29 August 2014
The Stigma Around Mental Illness.....
I figured since I wrote a post on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, I would write a post on another subject that I am all too familiar with, mental illness. Yes, two very different subjects, but the death of Robin Williams has been weighing on my mind for weeks.
After Robin Williams' death, many people took it upon themselves to criticize him and point out just how selfish suicide is, it's a selfish act. Why would a human being take their life when they have it so good? Why would somebody take their life when resources and help are a phone call away? Why would you take your life when you have a family who loves you and millions of adoring fans who are eagerly awaiting your next film, your next comedy act? Your world was perfect.
When I was in my twenties, I thought that suicide was very selfish. How could a human being take their life without thinking about their family and friends? How could you possibly not realize that there is a way out? How could you not realize that tomorrow is another day? Things always get better. There is help.
When I began my teaching career, I was a bit naïve when it came to mental illness. I didn't really understand what it was all about. I had never experienced anxiety or depression. I knew that people got sad, but that it was their job to pull themselves out of the funk. You didn't take your life because you had a bad day, or an off week. Talk to someone, get help.
When I was teaching at a catholic school in the city, I spent two years with one student who suffered from mental illness. He was also ODD, ADHD and suffered from many other conduct problems. I was learning. I was starting to understand how he was feeling. How difficult it was to get up, get out of bed, get ready and make the effort to come to school. It was so hard for him. Most of the time, there had been some sort of confrontation with his parents the night before and several times, the police were called due to violence.
He experienced some very high highs and some very low lows. There was rarely a happy medium. Psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, social workers, they all had their roles in trying to 'fix' him, get him past this stage. It was such a challenge. There were so many times where we all threw our hands up in the air, ready to give up. There was so much pain and suffering. So much upset.
Fast forward a couple of years. My last teaching position was teaching at-risk high school girls.
The program is a specialized education program with supports for adolescent girls who are at risk of being sexually exploited. The program embraces a therapeutic, relationship-focused approach to help these girls develop skills, commit to their education, re-examine their lives and move forward in a positive direction.
I absolutely loved teaching the girls. It was a whole new world for me. I read things in their files, that I didn't want to read. I listened to stories that I didn't want to hear. I witnessed violence, I witnessed drug overdoses. It was three of the most difficult years of my life. I didn't know if my students would show up the next day at school. I didn't know what they were doing when they left the classroom. The one thing that I did know, was that they were self-medicating to ease the pain. I knew that 8 hits of ecstasy would make the night go by faster. I knew that the mickey of vodka would lessen then pain of the events that took place two years ago. I knew that violence toward others, would let them get their frustrations out, although it was not going to solve anything, but it helped, for a brief moment in time.
Girls showed up in my classroom, hung-over, beaten up, coming off a high. Another two week relationship with the man of their dreams was over. They were raped the night before. They strolled into my classroom looking for comfort and safety. They needed to be surrounded by love and support. They needed to talk. Some days, we didn't achieve our curricular goals. Some days, we didn't achieve any goals. I was all about the books when I started, but soon came to realize that we needed to get these girls healthy, physically, mentally, socially, emotionally.
There were days where all I wanted, was for those girls to walk through the door. That's it. I worked hard, along with my other team members, to get these girls in a healthy place. We worked hard to alleviate the pain that they had experienced, some since birth. They have been neglected, used, abused and thought of as objects.
This brings me to my point. We are in no place to judge others. We are in no place to make the comment that suicide is selfish. We don't know the details of somebody's life journey. It doesn't matter if you have all of the money in the world. It doesn't matter if you make jokes for a living. It doesn't matter if you are surrounded by people who love you. Mental illness is your battle. The battle in your mind. When you have suicidal thoughts, you are not in the mind set where you are thinking about those around you. You are not in a position where you will understand the pain and agony that you will cause your family and friends. In your mind, you are feeling so helpless and hopeless and you have told yourself that it will never get better. This is your life, the struggles, the demons, the feeling of total despair. You are not thinking about tomorrow. You are not focusing on the future. You are in the moment, and in that moment, there is no way out. There is no convincing yourself that tomorrow may be better. You know that there is a stigma attached to mental illnesses. There is no help.
We all look for some sort of explanation. We all look for the reasons. We all make the comments that we never saw this coming.
I have kept in touch with several of my former students and have watched some of them walk across the stage. They got help. They accepted help. They had a support system that never gave up on them, a support system that made sure that they talked, no judgement was passed. There are signs. There are behaviours. We need to educate the world. We need to change how so many view mental illness. Reach out.
What I hope for, is that the world realizes that mental illness is not a form of weakness. It is not something that should be swept under the rug. It is not something that we should avoid. All of us have been depressed to some degree and at some point in our lives, or perhaps suffer from other forms of mental illness. You know that it was the worst feeling that you have ever experienced.
It is time that we talk about it. It's time to get rid of the stigma surrounding mental illness. We need to make it a collective priority. It's time.
Fast Facts about Mental Illness