A teacher’s job, fundamentally, is to help build a better society. Some people might dismiss this claim as overly idealistic, but I would argue that idealism is a necessary prerequisite for meaningful change. The question to ask is whether the ideals in question are desirable and (if so) achievable. Is it desirable to create a better society? Obviously. Is it achievable? I think history proves that it is.
One way teachers build a better society is by starting conversations on topics that have great importance but that students have not talked about. I have always believed that the key to engaging students is gravitas–students will always be interested in a class if they sense that the topic is something that really matters. Starting these conversations is a matter of dispelling ignorance, but it can also be a matter of banishing stigma.
In recent years, western societies have become more open and understanding in many ways, increasingly progressive in their attitudes towards race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and poverty, yet at least one issue remains a taboo: mental illness. If a person’s mother dies of cancer, that person is surrounded by family and friends who uplift and encourage them; if a person’s mother dies of suicide from chronic depression, there is a tight conspiracy of silence. The loss is spoken of in hushed whispers. There is no uplifting or encouragement from family or friends. A visit to the hospital for heart surgery brings a flood of visitors brandishing flowers; a visit to the psychiatric ward due to a recurrence of schizophrenic psychosis is kept a secret. It must not be spoken of; it must not be shared. If you battle a physical illness, the entire village surrounds you. If you battle a mental illness, you battle alone.
Is it any wonder that students who suffer from mental illness are almost always frightened and ashamed, often not even realizing that there is a name and a treatment for what ails them? Three of the most common mental disorders amongst teenagers are anxiety, depression, and eating disorders, and autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are close behind. Yet when, if ever, are these discussed or spoken of openly? When do students ever hear frank, open, and honest conversation about suicide (statistically, virtually all suicides result from some form of mental illness)? These are taboo topics. Not that different from the nineteenth century, when the mentally ill were incarcerated in horrific asylums where we wouldn’t have to think about them (and if you are one of them, you dare not tell anyone), today we continue to perpetuate the myths that mental disorders are not “real” diseases, and that all a person needs to do is “get over it” and “count their blessings.”
There are even educated people today in western industrialized countries who think mental illness is the work of demons. (If that sounds too ridiculous to believe, try a Google search on “Do demons cause mental illness?” and see what you find). These people of course do not blame cancer, diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease on the work of evil spirits, but they are willing to deprive mentally ill people of medical and psychological care in favor of an exorcism. The results can be tragic, as in the case of Torrance Cantrell.
Clearly we have a long way to go as a society in our understanding of mental disorders and in our treatment of the mentally ill. But there is tremendous hope. Every conversation lights a candle in the darkness of prejudice, ignorance, and superstition. Teachers have been a pivotal force in helping change many destructive attitudes in society in the past; they can be so again.
In the hope of shedding a little bit of light on one mental health issue in particular, I am working on a series of short videos exploring the topic of clinical depression. My own lifelong experience as a person suffering from this disease is a part of the discussion; after all, mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of and if students can know that their teacher has diabetes or has overcome cancer, why can’t they know about a teacher with chronic depression?
The first three videos, from my YouTube channel, are below. I have titled the series “Alone in the Dark”, because depression is a horrifying darkness (as anyone who experiences it will know). But greater still is the darkness of stigma, prejudice, and shame with which so many people view mental illness. These videos are my modest attempt at introducing some light.