Today a good friend shared news with me of a family tragedy, and it got me thinking about mental health.
We invest so much time and effort in our physical health – going to the gym, trying to eat healthy, taking medicine and resting when we’re sick.
Are we taking care of our mental health, though?
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, being mentally healthy means having balance between all the parts of your life: social, physical, spiritual, economic, and mental. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other mental illnesses can arise when that balance is out of check.
Last year, my school district put a lot of energy into educating teachers and administrators about mental health because of the rise of mental illness we are seeing among our students. We’re not just talking high school kids here…we’ve got students in Grade 1 with anxiety disorders. We have 10-year-olds under the weight of depression, and 11-year-olds throwing desks when they can no longer contain their rage. We have Grade 8s cutting themselves in the school washrooms.
And then there are the students who are struggling quietly, that we never even realize are suffering under the weight of mental illness.
What is going on?
Obviously every student’s story is as individual as they are. But what makes a 6-year-old so terrified to make a mistake that they start pulling their hair out? What makes a kid so blind with anger that all they want to do is strike out physically at whomever is closest? What makes someone so sad that they want to hurt themselves?
As a special education teacher, I was sometimes privy to more information than classroom teachers. So often, these troubled students came from loving homes and parents who were sick with worry. Sometimes the root of the problem could be pinpointed, but many times it remained a perplexing mystery.
So what do we do? I’ll tell you what we don’t do enough: talk about mental health. It is still such a stigmatized topic and that needs to change. We all have mental health, and at some point in our lives, we will likely all have some kind of mental illness. This is not something that only happens to other people. It can happen to you. It can happen to me. And if and when it does, we need to be able to reach out for support without feeling like we will be socially ostracized or rejected. And so do our children. We need to equip them with the language to talk about their feelings and normalize that kind of open conversation, both at home and in our schools. And when things go sideways for ourselves or our kids, when we lose our balance, we need to not be afraid of getting more help. Why is it totally normal to go to the doctor for a skin rash or a cough but shameful or embarrassing to see someone about being really sad? Start teaching your kids how to talk about this stuff now. Like, right now.