As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, I have spent the past few days reading recent articles about the state of mental health in America. Many of them focus on issues related to children and how we, as adults, can step up to provide support in addressing their problems.
It got me to thinking about how far we’ve come in some ways. In looking back on my own life, when I was a young person, the conventional wisdom was that children did not experience depression. Sad, lonely or withdrawn were typical words used to describe children who, today, would be diagnosed as suffering from depression or even clinical depression. In other words, in those days, feelings of hopelessness or depression common among young people were commonly dismissed as “growing pains.”
Today, our society has become keenly aware of the danger that exists when mental illness among young people goes unaddressed. The popular song “Jealous” by the English electronic musician Labrinth offers a beautiful portrayal of these feelings so commonly found among young people and adolescents. The song describes the artist’s own deep feelings of abandonment when as a four-year-old child, one of his parents left the family.
The words reminded me of the profound sadness and withdrawal we sometimes observed among certain students over the course of my career as a teacher, principal and administrator, especially among young people in the vulnerable middle school years. We often saw the onset of these devastating feelings of abandonment or anger among those who’d experienced a significant loss in their life – a dear friend had moved away or a parent was no longer in the picture due to divorce or death.
From my own life’s experience, I can attest to how profoundly the loss of a parent can affect a young child going through adolescence. These feelings often stay with children well into adulthood. On occasion, children whose best friends dropped them for a new group of friends exhibited the same signs of sadness. But my observation was that the loss of a parent was the life experience that most devastated children.
In several cases, those who lost a parent fell into a deep depression and withdrew from their friends, family and school activities. Our teachers, school principals, social workers and counselors would work closely with them, their teachers and their families. Depending upon the family’s willingness, we would develop support teams and plans on the students’ behalf. The plans involved quality time with school professionals, who monitored the students’ progress and ability to engage with friends and schoolwork.
In my roles as teacher, principal and superintendent I was particularly sensitive to these special students, I admit; their losses reminded me of losing my father at the age of nine and losing my husband Larry when I was just twenty-four. Their plight, especially called to mind my daughter, Laura, who lost her father when she was not quite two years old.
In previous blogs, I have told the story of two precious girls I had the opportunity to know. Phoung and Andreea (not their real names) experienced devastating loss before they enrolled in the middle school where I served as principal. To this day, I am astounded at their resilience. Despite their hardships, because they received the proper support and attention, both Phoung and Andreea went on to thrive.
One in five Americans is affected by mental illness in some form. This month, I challenge you to contemplate the children and the adults in your life who might be struggling and need your support. Join me in supporting the National Alliance of Mental Illness’ (NAMI) challenge for Mental Health Awareness Month, by talking about mental health issues, instead of hiding them behind closed doors. Together we can all #CureStigma.
© Tyra Manning 2018