One unforeseen benefit of being a teacher is the free education which we are exposed to. Finally, FINALLY mental health is becoming a strong focus of professional development opportunities for us. I know that my own journey has definitely strengthened my own knowledge here. These crash course lectures we attend are packed with useful information, much of which would have been foreign to me a mere two years ago. I had a moment of realisation as I sat in the packed library yesterday listening to the charismatic and intelligent lecturer from the Red Cross; I know most of this.
Of course every time I attend one of these events I am offered new information and perspectives, but the basics of how to recognise potential issues and assist our struggling young students was something I was well versed in. If nothing else the immense struggle I have gone through with my own mental health has enabled me to help and empathise with others in a way which would have otherwise been impossible. Maybe, just for that alone, it’s all been worth it. Maybe I can be the type of teacher that I’ve idolised since my youth; empathetic, compassionate and enthusiastic… that last one may need some work and energy that I do not yet possess.
I wanted to talk to you about the main things which really stood out to me about this session; perhaps it will help others… well, help others. Because that’s what this all really boiled down to: as educators, leaders or even in our own personal lives, how do we recognise a potential mental health issue and render genuine and appropriate support?
We started with a brief history, asked to imagine what would happen if these issues occurred to us in 1910. Well, for me it was easy. A part of me has feared my mental health deteriorating further and have heard horror stories of those with BPD being held against their will in mental health facilities, what if this happens to me? In 1910 there would be no ‘what if?’, my fate would be sealed and my family would likely say I was dead or had married a nice man in another city because mental illness was so feared and brought shame upon the family or the afflicted. I can’t remember the exact percentage, but at least 95% of mental illnesses were ‘dealt with’ in institutions rather than in the community. I am glad to say there has been a dramatic shift, but it’s only really been since the 90s that support systems have taken root in the community with helplines and assistance programs. Stigma and fear are still prevalent in our society.
Our speaker then spoke of mental health with a brilliant analogy. Mental illness is like a mole, get on top of it early and removing it can be a simple procedure. Let it fester, don’t notice it or ignore it, telling yourself it’s nothing, and it could get worse every day, spreading through you like cancer. You can treat it, sure, but it is now an infinitely more difficult task. He never said this but this unspoken truth stuck in my mind; once it’s reached this stage it could be terminal. Suicide is a leading cause of death for young people.
As someone who completed their education before mental health awareness became a focus in education my mole was never noticed. I feel that now my anxiety and depression would not have gone unnoticed by my teachers. Part of me is bitter and sad, had our society gotten it’s shit together a bit earlier I may have been less messed up. Part of me is hopeful, perhaps I can truly make a difference in the lives of my students by fostering a community of wellbeing and guiding my students towards relevant assistance, noticing those who may need help but have never gotten it elsewhere.
So, how do you recognise those who may be struggling? He spoke about different symptoms and stressed that these must be consistent over time to be identified as a potential mental illness. We all have good days and bad days, but moodiness, changes in behaviour, anxiety, etc which is persistent should be met with concern.
What do you do when you have recognised a potential mental health issue? There is no cookie cutter answer, but to answer this broadly genuine offers of support are the starting point. Just ask them if they are okay and don’t beat around the bush with something this important, let them know you’ve noticed something that concerns you. He mentioned that if you aren’t genuine or if you are judgemental it’s better that you do nothing. This was a sore point for me, as someone who has had an unfortunate string of friends with saviour complexes get bored of me, being reminded of this both stung and validated; when you know someone doesn’t really want to be there it just feels wrong. In this case, speak to someone who may be more appropriate to intervene. Help find referrals and resources, I won’t list specifics here as these vary by location but there are several helplines and crisis services. (I should add, as teachers this is pretty much how it always goes, as much as we may empathise with our students there is only so much support we can offer before getting into some legally murky areas.) As a support you shouldn’t diagnose, there are people who are paid to do that who know more than you. The person in question should be involved every step of the way, we should be empowering those we are supporting otherwise they may feel isolated or as though they are not in control.
When he used the word ‘empowering’ I really began to reflect on my successes and failures. When I was successful in my treatment this always stemmed from feeling empowered, like I could tackle this and that those around me believe in me. My failures have stemmed from my own lack of self worth and these defeatist ideas being reinforced by external influences. I’m wrong, stupid, I’m really unwell, despised, out of touch with reality, incapable, manipulative, a terrible person; I believe these things most of the time. Indulge my darkest thoughts and I’ll fall even deeper, challenge them or encourage me and I’ll start to hope or even believe you could be right. Maybe one day I’ll even flourish. Maybe I’ll even be able to do this without the assistance of others in time.
We talked about the major groups of mental illness: anxiety, depression, psychosis and substance misuse. Most Borderlines are pretty familiar with all four of these areas so when asked to discuss signs of these areas I did pretty well; you have to be aware of what your ‘signs’ are if you want to hide them. I’ve been doing this longer than I ever realised, I just wanted people to accept me. Did I know I had a problem deep down? Or was I just too naive to realise that this wasn’t normal? I’m pretty sure it’s the latter. For example I, like many others, had no idea what anxiety really was. When a friend first suggested this may be an issue for me I just didn’t get it. I didn’t stutter when I spoke or dodge responsibility. I would, however, constantly question if my friends were really my friends, certain they just kept me around because anything else would be too inconvenient… the irony of this is if I did not have the crippling fear of being left alone I wouldn’t have driven so many people away. The point that I kind of got away from is these signs of illness are so diverse and individual, there are over 400 mental illnesses in the DSM. Anxiety, depression, psychosis and substance misuse can manifest in so many different ways and I’m ashamed to admit I previously had quite a narrow view of this. If someone has marked changes in their mood, seems uncomfortable, begins dressing quite differently (e.g. lapses in personal hygiene), really anything out of the ordinary for an ongoing period of time (even a few days, a week) please check in with them and ask how they’re going. Especially if this is getting in the way of tasks which they would normally complete with relative ease.
This quite vaguely sums up the major points covered during our workshop. Again, I’m no expert. My mental health knowledge comes from my own experiences, a couple of units when I was at university and workshops such as this one. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact me, I’ll do my best to clarify anything I’ve discussed or assist however possible. Take care!