In my article “Who in Your Class Needs Help?” in the December 2017/January 2018 issue of Educational Leadership, I introduced readers to Lucy (pseudonym). A talented and well-liked 8th grader, Lucy told me, “I just don’t want to be sad anymore.” Her statement opened a discussion about her struggles with depression—and led me to explore the lack of teacher training in student mental health.
Lucy is now a junior at a local college prep high school, where she’s in the library club. In the future, she plans to attend the University of Arizona to pursue a career in architecture. She spoke with me to offer her insight into how teachers can support students with mental illness.
Sandy: It’s been great to reconnect with you, and I’m glad you’re doing well. I owe you huge thanks for your willingness to let teachers know what it’s like to be a student struggling with mental illness. When I told you about the article, what were your thoughts?
Lucy: I really do hope things change for the better when it comes to this topic. I thought about how the most important part of dealing with mental illness at a young age is accepting your ailment. You need to embrace it, accept it, and not let it define who you are. Nobody ever made me go to therapy or be medicated. Those were things I willingly sought out after teachers and counselors let me talk to them about how my thoughts and anxiety were so bad that they affected my way of life and my love for learning. Providing a safe, non-judgmental environment for students and allowing them to form professional but trusting relationships with teachers needs to come before trying to figure out what ailment they have. Even if you figure it out, you cannot force a student to seek help.
Sandy: What are some concrete dos and don’ts that teachers should adhere to when creating safe and non-judgmental environments?
Lucy: It’s important that teachers try to maintain a good balance between authority over the classroom and respect for students. Allowing students to express themselves, even in classes like mathematics or social studies, forms a more familiar and enjoyable environment for everyone. Teachers shouldn’t berate or humiliate students for missing assignments or for asking questions they deem to be dumb. The more you isolate students from your class, the less likely it is you’ll be able to assist them or allow them to help themselves. In short, mutual respect and patience is the key to make every classroom a safe, comfortable place.
Sandy: Like thousands of teachers nationwide, I want to be an ally to students struggling with mental health issues. In some ways, I don’t know how. What are your final words for us?
Lucy: Be patient. Teenagers and children are very sensitive, especially when it involves their mental health. Be transparent, tell them if you’re going to share their case with a counselor or a parent, and do not go behind their back. Do not isolate someone who is vulnerable. Children can be irrational, but they have every right to have input in things that affect them directly.
August “Sandy” Merz III (email@example.com) teaches science, math, and language arts at Safford K–8 School in Tucson, Arizona. He blogs for Stories from School Arizona, is a Raytheon Leader in Education, and is an Arizona Hope Street Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @amerziii.