by Tammy Ozolins
When I started to accept my mental illness diagnosis, managing, coping, and recovery began. I also said I was going to make sure the road I took would help fight the stigma and help others dealing with a mental illness.
Our counseling department asked if any staff member wanted to make a video about something our students would probably not know about us. That’s when I decided to tell them about my struggle with the depression part of my illness. I actually cope and manage with Bipolar 2, but I teach middle school so I did not want to talk about the mania part because I was not sure if they would understand that completely. I told them how I was younger and I spent a lot of time in my room crying and feeling helpless.
I explained I would wear a mask all day, but then fall apart once I got home. I spent a lot of one year hiding how I felt from everyone. I also explained to them how I finally did open up and tell my parents to get the help I needed. In a video I made, I mentioned how it takes just a few words to help me: strength, love, and hope.
Then I asked them if they had me as a teacher or knew of me and if I was in a room with a bunch of people, would they have been able to pick me out as the one with depression? Many staff members told me they their students just shook their heads no, they had idea.
The reason why is because I am outgoing at school
I am loud, and very energetic. The funny part is, I was the same way in high school and I would wear that mask all day until I got home and could let it all out.
I then decided if I can be open about my mental health on video why can I not do it with my classes and help them open up about their own mental health? The first thing I did was give each student a survey, asking them basic questions like, “Have you gotten nervous about taking a test or quiz? Do you get nervous or anxious about meeting new people or being in a new situation?” I even asked them if they knew the difference between being sad vs depressed.
Did they know what the word stigma meant, or did they know anyone with a mental illness. After each class responded, I got the data and in the next class I read them that data. To me, it was not surprising the results I saw. There was a high number of students who experienced anxiety and most either knew someone or deal with a mental illness. After seeing these results I realized this is a topic we need to be open about.
I started out the unit by having a discussion about mental health and the dialogue in some of the classes was amazing. Some students were vocal about their anxiety and some even discussed about dealing with their own depression. I thought it was awesome they felt the courage to do so.
I had them also get into groups and create a presentation on a certain mental illnesses. I provided the list which included anxiety, depression, PTSD, ADHD, just to name a few. While I was walking around I could hear groups talking and I was taken a back of some of their conversations happening among themselves.
I could hear students sharing stories about what they deal with. I heard some say, “I deal with this illness,” and “This is what I do or how I work with a doctor,” “This is how I feel at times,” etc. It was awesome they felt they could be open about this.
Opening up to my class allowed them to see me as a “real” person, not just a teacher. I have had several students forget that I do leave the building, have a life outside of school, and that we do eat, go out, etc. You never know who I could reach. I wanted them to also see that it is an illness that will never go away, I will need to cope and manage with this for the rest of my life, but with the right treatment plan it will be okay. It never DEFINES who I am.
Looking over their presentations was such a joy, just seeing the hard work they put into them and actually seeing that some did actually express their own experience with dealing with a mental health issue. But it was the conversations that really got to me–just hearing some of them open to their peers was amazing.
Children’s mental health is now more important than ever and they need to know where to get resources and more importantly to know it is okay to share about their mental health experiences. I think my lesson inspired them to open up. If I can help at least one child that would be awesome.
One of my favorite quotes is, “Sometimes the strongest among us are the ones who smile through silent pain, cry behind closed doors, and fight battles nobody knows about.”