straining to remember my coping skills, I withdraw into myself, afraid of burdening my friends and husband with my problems.

Even worse, I keep blaming myself. I blame my anxiety on how I’m not thinking the “right” way.  In therapy, I have learned about the thoughts that trigger my anxiety; thought patterns like perfectionism, people pleasing and an inferiority complex. Although I’m working hard to change my thinking, I don’t seem to change. Since I can see how these thoughts cause anxiety, I blame myself for my anxiety.

I feel like if I worked harder at my strategies from counseling, then I would be better. If I thought differently, I would be better. If I could learn to relax, I would be better. Intensely angry, I call myself names, blaming myself for my emotional pain. As I continue to beat myself up, I become more sick.

Suddenly, I stop and take a step back. I have mental illnesses. The anxiety is not my fault.  My thought patterns have been caused by a lot of things; things that have happened in my life, the way I have been treated, along with my sensitive nature. I didn’t create the anxiety, it’s more complex than that. Besides, I have struggled for a very long time and it’s hard to change problems that are deeply rooted.

I repeat to myself, I have mental illnesses. The anxiety, panic attacks, dissociation, manic and depressive episodes — they are not my fault.  My thought patterns that trigger anxiety — they are not my fault.

Healing often comes slowly, and it may take me a long time to get better. But it’s not my fault that it’s taking me so long. We all have our own pattern of healing.

Last night, when I fell into a spiral of self-hatred, blaming myself for my mental problems, I texted a friend about how I felt. She responded back in all caps: stop being so hard on yourself.  I laughed when I read it. Yes, I am being hard on myself.

This week, I resolve to be kinder to myself. When I have a panic attack, I will grieve over it instead of calling myself weak. When anxiety overwhelms me, I will not blame myself for it, but rest to recover. When I flip between mania and depression, I won’t get angry with myself for being “out of control,” but simply try to ride the wave. When I dissociate, I won’t blame myself, but will use my coping skills to deal with that moment. When I struggle, I will tell myself, “I have mental illnesses that make things harder.” I am trying to get better. Some days I’m worse, but it’s not my fault. Beating myself up makes everything worse.

This week, I resolve to be kinder to myself. It’s not my fault that I have mental illnesses, and I deserve kindness and grace as I manage them the best I can.

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Unsplash photo via Mario Azzi

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A Message for Those Considering Psychiatric Medication

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Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

You are not alone. Personally, I know tons of people who take antidepressants, mood stabilizers, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety medications to treat their psychiatric disorders.

In the past six years, I’ve been on a shit ton of meds, and they haven’t always benefitted me, especially when I was heavily medicated during my first year away at university. If anything, they contributed to my feelings of shame, inadequacy and anger. In my senior year of high school alone, I tried five different combinations of medications. The side effects were awful, and can affect self-esteem and sense of identity.

It can be difficult to feel you are “flawed” and finding the right meds can be a terrifying experience for some. Most of the time, finding the right medication will be an ongoing process.

Sometimes finding the right medication will feel like shooting in the dark and sometimes it will feel like window shopping. It’s trial and error, but so is life.

Medications to treat mental illness work. They do. For some of us, they are the only things preventing us from flying too high or sinking too low.

To this day, I still resist taking my medication and have yet to reach this place called “acceptance.” However, like my psychiatrist once said, “We’re not helpless. It doesn’t matter how we feel or what we believe in, we can always choose what type of behavior we engage in.”

Self-care is hard sometimes, and that includes taking medication. It’s not always watching Netflix or drinking green tea. Sometimes it involves difficult choices and making decisions that don’t bring you instant gratification.

I wish you the best of luck and courage in your recovery journey, and I hope you find a combination of medications that works for you.

Hang in there, it gets better!

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Thinkstock photo via weiXx.

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There Comes a Time When Mama Might Need Help

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Some challenges are hard to write about because they expose the raw we carry inside. But sometimes we have to talk about what it is like parenting in the trenches — whatever that means for you — because what I am writing here is about you, the parent, and how you are dealing with the extra needs in your family.

Parenting kids with high needs affects everyone in the family. Whether it’s a child with a disability, with mental health issues or with trauma (or a combination of those), the reality is that at some point — and as hard as it is to admit — there might come a time when mama needs help.

It is so easy to focus on what our children need, to allow a schedule to become dictated by their therapists, specialists or counselors. As parents, we do everything we can to meet their needs, sometimes even at our own expense.

Now, let me pause for a moment and acknowledge two things:

1. This is not about our children with disabilities, this is about us, the parents, and the extra responsibilities we have and the lack of support we experience. This is stress from having to fight for our kids with insurance, schools, professionals and sometimes even family.

2. There are many parents out there who have kids with disabilities and who do not feel they live with extra needs, or they feel their kids with disabilities are no different than their typical kids — these words might not be for those parents. But this is for the parents out there who wish someone out there cared enough and had the courage to enter into their pain, the parents who have many times locked themselves in the bathroom and sobbed.

Parenting children with high needs can be so incredibly hard and painfully lonely.

My middle daughter not only has cerebral palsy, but like many other adopted children, she lives with trauma from spending the first four years of her life in a Ukrainian orphanage. She is not the only one living with the trauma; it affects everyone in the family. We have surrounded her with love, affirmation and support, yet so often I’ve felt incredibly inadequate and have struggled to pull myself together as challenges come our way. Nothing has broken me more than parenting a child from a hard place.

And there came a time when she was really struggling emotionally, and we were all gasping for hope — hope that things would get better tomorrow, yet tomorrows seemed to offer no reprieve. And one day my oldest daughter said, “I feel like our family is falling apart!” And that statement was all it took for me to break down, sobbing, and realize I needed help because I felt so broken. So very broken.

I was not living, I was merely surviving. I could not keep living like this; my family could not keep living like this.

Then one day as I talked to one of her therapists over the phone she said, “I see trauma symptoms in you, too, I was wondering if you would be open to doing neurofeedback. The tension you are living with is not helping you or your daughter.”

Just the day before I’d told my husband I felt like I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and perhaps I needed to see a counselor. That call confirmed I needed help.

So I want to talk to you, my fellow parent who feels wrecked: it is OK to ask for help.

There was a recent study done (September 2014) that looked at the mental health of parents of children with a “special health care need.” These parents are those who identified themselves as having a child with a “chronic disease or disability” or “emotional problems.” The results of the study were as follows:

Cross-sectional analyses indicated that parents of a child with special care needs reported poorer self-rated mental health, greater depressive symptoms, and more restrictions in instrumental activities of daily living (IADL). Parents of a child with special health care needs had greater increases in depressive symptoms over time and greater declines in instrumental activities of daily living than parents of typically developing children. Perceived control was a robust predictor of all health outcomes over time.

We need to start talking about this. This is a big deal!

What happens in our home — the stress, the extra needs, the lack of sleep, the limited support — it affects us.

We are more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety and poor mental health. So what are we going to do about it? We do whatever it takes to care for our kids, but will we do whatever it takes to take care of us? Our kids need us.

So friend, pick up the phone and make an appointment to see a counselor. I’ve been there, and seeing a therapist, even if only a few times, does a lot to my heart. And especially if you feel like you do not have close friends who are willing or able to walk this journey with you, get a counselor! It is so important to have someone to talk to. You are worth it!

Pick up the phone and make an appointment with your doctor. Get on meds if necessary. I’ve been there, it is humbling, but it can make such a difference. For a while my anxiety was becoming debilitating and I had to ask for help. There is no shame in battling your own mental health issues, and it is so important to have a clear head as you parent your kids. Friend, you are worth it!

Talk to friends and family about needing help. Sometimes help comes from the most unexpected places. You are worth it!

Find something that gives you life. Whatever that is, make time for you. You need time for yourself, you really do. Please do not feel guilty about a girl’s night out, do not feel guilty if you enjoy time away from your kids. It is OK. Go, have fun. You are worth it!

I want you to know you are not alone. I know what it is like to feel wrecked.

And don’t forget that taking care of us is the best thing we can do for our kids.

Your kids need a mama ready to face the world and its challenges, and sometimes mama needs help to get there. It’s OK. You are worth it!

Thinkstock image by Natalia_Kalyatina

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