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The Shame Game: Mental Illness in America's Classrooms

1 in 5 US children has a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. Now teachers are playing a critical role in getting them the help they need.
 
 
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Erin, a suburban Minneapolis teenager, began to grapple with serious depression and anxiety in the seventh grade. By ninth grade she was cutting herself dangerously, and she spent several weeks in residential treatment. But facing hostility at school proved to be the hardest part of her struggle.

After word of her illness spread, “I lost friends rapidly,” Erin says. A barrage of verbal attacks marred her days. “I was called crazy, and kids said, ‘Why did you come back anyway? Nobody likes you. Why don’t you kill yourself? You’d be better off dead.’”

“It made me feel a lot worse and made me not want to go to school,” Erin recalls. When teachers heard the taunts, “they turned around and acted like nothing was said.” Her mother sought help from school staff but says she was rebuffed. The taunts prompted a downward spiral in Erin’s life that ended with her return to residential care. Rather than attempt to return to her school, Erin finished high school online.

Erin's experience of social rejection at school is quite common, suggests research on teenagers with mental health problems. In one study, nearly two-thirds of teens coping with mental illness reported stigma from their peers. In another study at four middle schools, just half of students said they’d be willing to sit next to a classmate with mental illness. Although hurtful stigma is only one of myriad challenges faced by teens with mental health issues, it is an area where classroom teachers can provide immediate assistance.

Adolescence is a uniquely painful time to confront mental health challenges, experts say. “There’s a great push toward peer conformity, and being different in any way is perceived as a negative; it carries a stigma,” says Joseph Allen, director of the Virginia Adolescent Research Group at the University of Virginia.

“Normalizing” challenges with mental health is the key to reducing stigma among teens, Allen says. “If they see that ‘Whoa, this is not so uncommon,’ they can feel better about dealing with their own problems and others that have them.”

A study conducted by the Adolescent Communication Institute at The Annenberg Public Policy Center showed that discovering that people can be successfully treated for mental disorders also curbed negative stereotypes. “You have to give kids facts that counter their stereotypes, and then many are open to change,” says the study’s leader, Dan Romer.

Wendy Sunderlin, who teaches life skills classes at St. Paul’s School for Girls in Brooklandville, Md., hands out a needs-assessment survey at the start of the year to find out what students would like to learn about improving mental well-being. She uses this survey to steer her teaching. And she gently evokes personal disclosure. “I have them sit in a circle, and I ask something like, ‘How many of you have been affected by depression?’ A surprising number seem to raise their hands, and right away it takes away the ‘I am alone’ shame that kids feel.”

Sunderlin also assigns students a final project about a health topic of their choice—they often select a mental health issue. Her students have built informative websites on mental illness topics that remain live after the end of the school year to continue educating the entire school community. Students have created posters and paintings titled, “This Is What Anxiety Looks Like,” and they’ve written poems about mental illness. “Their number one concern is how they’re viewed by their peers, and their number one influence is their peers. So I have them use what they’ve learned in my class to educate one another,” Sunderlin says.

 
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