I said that I would write on the issues facing mental illness in schools this week as well. I am focusing on schools below college (college is a whole other post). And, I took a bit of criticism for being overly critical in my “church” post. So, I will try to be a little “nicer.” 

First, though, this video is a good summation of what it is to be a student with anxiety, put together by the great folks at The Mighty (see themighty.com).

So, school. We are proposing a need for peer-to-peer support in high schools and, perhaps, junior high. This is because mental illness develops and becomes more apparent during these times. This is also necessary because, unfortunately, schools have not done a good job at helping and developing resources for the mentally ill. Let me explain.

First, school counselors are not licensed mental health counselors. They have some experience with mental illness, but they are not qualified (nor is it their job) to provide therapeutic counseling (psycho-therapy) to a student. And this is not a criticism or “knock” against school counselors. Their job is to help students with a litany of issues, from keeping grades up and working on scholarships to home issues and even the beginning of mental well-being. But, they are not mental health or addiction or therapeutic counselors. And this means that schools need a place where there is space for therapeutic practices even if not led by a counselor. What I mean is that our proposal is for peer-to-peer support groups, or places where students can get together and talk among themselves about what it is like to live with a mental illness or to be struggling with mental health issues. 

Second, teachers are not trained to spot “the signs.” As an example, I went through all of junior high and high school with overwhelming suicidal ideation (meaning I had lots of suicidal thoughts). However, I was a “good kid” that got good grades and, so, no one ever bothered to wonder if I had problems. And, even when the question should have come up, it was ignored. For example, I wrote a paper in English as a freshman focused on death and I was praised for my use of language and imagery, but no one seemed to think it was weird I was writing a paper that glorified being dead. And this is not the teacher’s fault. They are not trained, nor is it their job, to figure out the mental well-being of their students. I know a lot of teachers and they care deeply; they also have a ton of responsibilities and adding “looking-for-signs-of-mental-illness” is just not possible most of the time.

However, I will say that for a teacher, being available and saying “I hear you” is an important task. I have a friend who is a teacher. This friend was working with students that many other teachers did not want to work with. In the process of teaching, my friend had the students write an essay about anything. One girl wrote about how she thought she might be gay. Now, my friend read the essay, this confession of a junior high girl, and what did not freak out or make a big deal or just ignore it. Instead my friend just looked at this girl and said something to the effect, “I hear what you are saying and if you want to talk about it, I am here for you. And I have no judgment and think you are great how you are.” This is the importance of teachers and the role they can play in the lives of the mentally ill: students already feel like freaks or outsiders and a teacher, as well as the school, needs to provide a safe space for students to be heard.

So, what are we proposing for schools. Well, it is twofold. First, we’d love to come in and do a presentation on living with mental illness. This is a time of cutting down stigma while also encouraging students to seek help and to live their lives as ill. This is the first step to real recovery. 

Second, we desire to help schools set up peer-to-peer support groups. These would look different from those in the church, though. First, in school, there usually has to be some sort of faculty/staff person who oversees the group. This is not ideal as it puts a presence in the group that is an authority figure. So, it would be great to find an outside person willing to come in and help, or to find a faculty/staff person who has a mental illness and is willing to lead. This keeps the support group as a safe space.

The group time would depend on the school and what it allows. Our goal is to have this during the time other clubs meet or during a “homeroom” time. The support group would start off with a brief time of introduction. Then, it would include some time for the practice of mindfulness, where the students can focus in on what is happening in their lives. Third would be a time of sharing. And, last, there would be a moment where each student wrote down any insights they had during group time. 

The goal of these peer-to-peer support groups is quite simple: to provide a safe space to talk about feelings associated with mental illness. In doing so, these groups empower students to exist as they are since they are not alone while also empowering them through the encouragement to share and talk openly. Residually, these groups also help with the destigmatization of mental illness.