Project Semicolon (and Three Myths We Should Bust)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


I recently learned about a movement called Project Semicolon by following a fellow educator, Nick Provenzano. He’s one of those real edubloggers that actually writes helpful and informative things about education, unlike yours truly, who encourages you to eat frozen macaroni and cheese out of fancy teacups.


Project Semicolon is dedicated to presenting hope and love to those who struggle with depression, self-injury, and suicide. In the way that a semicolon means a sentence isn’t over, The Semicolon Project encourages people to recognize that their story isn’t over; the idea that you are the author of your story, and you are choosing to continue.

I have many (too many) students who struggle with depression. I can’t tell you how many essays or poems I’ve read that I’ve had to show our school counselor; how many students I’ve sat with who have burst into tears when, privately, I’ve asked them if they would like to talk with me about what they wrote. Middle school is already a highly emotional, highly chaotic time for young people, and adding a chemical imbalance into the mix complicates things even further. The grieving I do for students who struggle with mental illness is a yearly affair.

I’ve touched on depression in a post about teenagers and writing before, but I’ve never spoken about my own. I think it’s important that as educators, we are willing to talk to our students and each other about mental illness.

I didn’t know I had depression or anxiety until very recently. I was having a pretty rough time, but thought it was just work-related, and figured I was experiencing a very normal reaction to a difficult situation.

But after a while, I noticed that my brain just wasn’t working the way it normally did. I couldn’t reason with myself. When I was sad or stressed (which was almost all the time) I would get in these really terrible headspaces where I would take a very minor, normal life hiccup and just spiral into madness. Example: “I have a headache” -à “Oh no, I usually don’t get headaches” à  “This is probably very serious” à “I’m sure I have a brain tumor” à “I always knew I was going to die young.”

Now, typing this, I can see how the absurdity borders on being humorous, but at the time I couldn’t convince myself otherwise. I knew I was being irrational, but at the same time knew--I mean knew-- that I had brain tumors, or was going to get lead poisoning from a waiting room with peeling paint, or cancer from not washing a tomato. I would tell myself out loud, “You’re overreacting. This is crazy. You’re not going to die.” But even knowing these things, on a near-daily basis I was vacillating between sending myself into a panic or crying from not understanding why I couldn’t reason my way out of it.

When I finally saw a therapist (side note: when I rule the world, ALL teacher insurance plans will cover therapy), she told me it was likely I was suffering from a combination of depression and anxiety. Not severe or life-threatening, but enough to seriously interrupt my daily life and my sleep, which could lead to bigger future health problems.

“Nah,” I told her. “I don’t think so. I mean, apart from the past few years, I’ve been fine. I don’t remember ever being like this. My childhood was eerily perfect.”

“Well, both depression and anxiety are caused by chemical imbalances in your brain,” she explained. “So if you do show the symptoms of them, it’s likely you’ve always had these imbalances, but didn’t have a reason for them to present themselves as strongly as they are now. A lot of people didn’t experience high stress as children. Do you remember being anxious as a child?”

“No,” I said immediately, then thought for a second. “Well, yeah. I remember being tired a lot in kindergarten in particular because I would lay awake at night imagining all the horrible ways my family could die.”

My therapist nodded slowly, the way she must have nodded at thousands of crazy people before me.

“Upon hearing myself out loud just now,” I said. “I think you may be right.”

That conversation was about six months ago. Since then, I’ve made tons of progress through a combination of a low-dosage antidepressant and therapy. The medication isn’t a “happy pill”—I still worry and get upset, but the difference is that now I can actually listen to the part of my brain that says, “Hey, you probably don’t need to worry. This turbulence will probably not result in a jet engine falling off."

Because I know I’m not alone in being an educator with depression and anxiety, here are three myths that I think need to be dispelled:

1) Students don’t want to know about your experience with depression or anxiety.

Because neither of my mental illnesses are severe enough to really interfere with my teaching, I didn’t think I ever needed to talk about them at school. I thought it might be awkward, like a strange plea for sympathy, or be ammunition for Crazy Parents (“My daughter failed this quiz and said Ms. Teach has depression—how can I know she is being graded fairly when her teacher is MENTALLY UNSTABLE?”)

But it turns out that knowing about my mental illnesses was actually helpful for my students. I never made some weird class announcement or gave a passionate lecture; it just happened to come up organically in a class discussion on a poem about depression. One of my students joked that I seemed to know a lot about depression, and I just replied conversationally that I have it, but that I have healthy ways of dealing with it that makes it easier. Once I’d opened the door on this “taboo” subject, I found that so many of my students had been waiting for an opportunity to talk about it—either in themselves or in family members, and some of them really needed serious professional help that I was able to connect them with from our school counselor. Even as an anonymous blogger I don’t feel comfortable going into more detail than that, but you should know that I now think it is of utmost importance that teachers be willing to talk about things like this openly and honestly. 

2) Coworkers don’t want to know about your experience with depression or anxiety.

Let me be very clear that it was my pride and not any kind of humility that kept me from telling my coworkers about my mental illness. I didn’t want anyone thinking I was weak or weird.

That’s probably my life motto, actually. Anyway.

After I told my close friends at school, I had no idea why I’d been so hesitant to talk to them about it. Nobody so much as batted an eyelash, and they were all grateful that I told them. Some even had depression or anxiety themselves. Telling them helped me, too, in that I now had support in separating reality from my anxiety.

Me: Do you think I could get tetanus from the scratch I got from the staple remover?

Coworker: You don’t have tetanus. Next.

I wouldn't recommend making a formal announcement at your next faculty meeting (I think we all know people at school who would abuse others' personal information), but don’t be afraid tell the people you work closely with and trust the most.

3) People with mental illnesses are less effective teachers.

This is about as true as saying that people who are left-handed can’t swim.

Because of my surplus of pride I spoke about earlier, I know I’m a good teacher. But interestingly, when I think of the best teachers I know in real life, four out of five of them have struggled (or currently struggle) with depression and/or anxiety, and I would say that all of them have more severe cases than I do.

Illness does not equal weakness.

Someone in your school—student, coworker--needs your story.

Don’t be too proud to tell it.

Today, July 14th, join other educators with the hashtag #semicolonEDU to speak up about mental health.




  1. An extremely important post. When I finally let my very real and very debilitating OCD "secret" out, it was so helpful to me personally, and to others who struggle (which by the way is everyone in this life). We do need to be transparent (in other words, the TRUTH), with wisdom of course.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing! When I began counseling to deal with major stress at work, I didn't want anyone to know. Yet, when I did share this with my close friends and some students, I felt such relief that I didn't have to pretend to be unfazed by stress in my life.

  3. Thank you so much for putting this out there. Bipolar disorder runs in my family and my husbands, and I suffer from anxiety. I strongly believe that as a society we need to learn to discuss mental illness of all types, but most of all depression.

  4. Having dealt with OCD for many years, I tell my students that I sometimes need things done a certain way and the reason why. It certainly makes me more human to them, and it relieves some of my anxiety about needing things done a certain way. What I'm trying to say is: Great post!

  5. I love all of this piece but the end the most. It is the stigma we all fear. We fear that other will allow the illness to define us instead of the other incredible person we are. How brave you are to shard your story with others and with your students. It is not until we prove to others that mental illness is only a part of us not who we are that others will begin to truly understand the incredible resilient, strong and brave individuals we all are (mental illness or not)

  6. Thank you for being so brave and sharing this. I am a first year teacher and have been struggling with anxiety and depression for a long time. It's good to know that I will be able to become a great teacher despite this condition.

  7. Thank you for sharing all of this. That last comment, about the four or five best teachers you know? It's true, now that I think of it. I'm a newbie teacher, but some of the the best teachers I've observed in the last few years of grad school and now teaching prove that true. My coteacher last year always said you have to find a way to let all the love out of your heart but keep the hate/vitriol/gossip from coming in, and I think this goes along with that. Talking about our own struggles lets that love out.

  8. Yep, the above comment answered my other comment...
    So, anyhoo, I am a big fan of this site. Your cardigan comment made me follow you on fb and everything else since has been inspirational and uplifting. It's mainly because you are giving me confidence to be me and that has then made me enjoy what I do more. Thanks so much!

  9. Awesome, amazing, perfectly lovely post. I, too, live with a mental illness. I taught grade 8 this year and my students found an article on-line that I had written for the Huffington Post about a particularly difficult time I had gonet through. A few of them said they felt bad for me but I just kept it simple and said that I was fine now and that lots of people go through difficult times. My students never had a problem with it (unlike my principal, who was completely awful and unprofessional about the whole thing). Thank you for sharing your story. I think being open with our students will help lower the stigma around mental illness and make our students more open to asking for help.

  10. Thanks for an honest and vulnerable post as always, Teach. Only comment to add is that the terminology of "crazy people" when you talked about interacting with your therapist seems contradictory to your overall message. Like you, I think therapy should be more widely accessible and I think it's a tremendously powerful avenue of exploring and sharing your thoughts. But I also think all of those things are pretty normal, and not crazy at all. I know there was nothing negative or judgmental intended there, but I also think you understand the weight words can have better than most. Enjoy the rest of your summer and good luck at your new school! Looking forward to reading about it.

  11. Hi! I am a high school student recovering from anorexia, depression, anxiety, and self harm. I agree that you should share your story- for one thing, I would have been so much more comfortable talking about my struggles if I knew someone understood. In fact, the first person I ever told about my anorexia was my 8th grade English teacher. Do not be ashamed of this- having a mental illness doesn't make you a lesser person. You will come out of this so much stronger and more understanding. In the mean time, you just have to keep fighting! Don't ever give up :*

  12. I love how honest this is. I teach high school, and I have SO many kids struggling with depression and shame over their diagnosis. This is the kind of honest stuff that we need to have in our schools!

  13. Thank you for sharing this! I'm about to start my first year of teaching and I have been worrying (ha!) about how my anxiety will affect my career. This was really encouraging to read! Thanks for being honest :)

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