Many people reached out to me when I published, “The Elephant in Our Schools.” Almost all of them had stories to share of experiences with the stigma that accompanies anything related to mental illness. It saddened me to hear from so many people who feel alone and unsupported as they try to navigate this unfamiliar landscape.
I used to write an anonymous personal blog that shared some of my stories, but it has been dormant for a couple of years. The other day, someone commented on one of my old posts, and I realized that there is no reason that these stories should be anonymous – that it only contributes to the idea that we should be ashamed of this illness.
Yet, I know that the people who subscribe to this blog, Engage Their Minds, didn’t sign up to read stories about depression. So, I’ve decided to give this blog a sister, “Great Minds Don’t Think Alike.” This new blog will share stories of depression, some new and some old, offer resources for those who seek them, and encourage everyone to be more understanding and less judgmental of themselves and others. You might eventually read a few stories about Wonderbutt, my depressed bulldog sidekick, and his nemesis, Wigglebutt, who refuses to accept any emotion less intense than perpetual ecstatic happiness.
One effect of my depression is that I often feel burdened by all of the horribleness in the world and feel worse that I do nothing about it. I saw a tweet the other day suggesting we choose just one cause to champion in the new year. This is my cause. Please join me in making mental health a priority and eradicating the stigma of mental illness.
You see them in the headlines. You see them on the side of the road asking for food. You see them in your classroom. Maybe, like me, you see them in the mirror.
Some us are easier to spot than others. You recognize them, but feel unequipped to give them aid. Or – you wonder why they don’t help themselves, why they don’t just try a little harder.
This is a post I started writing in 2015. It has been in my drafts folder since then. I couldn’t find a way to write it in a way to ask for compassion about this topic without seeming to ask for pity for myself. But then I saw Mandy Froelich’s post about “Destigmatizing the Depressed Educator” and realized that I need to make another attempt.
About 15 years ago, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. It is chronic, and it is wickedly destructive. Mindy’s words about her brain being an emotional bully perfectly describe my own experiences battling this disease and I have great empathy for anyone who suffers from it.
It is difficult for many people to understand depression. It can seem like a weakness or a self-indulgence. I have heard advice suggesting that it just takes time, or a better diet, or more exercise to cure it – that it’s caused by laziness or even ingratitude. Anyone who has gone through great sadness believes he or she knows how to cure depression. But depression is not usually a reaction to a tragic event. And it is not cured by time. I once wrote a poem contrasting sadness and depression because it always seems so difficult to explain:
The difference between sadness and depression is the difference between Longing for time past, and wishing for time to pass Wanting to get over the hurt, and thinking hurt would be an improvement Trying to find meaning, and despairing of any meaning Needing the comfort of friends, and avoiding the comfort of friends Waking up with hope, and waking up with dread Wishing for a different life and wishing you were dead.
The attitude towards depression is a symptom of a much larger problem in our society – our refusal to prioritize mental health. People who have cancer get compassion (and rightly so), but people who have schizophrenia, depression, or OCD are ridiculed and disdained. This is not a problem exclusive to education. I imagine there are plenty of people in other professions who would never admit to their co-workers that they have any sort of mental health problems.
In March, I wrote about a young man named Joey Hudy who had just been diagnosed with schizophrenia. (His family is trying to raise money for his treatment here.) My purpose was to bring attention to the importance of good mental health and the need for all of us to be educated on how to recognize the symptoms of those who are in crisis.
We need to de-stigmatize the depressed educator, the depressed parent, the depressed student, and anyone else who has less than perfect mental health. Instead of denigrating the mother who stays in bed all day or the neighbor who never wants to socialize, we should have, at the very least, compassion. At the very most, we should educate our society and provide mental health support to those in need. In our schools, we should give age-appropriate lessons about the signs of mental health problems so students can recognize it in themselves and in others. Then we should make sure they have resources available to them and they know how to access them. As a society we need to stop equating mental health struggles with weakness, laziness, or evil in our media and our own conversations.
If you want to know some basic facts about depression, begin with this resource. It describes the symptoms and offers links for those who wish to seek help.
UPDATE 12/18/17 – I just found a resource I had bookmarked about the suicide prevention charity, Papyrus, in the UK. Papyrus has an incredible toolkit that it published for UK schools that gives very concrete advice on what teachers and staff can do to prevent suicide. I highly recommend every educator and parent should have a copy of this thorough and helpful resource.
UPDATE 1/3/18 – I now have a new blog where I will be addressing what we can do to de-stigmatize mental illness and offer more resources to those who may be depressed. You can see it here: Great Minds Don’t Think Alike.
In view of recent disturbing events, of which the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, is the latest in a series, I thought this post from Tamara Fisher at Education Week Teacher would be particularly apropos for today. Although it is addressed to a “Bright Kid with Trouble(s)“, I think that all of us who work with children could benefit from the resources and advice in Tamara’s article. And, her words may remind you of a gifted kid whose life you touch, who may need help and not know how to ask for it.