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.