Broken and Healing: Normalizing Mental Health Issues in Our Classrooms

If we want our students to feel safe and accepting of their own mental health issues, can we model that by being open ourselves?
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"So, what's something you have trouble with that we could help with?" The lanky eighth-grader looks at me eagerly, surrounded by his group mates, pen poised to take notes. 

This group of students from a colleague's science class are standing with me in the back of my classroom, and they are working on an assignment: Their task is to design something for a teacher or another student. 

"Well, there's the stuff you can probably guess," I start off. I coach three of them in track, so I list things they likely already know: achy knees, sore hamstrings and quads. I mention the tricky shoulder issue I've had for a few months. The students write everything down.

Then, I stop. They look at me, and I know I could stop there. I could let them go and figure something out, but something makes me continue. "I also struggle with anxiety and panic attacks. I have since I was probably around your age, so you could try and do something with that."

To their credit, the students don't flinch or look surprised. They keep taking notes, one smiles and says, "Thanks, Coach!" And then they go to work.

For the past few years, I've been operating under a very personal principle I have settled on as an educator. It's important for me to normalize conversations around mental health and support in my classroom. So, when it's appropriate, I am open about my own mental health journey with my students. 

When opening up our personal lives to students, there's a fine line between what's appropriate and what may not be. I don't spend a lot of time going into the details of my anxiety, nor would it be right to turn my classroom into my personal therapy session (plus, I think my actual therapist is probably better trained than a group of 13-year-olds). 

But when we're reading a book that deals with anxiety and suicide, or when nearly everyone on our island thinks we might get hit by a bomb, I can expect that mental health may come up with my students. And when it does, I address it. I say, without fanfare or shame, that I empathize with a character's panic attack since I have those too. I joke with them that, after the missile threat, I knew my therapist and I would have something to talk about that week.

I have to assume some of my students are on a journey like mine. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, 20 percent of students 13 to 18 years old deal with some kind of mental health issue, and 8 percent experience some kind of panic or anxiety disorder. What's worse, though, is the fact that it often takes eight to 10 years for adolescents with mental illness to share their symptoms and seek some kind of support.

The thing is, I understand why it's so hard to get help. I remember what it was like when my body felt out of control and I didn't know why. I remember hating the fact that I was "too emotional" or "so sensitive" or would have these waves of sadness and fear that made it hard to just be a kid sometimes. As wonderful as my parents were at trying to get me help, that fear and shame followed me through college and even into my first few years of teaching. 

Ultimately, it was not until after I left the classroom—I'd left teaching years ago and then returned—that I felt strong enough to name and publicly own my mental health journey. And while writing about it (both as a runner and an educator) has been a powerful experience, the most important benefit came when people reached out and said, "This happens to me, too." 

Shame is a construct built on the idea that we are the only ones struggling with something that other people would judge us for if they knew. Sharing my story with others allowed me to see that my experience with anxiety wasn't something I had to be ashamed of. I wasn't alone. 

This is the assurance and validation I want students to find in my classroom. 

The decision to disclose your own mental health journey is incredibly personal, and there's no right or wrong choice. Still, I recognize the immense privilege I have to access support that allows me to feel safe enough to share my story. 

If we want our students to feel safe sharing symptoms or asking for help, can we model that by being open ourselves? Can the mention of my own panic attacks or the fact that I see a therapist perhaps make a student feel less ashamed of their own experiences?

In the end, the group of students who approached me that day decided to focus on my achy knees and tight quads. Still, I hope that my willingness to share "panic attacks" as commonplace and understandable an ailment as "aching knees" continues to be matched by the grace and understanding those students showed me that day. I hope my students who have mental illness will witness that acceptance—both from one another and from me—and see the struggle in their minds and hearts as one just as worthy of support and compassion as any other challenge they may be facing.

Torres is an eighth-grade English teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii.