Wake Up, Schools - Mental Health Matters

Never before has there been a clarion call for school reform to equal that of today! There is not a segment of the population that is unscathed – all ages, cultures, and economic, political, geographical and governmental sectors – even educators themselves.  Parent and pastoral voices are clamoring to "occupy the schoolhouse" and some want to put students first. The voices least heard are those of students. It is time for youth to break their silence and become engaged in re-shaping American schools for themselves and for their children.

My experience tells me this is absolutely necessary. My experiences includes  1) 40 years as a reading teacher in different grade levels working to discover why Johnny couldn't read, and 2) as a mother of three talented and bright daughters, two with mental illnesses. My youngest daughter had lived with bi-polar disorder since age 14. At age 42 she planned her own death. At that time my oldest daughter was being treated for an affective disorder. At that time, I decided to break the silence that had enshrouded our family and the schools where my husband and I taught. We had lived in a closet of fear, shame, and guilt for too long. I retired and became an advocate for parents, students, and educators in Palm Beach County who were searching for information and resources.

At present, I consider myself a community organizer for Breaking The Silence in Palm Beach County, a mental health education project for 2012. In 2010, FRiENDS decided on a service-learning project to Break The Silence. They received support from school district staff and a 20-minute DVD was created.  The Sheriff, staff, and students themselves created it to sensitize educators and parents to the struggles of students with mental illness. Vickie Rusinova led the project and continues to work with it as a 2012 summer intern. The DVD and Discussion Guide can be viewed and downloaded from www.bocaratonspromise.org.

Researching for the DVD production yielded useful information:  We learned:

  • about 500 students in our average high school could expect to have a mental illness sometime in  their lifetime;
  • school dropout, bullying and obesity are related to mental and emotional health;
  • mental and emotional health is not taught in most American schools, homes, or   faith communities;
  • professionals and colleges recognize a need for early identification.
  • discussion and dialogue brings topics out of the closet, thus reducing stigma.

Where is the hope?  My experience tells me some is with the media which is now delivering accounts of assaults, family violence, trials and references to mental problems; and with film-makers and TV producers of shows like "House" and "Glee."

Hope is with the PTA's and PTSO's, the Rotary Clubs, and all non-profits who know well the need for communities to understand and support mental health.

Mostly, though, my hope is with the educators and their students. Together, they are forming a bond to find the truth, spread it around, and teach what matters to others. Part of the truth lies in recognizing that:

  • many problems are gene-related and youth are entitled to know what problems may be present in their heritage,
  • youth can speak of youth-related problems better than professionals alone,
  • the arts are outlets for this expression,
  • community leaders are ready to listen and make great allies for youth.

What matters most is that young people make their struggles known. A Google to mental health provides a wealth of information. You can approach groups mentioned above, talk with psychology teachers, mental health organizations, and check out State Farm and Office Depot for internships or service opportunities. You might form an after-school club for people who want to make friends or be friends. What better way to demonstrate the character of a school/college. To demonstrate the character of your city you might check with the National League of Cities, to learn if your city has a youth policy in place. If not, ask to become involved with a committee to construct one. Teach what matters, do what matters.