by ATPE member Monica Roffol
"Nobody cares … I can’t take it anymore … I just want to die.” Often teachers hear these words
and brush them off with a simple, “You don’t really mean that,” or “Everything will be OK.” We
believe we can make life better for our students, and, as a result, may ignore the warning signs
of mental illness.
As a former special education teacher, I know teachers face pressure from school districts to
not mention concerns about specific ailments to parents, and we shouldn’t. Only physicians should
make diagnoses. However, as professional educators, we need to be more sensitive and honest with
our students and their families about the realities of mental illness.
According to the Center for the Advancement of Children’s Mental Health, one out of every five
American children and adolescents has a mental or behavioral disorder that interferes with his
ability to learn in school or establish healthy relationships with family members and friends. Not
only do our children suffer from Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, autism and other
pervasive developmental disorders, they also can suffer from major mental illnesses including
depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder and schizophrenia.
At its high rate of prevalence, all of us at some time or another will be touched by mental
illness either directly or indirectly, so it is crucial we are aware of its warning signs.
Signs of mental illness
- Distorted thought patterns, such as extreme guilt, racing thoughts and difficulty with
- Delusions and hallucinations
- Impaired ability to form concepts
- Severe depression, withdrawal or non-responsiveness to environment
- Suicidal preoccupation or attempts
- Acute anxiety disorders or persistent irrational fears, thoughts or impulses
- Rapid mood swings that appear unrelated or inappropriate
- Self-abusing behavior such as head-banging or self-inflicted wound
- Lack of emotion or inappropriate emotion such as laughing when learning that someone died or
showing anger for no reason
Steps you can take to help
- The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) recommends that children and adolescents
who experience these symptoms in a severe and persistent manner be assessed by a trained mental
health professional. If you suspect one of your students suffers from these symptoms on a
consistent basis, share your concerns with the student’s counselor.
- Be specific as you describe behaviors and responses as well as any unusual verbal or written
communication. Make sure the counselor follows through with parental contact to discuss your
concerns. Do not take the situation into your own hands, even if the student is a teenager. You
can open yourself up to lawsuits and even reduce the chances of the child getting appropriate
and timely help.
- If you have students who have already been diagnosed with mental illness or are suspected of
having mental health problems, be sensitive to their conditions. No one asks to become mentally
ill, nor do they contract it as a result of misbehavior or bad parenting, so avoid being
- Do not call attention to students’ behavior or put them in situations that could cause
anxiety or provoke fear. Rather, offer encouragement and, if a conflict arises, always provide a
way out such as cool-down time to avoid escalation of behaviors.
- Life is confusing to children who do not fully understand the reasons for their lack of
control or sadness, so be a positive force in their lives by emphasizing their accomplishments.
- Showing compassion for families and caregivers is also important. As the stepparent of a
schizophrenic teenager, I know what families go through on a daily basis is 10 times worse than
anything that happens at school. A recent NAMI survey states that 59 percent of families felt
pushed to the breaking point because many were forced to quit or change jobs to care for their
ill children. Many times the parents are as confused and overwhelmed as their children.
- Our society still shuns those with mental illness, and many people ignore the problem,
thinking a child can “snap out of it.” Education and access to services are two of the most
important factors on the road to recovery, so act as an advocate for your pupil and insist on
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