What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About Kids With a Mental Illness
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When I was five, I struggled with intense anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I didn’t choose to be that way, to be a prisoner in my own mind … in fact, I was quite ashamed of it. Whenever I would have that intrusive voice in my head telling me to run over to an object and touch it three times or else something bad would happen, I would feel relief for a split second after completing the ritual, but then disgust with myself.
“Why am I so weird? I’m ‘crazy,’ aren’t I? Mom and Dad would be so disappointed in me if they could read my mind.”
And so, I kept it to myself for a good period of time until one day, when my mother spotted me tapping the piano three times exactly. “What are you doing over there?” She questioned. I don’t remember exactly how I worded my response, but I do remember trying to explain to her what was going on, and her reaction being confused and incredulous. “Just don’t do that then … nothing bad is going to happen, Rachel.” Right, I thought. Because it’s that easy.
You know, I don’t blame my parents at all. Anxiety runs in the family, but they are great and loving parents who raised me well. However, I do still feel a bit angry/frustrated to this day that my mom didn’t know what was going on or how to help me. She didn’t know that I felt weighed down by chains every day, with demons in my head. She didn’t know that I couldn’t go anywhere in public without sweating profusely and my hands shaking. She just didn’t know.
I want another child like me, who’s struggling with a mental illness, to have parents and teachers who do know and support their child in feeling better. There are so many potential kids this could help; after all, 1 in 5 children live with a diagnosable mental illness. I want them to not feel alone, to not feel “crazy,” to not have to feel the way I did. And that starts with the adults in their childhood life becoming educated, specifically their parents and teachers.
Not every kid in your classroom learns or functions the same way. Remember that when you approach your students each day: you don’t know what’s going on in their lives, how their home environment is, how healthy they are physically and mentally. They could be in a happy, healthy environment with great parents and a nice home with food on the table every night. Or, maybe they are part of a broken household, always worried about their parents paying for lunch. The second of the two seems like the one likely to be anxious, right? But what if I told you that either of those kids could have an anxiety disorder? Let me tell you, my mind was blown when I read the statistic that 1 in 5 kids has a diagnosable mental illness (WebMD). But this isn’t restricted to anxiety; maybe they have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder ADHD or ADD, or are on the autism spectrum, or conduct disorder, or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If you grew up with a mental illness, you know firsthand the extra effort it takes to make it through the school system. But even if you didn’t, there are plenty of kids in your classes that do, and they all deserve your empathy, support, attention and effort. The current crisis is that the number of mentally ill students rises but the number of qualified or educated teachers falls. So, take that extra step to become educated; take the time to pay attention to your students and the signals they are giving you!
It is so important that you hear this information and make sure colleagues hear it, too; if you are more knowledgeable, you are better prepared to support your students for the 6+ hour segments of each day that you see them (and that’s not including extracurriculars). What I’m saying is that you are with them for a good portion of their childhoods, so your actions can have a lasting impact on their futures.
You, as their teacher, can help them to feel validated, supported and accommodated — think about what that can do for their academic potential!
So, how exactly can you help? There are countless ways, but I’ll just list the main ones that stuck out as important to me. First, you can acknowledge and validate — not disregard or brush off — a child’s feelings and mental health. If a child is made to feel as if their feelings aren’t important or even real, they will likely learn to push their emotions inward and hide them, or even hide from them. And as the illness is left untreated, like any physical illness, it can worsen over time, making it more difficult to take in “new information, understand new concepts and master new skills” (Morgan). But if you acknowledge that what they are dealing with is not “a phase” or them being “dramatic” but an actual illness that they shouldn’t have to struggle with alone, you could greatly improve their mental (as well as physical) health and attitude toward themselves.
It can be difficult to distinguish when one of your students is struggling, however, as mental illness looks different in each person struggling with it. As a teacher, you probably can recall many “troublemakers” in your classes that you assumed just had bad attitudes or uncaring parents, but in actuality that kid may have been struggling with untreated ADHD/ADD. (For ADHD/ADD specifically, make sure to be extra sensitive and self-aware so that you don’t punish the child for something they cannot control.) Maybe you can recall a kid who used to cry all the time for no apparent reason, or one who couldn’t talk to other children comfortably. It can be really hard to tell if the child is just shy or has a potential social anxiety disorder. But as a teacher, it’s not your job to be a psychologist, counselor or mental health expert. It is your job to support your students and help them reach their academic goals. So, study up on the common symptoms seen in kids so that you know what to watch for. School counseling centers cannot do it all, and a lot of times kids are embarrassed to be seen there or ask for help; or, maybe they don’t even know what mental health or a counseling center is due to their age.
The trick is to have the school staff work together on supporting, becoming more empathetic to students’ needs, and knowing how to take extra private steps such as interventions, extensions, teaching problem-solving skills, separate meetings, etc. Be a resource for them; be a rock they can count on for support, especially if they don’t get that from their home life.
This “whole-system approach” ensures the school has a solid support system working well together for students’ well-being (including not only teachers but everyone in contact with students: bus drivers, superintendents, staff, etc.). This system should focus on creating a “preventative instead of reactive approach” to students’ symptoms and behaviors. If teachers like yourself are properly educated in what to look out for in struggling students, child self-injury, destructive behaviors and self-medication can be potentially avoided!
Another way you can help is by implementing open discussions to break apart mental health stigmas, trying to teach stress-relief exercises, talking to your students about setting boundaries for school and relaxation time, and encouraging a growth mindset and healthy self-talk (Morgan). Open discussions in particular act as kind of a group therapy and create a safe space in the classroom, encouraging students to be open about their emotions.
This day and age challenge you to combat the stigmas we as a society have held about mental illness for so long … and that all starts with children. If you can help combat closed emotions, negative self-talk, self-harm, etc. early on, you are helping set that child up for a brighter future — one they are ready to tackle. (Your job is to help provide the tools!)
Your child isn’t broken. I know it may seem that way, and that you somehow caused the problem by “messing up” somewhere along the complex and bumpy road that is parenting. But the reality is that whether or not your child has a mental illness doesn’t change who they are, nor should it change how you see them. They are not a failed experiment — they are people whose brains function differently than the “norm.” If they, indeed, end up having a mental illness, don’t obsess over pinpointing the root cause: genetics, trauma, school, friends — we cannot know for sure. It could’ve been family issues leading to anxiety and decreased academic potential, or genetics leading to ADHD in the classroom and therefore many instances of troublemaking.
But what is most important isn’t how they got it, but how to support them. You cannot control your genetics, but you can control how you respond to mental health issues that affect your family and how you teach your child to respond to them. It is hugely important that you don’t “brush it off” or blame it on their “still growing up” or going through “a phase.” Do you know what that teaches them to do? Exactly the same as what you did … to brush off their emotions and teach their kids to do the same (and the toxic cycle continues). What you should do is to approach them with empathy, sympathy, support and validation. This teaches them that they can come to you with any problem, opening the lines for communication between you and your child. This also makes them feel less like a “crazy person,” or an outsider, and more like a human being with invisible wounds that need tending to.
You, as the parent, are the medic in this scenario. You also are an integral part of the “whole support system” I just mentioned, as your child’s role model, their rock, their guide for how to respond to situations. This is why it’s so important that you give them your unconditional love and support, as well as attention to their well-being.
One mistake many parents make is pushing their children to be hard on themselves. There is effort, and then there is perfectionism — one is healthy and ambitious, and one is toxic and degrading. Applying too much academic pressure early on sets your child up for potential self-esteem issues and a focus on grades instead of content/learning. What you should do is encourage your child to be ambitious, to try their hardest in whatever they put their minds to; but also that they can quit a sport if they don’t like it, that they can stop taking piano lessons if it isn’t fun for them anymore, that they don’t need an A+ for parental pride and approval … essentially that they should be caring towards themselves and not put too much weight on their shoulders. Stress should not be their default emotion (and for me in elementary school, that was the case).
Educate yourself, work with your child’s teachers and work with the school system: you all care about your child, after all. Teach your child how best to cope with whatever they are struggling with, whether it be through healthy sleep, food, exercise habits, meditation, therapy, prescribed medication, online or in-person support groups, pet therapy, art and music therapy, socializing with friends, unplugging, writing, reading … the list is endless. The trick is finding what strategies work for them to ensure they have the support and skills they need to approach their academics from a healthy and encouraged mindset (and reach their full potential).
So, be their rock. Be their supporter. Be their ally.
Getty Images photo via seb_ra