Nobody thinks it can happen in their family until it does.
My uncle was one of the greatest men I have ever known—a first responder who witnessed a lot on the job and dealt with challenges not uncommon to others. He had a strong exterior and a powerful presence— lighting up every room he entered with his charm and charisma. But like every human being, he was sensitive and was experiencing emotional difficulties that he rarely shared.
When he recently took his own life, no one saw it coming. Often, we get so caught up in the routine facets of our lives that we fail to recognize the experiences of others, and we forget what matters most—people, relationships, family.
When surveys ask parents what they want most for their kids, the most frequent responses are that they want them to be happy, to develop a sense of character, to be good and moral people. I believe that teachers want that for their students too. However, we work within an education system that esteems numeracy and literacy skills, a knowledge of national and global history, and an understanding of the scientific process. That compartmentalizes subjects and prioritizes the traits of discipline, organization, efficiency and perseverance, often at the expense of intrinsic traits like character and well-being.
Certainly, students need to develop skills that will enable them to flourish in the workplace, but let us not lose sight of the forest for the trees. The grades our students receive, and the careers they ultimately pursue, matter, but other facets of life count just as much and deserve adequate attention within our schools. Mental health literacy is one of them.
Teen suicide continues to be a pressing issue in our communities. Far too many young lives are tragically lost every year because for a time in their lives they cannot see over the mountaintop of hopelessness. Perhaps they feel bullied by their peers or perhaps they are experiencing toxic family dynamics that are affecting their feeling of self-worth.
Many boys are raised in a “never let them see you sweat” sports culture, where emotional vulnerability is considered a weakness. An acquaintance recently recounted a story from his childhood, in which his mother publicly scolded him for crying during a lacrosse game. “Boys don’t cry,” she sternly said.
Fortunately, these attitudinal undercurrents are starting to change. Mental health awareness campaigns like “Bell Let’s Talk” are encouraging people to reach out for support during difficult moments in their lives. As an educator, I have started to see more students reach out to school counsellors for emotional support as the stigma around mental health and male gender expectations soften. Compared to previous generations, millennials and high school students talk more openly about mental health challenges like anxiety and depression.
Mental health literacy and well-being concepts are now being included in many curriculum documents for subjects like career education and physical education. Many educators are also providing additional programs within their schools to enhance the resiliency of their students and to promote awareness and a culture of openness surrounding mental health.
Nevertheless, more can be done in pushing the cultural conversation forward and embedding mental health literacy more deeply within our education system. I encourage you to try to be aware of your students’ mental health and to incorporate practical strategies for coping with the ups and downs of life into your classroom routines.
Just as reducing the speed limit on a highway or adding a flashing pedestrian light on a busy road statistically saves lives, so too does teaching mental health concepts within our schools. For this reason, it is the most important curriculum we can offer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Taylor is a Social Studies teacher at Hugh Boyd Secondary in Richmond, BC. He also teaches mental health literacy at his school.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2019 issue.