5 Things We Wish Teachers Knew About Mental Illness

High school can be difficult to navigate for everyone. However, students struggling with their mental health often experience specific challenges. Mental illness can impact a student’s daily life, and school is no exception. As a graduating senior who has struggled through anxiety, depression, and a panic disorder, doing well in school hasn’t been easy. Outside of school, I’ve had countless hours of therapy and visits to my psychiatrist. I’ve been working hard to improve. In the meanwhile, there has been one very important group of people who’ve played a role in my high school experience. Some of these people have been instrumental in helping me succeed and, unfortunately, some of them have made school even more difficult..

These people are teachers.

When I think about all the teachers I’ve had in high school, a few stand out as exceptional allies when dealing with my mental health challenges. Sadly, there are also a few who were less than helpful. It’s clear based on conversations with other high school students that I am not the only one with similar experiences. I recognize that teachers are not therapists and that it is not their job to solve our problems. That said, there are some small things that teachers can do to be more supportive.  Here are a few common themes that I heard from students when asked what they wished they could tell their teachers about mental illness.

1. Participation grades are my worst nightmare.

Speaking up in class can seem simple for many people. All you have to do is raise your hand and ask a question or share your thoughts. Unfortunately, I think many teachers directly equate class participation with interest or understanding. For students with anxiety, it can be incredibly difficult. A sophomore girl I spoke to told me that, despite scoring above 90% on all her assignments, she received a B in English the previous marking period because she received a 50% for participation. The ability to speak in front of a class shouldn’t be taken for granted. There are many better ways to gauge a student’s understanding than to shine a spotlight on them.

2. It’s better to check in on a student who turns out to be fine than to avoid an awkward conversation and miss a kid who actually needs support.

“Hey, are you okay?” can be an awkward conversation to start. That doesn’t mean it should be avoided. A lot of students have a hard time speaking up for themselves, so it would go a long way if, when a teacher feels that something is going on, they don’t pass up the opportunity to check-in. In ninth grade, I had a teacher who pulled me aside after class one day because she noticed I’d been having a hard time. I can’t say exactly what made me comfortable enough to do this, but at that moment I opened up to her. To this day, she is easily the most supportive person at school, even after three years. All because she started the conversation.

3. I want nothing more than to be able to sit down and get stuff done.

Many students with mental health challenges struggle to get their work done on time.  On the surface, this can make them seem lazy or like they don’t care. In reality, a simple assignment sometimes seems like an enormous undertaking. The effort it takes to do small tasks is sometimes overwhelming, and the lack of motivation associated with depression certainly doesn’t help. Without undermining the importance of set due dates, teachers can at least listen or recognize the circumstances and work with a student to help them succeed. If nothing else, incessantly pressing the student about their late work only makes them more stressed and uncomfortable in class. 

4. When I’m not at school, I’m not off having fun somewhere.

School avoidance isn’t about getting to stay in pajamas and watch Netflix all day. It is the product of legitimate mental health concerns. I’ve heard multiple people mention a downward spiral. They stay home because they’re so anxious about going to school, then they feel guilty about missing school and worried about what they missed, which makes them even more anxious to return to school. One student I talked to told me he once had a teacher make light about all his absences. The teacher started a tally of all the days he’d missed, not understanding how ashamed he already was. The teacher didn’t mean badly, but the “joke” was still detrimental to his already failing mental health.

5. The best teacher I ever had didn’t try to give advice. She just listened.

People seem to think they have to solve everyone’s problems. Sometimes, a student isn’t looking for advice. It is possible to give a student an ear without forcing your thoughts on them. Sometimes the best way to help someone is to sit back and listen. If a student is comfortable enough to confide in a teacher, that speaks highly of the teacher, but they’re not expected to have all the answers. 

While everyone’s experience is different, it is clear that teachers can have a major impact on how a student manages their mental illness in school. All too many teenagers are struggling with a mental health concern of some sort. High school is a time for learning and growth.  In order to best facilitate this, teachers can make a big difference by taking small steps to support students with mental illness. A few words or a simple gesture can go a long way.

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