When I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder two years ago, the hardest thing I had to do was tell my family, especially my children. I grew up in the 80s, a time when mental illness was not discussed in society, let alone in the classroom. Student suicides were acknowledged as a brief announcement over the school’s PA system. To to be referred to as ‘mental’ was the most degrading of insults.
Our children spend a large majority of their day within the confines of a classroom. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health does provide the complete PDF for a Teacher’s Resource Guide to talking about mental illness to students, however the guide dates from 2001 and there is no curriculum requirement for teachers to discuss mental health at all. TeenMentalHealth.org has developed a curriculum as well in association with the CMHA which is much more recent but again there is no requirement to actually teach it. From discussions with my own three older children, if there was any discussion of mental illness during their middle school years, clearly the dialogue was brief and unremarkable since none of them were familiar with the current mental health vernacular.
My three older kids, ages 16, 18, and 20, were uncertain as to what specifically mental illness was when we discussed mine. My 20-year-old even went so far as to say that mental illness, more specifically anxiety, was an excuse that some students had used during his high school experience to be excused from tests and exams. My stomach did a few guilty flip flops because at no point while raising my children had I delved into discussions about mental illness either, and as a result, my children are uninformed and insensitive to the definition and specific needs of mental disorders.
I won’t make excuses for myself. As an ex-military wife, I’ve been exposed to far too many friends whose spouses or children returned from tours of duty overseas only to spend the following several years battling brain curdling demons. I’ve seen with my very own eyes the slash marks on the wrists of people I have known for over a decade. And yet instead of using the opportunity to start an open and honest dialogue with my children related to PTSD and other mental illnesses, I remained silent, not wanting to mention the “s” word, and by doing so, I am guilty of implying that suicide and suicide attempts are dirty little secrets.
I should have educated my children about the importance of supporting those suffering from mental illnesses just as we do those suffering from physical illnesses. When we hear of someone who is sick with cancer, the time is taken to explain the treatment that person will have to undergo to hopefully get better. And yet, the battle that I wage daily against my bipolar disorder is oddly difficult to put into words and is sometimes hidden under a current of insignificance lest I disrupt our lives. How can I expect teachers to squeeze in lessons pertaining to mental illness in their classrooms when I can’t open up about my fight to my own family?
So when my 12-year-old son pointed to a child actor on the television and said, “She’s got depression,” and I said, “How do you know this?” I was shocked yet relieved when he said that his teacher had talked about this with the students. The teacher then elaborated upon mental illness and the various signs and symptoms. For him, these were topics serious enough to warrant their own time slot in the curriculum. For those families in which there are no reasons to even talk about mental illness, in which there is no apparent mental illness, in which the parents themselves do not know anything about mental illness, the dialogue on this subject matter would be minimal. This makes mental health education in the classroom that much more important.
However slow this is happening, progress is occurring regarding destigmatizing mental illness within the classroom. Of course not all teachers will be trailblazers like my 12-year-old’s teacher. But for those who are, I am eternally grateful for the light being shed on this most serious of subjects.
I do wonder though, how many other parents out there feel that the classroom is an appropriate venue for engaging children on this topic?
About Sandra Charron
I’m the mother of four children working as a registered nurse on a postpartum unit. I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder two years ago, and in my constant search for information as to how to handle life with this illness, I write whenever and wherever I can in an effort to advocate to end the stigma associated with mental illness. I speak for those who are unable to speak for themselves.