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What Happened When I Told My Students About My Mental Illness

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When I started to accept my mental illness diagnosis, the managing, coping and recovery began. I also said I was going to make sure the road I took would help fight the stigma and help people dealing with a mental illness as well.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

I decided to do that at the school where I teach. A few years ago, I made a video for our school. Our counseling department asked if any staff member wanted to make a video about something that our students would probably not know about us. That is when I decided to tell them about my struggle with the depression part of my illness (I actually cope and manage bipolar 2, but I teach middle school, so I did not want to talk about the mania part — I’m not sure if they would understand that completely).

I told them about how when I was younger, I spent a lot of time in my room crying and feeling helpless. I explained to them that I would wear a mask all day, but then I would fall apart once I got home. I spent a lot of years hiding how I felt from everyone. I also explained to them how I finally did open up and told my parents, and how I got and continue to get the help I need.

In my video, I mentioned how it takes a few words to help me: strength, love and hope. Then I asked them: if they had me as a teacher or knew of me, and I was in a room with a bunch of people, would they be able to pick me out as the one with depression? Many staff members told me their students just shook their heads no, they had no idea. The reason why is because I am outgoing at school, I am loud and very energetic. The funny part is I was the same way in high school and I would just wear that mask all day until I got home and could let it all out.

I then decided if I can be open about my mental health on video, why can I not do it with my classes and help them open up about their mental health? The first thing I did was give each student a survey, just asking them basic questions like, have you gotten nervous about taking a test or quiz? Do you get nervous or anxious about meeting new people or being in a new situation? I even asked them if they knew the difference between being sad and depressed. Did they know what the word stigma meant? Do they know anyone with a mental illness? After each class responded, I went ahead and got the data and next class read it to them. To me, the results were not surprising. Many students experienced anxiety and either know someone with a mental illness, or live with one themselves.

After seeing these results I realized this is a topic we need to be open about. I started out the Mental Health Unit by discussing mental health and the dialogue in some of the classes was amazing. Some students were vocal about their anxiety and some even discussed dealing with their own depression. I thought it was awesome they felt the courage to do so. I also had them get into groups and create a presentation on a certain mental illness (I provided the list, such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, ADHD, just to name a few). While I was walking around I could hear groups talking and I was taken a back of some of the conversations happening among themselves. I could hear students sharing stories about what they deal with. I heard some say I deal with this illness and this is what I do or I work with a doctor, this is how I feel at times, etc. It was awesome they felt they could be open about this.

Opening up to my class allowed for them to see me as a “real” person, not just a teacher (I have had several students forget that I do leave the building, have a life outside of school and that we do eat, go out, etc.). You never know who I could reach. I wanted them to also see that for me, bipolar doesn’t go away. I will need to cope and manage this for the rest of my life, but with the right treatment plan it will be OK. It never defines who I am.

Looking over their presentations was such a joy, just seeing the hard work they put into them and seeing that some did express their own experience with dealing with a mental health issue, it showed in their presentations. The presentations also included coping skills — which is a huge toolbox anyone can have and use. But it was the conversations that really got to me, just hearing some of them open to their peers was amazing. I am so glad they felt comfortable doing so.

Children’s mental health is now more important than ever. Children need to know where to get resources and, more importantly, know it is OK to ask for help. I am truly hoping my classroom environment during that lesson allows them to do so. If I can help at least one child that would be awesome.

This is why this is one of my favorite quotes: “Sometimes the strongest among us are the ones who smile through silent pain, cry behind closed doors and fight battles nobody knows about.”

Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash

Originally published: August 24, 2020
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