According to a study done in the UK, “nearly one in ten young people . . . think that classmates with a mental health problem should not be at their school. The same proportion of respondents in the survey also feel that they would stop being friends with a peer who had a mental health problem” (time-to-change.org).
While I don’t know how well these statistics transfer over to schools in America, I do know that they point to a major issue that has developed among teens. I also know that:
These statistics are important. Mental illness is a reality that will likely hit our classrooms on a regular basis. Unfortunately, there is an overwhelming negative stigma attached to mental illness. Teens are often bullied, teased, or made to feel shameful about the issues they are struggling with. As a result, many students may retreat inside of themselves, disconnect from their peers, and find themselves in a quickly moving downward spiral.
There are a handful of initiatives that have been created to address mental illness in the school environment. The Stand Up Kid is a project in the UK that aims to raise awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health in the classroom. You can watch their video below.
Moving to the USA, there is an organization called To Write Love on Her Arms that is “dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide.”
If this is a topic that interests you, I strongly encourage you to read their vision statement, It is incredibly poetic and powerful.
TWLOHA was a greatly inspiring source for me when I struggled with depression in my teenage years. Some of you may already be familiar with TWLOHA, or you may have seen
their shirts here and there. The neat thing about TWLOHA is that they have managed to claim the “cool” factor among young people. By marketing trendy, bold merchandise, they appeal to teens, while spreading their message of hope and reducing the negative stigma surrounding mental health. I think TWLOHA is a great resource for teens because it offers a “cool” approach to dealing with mental illness .
TWLOHA has launched an initiative called Storytellers that exists specifically for high schoolers who want to address mental illness, provide hope for students, and reduce the stigma. Learn about it below.
Storytellers gives students the opportunity to tell their real, honest stories without fear of judgment or feeling out of place. This idea of telling our stories kind of connects with last week’s post (StorySLAM, The Moth, etc.). Sharing stories opens up a dialogue in the classroom that allows students to talk about the things that truly matter to them and affect their everyday lives. This is one way, as teachers, that we can connect students’ real lives to the classroom.
Fears vs Dreams is another TWLOHA initiative that encourages an open dialogue and facilitates classroom community. Here, students write down their one greatest fear and their one biggest dream and post them to the webpage, share them on social media, etc. I can envision this activity growing within the English classroom to inspire writing prompts, projects, discussion, etc.
What originally interested me in writing about mental health in the English classroom is a novel I read over the summer, It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini.
This novel tells the story of a teenage boys who finds himself in an extremely suicidal state, calls a suicide hotline, and then spends a week in a mental hospital. The book is funny, inspiring, and terrifyingly real. After reading this book, I became interested in looking at the depiction of mental illness in young adult novels. As it turns out, there are a large number of books that are dealing with the topic. Some of my favorites are The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Looking for Alaska, and The Silver Linings Playbook (okay, I haven’t read this book yet, but the movie is superb!) I found a pretty extensive of list of YA novels that address mental health issues here.
I’ve been intrigued with the idea of incorporating this kind of YA literature into the classroom. I think it would be yet another way to open up dialogue about the real issues students may be facing and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. What do you guys think? Would you ever teach a book about mental health in your classroom? Have you read any of the books on the list? Are any of them books you could see yourself teaching?
How do you think Storytellers or Fears vs Dreams could be used in the English classroom? Would there be a way to use these concepts and ideas without necessarily having to subscribe to the organization?
I know this post addressed a lot of issues and teaching ideas. I’m interested in your thoughts about how mental illness can be addressed and taught in the English classroom.