Opinion: Prioritize Mental Health in Every Classroom
Content warning: this article contains mentions of self harm and suicide.
My decision to pursue elementary education came at a time in my life when I was thinking about how I could make the biggest difference in the world. What better way to do that than to help shape the minds of the future world leaders? Not only am I focused on helping to improve the lives of our youth academically, there is currently a lack of empathy for our kids and the state of their mental health. A recent interaction with one of my lecturers made me think of the way that daily communication with students might be negatively impacting their mental health and exacerbating suicidal thoughts.
I have had personal experience and have heard of other students lamenting how stressful school can feel sometimes. Psychotherapist and Addictions Specialist Vanessa E. Ford talks about how anxiety can lead to dissociation and to someone who is not thinking in empathy, he can look like a student simply not wanting to pay attention. For me, when I notice that I start dissociating and I need help to refocus, that may be through social media or specific supportive friends. My recent interaction came in a period of high stress and suicidal ideation. Though my dissociation rightfully seemed odd for my professor, it made me think about how students in school can be going through possible dissociation, stress, anxiety or suicidal ideation, and how our daily interaction with them as teachers can push them deeper into those thoughts.
John Ackerman, a clinical pediatric psychologist and the suicide-prevention coordinator with the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, said, “A lot of adults view elementary school-aged kids as incapable of experiencing the level of emotional distress that could lead someone to consider suicide, but we know very objectively that’s not true.” Students may be facing a host of issues that teachers and school administration may not be aware of. This includes but is not limited to financial issues at home, which leads to improper sleep and eating. In addition to the surface issues, students may also be facing emotional and mental issues that they aren’t able to explain or even have the support to explore.
According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide has become the second leading cause of death for those ages 10 to 14, and the 10th leading cause of death for those ages 5 to 9. This article is a reminder to those who work closely with not only our elementary-aged and teenage students, but also people in general that you never really know what’s going on. Some things may be a trigger for you but we can also exercise empathy and grace especially if something seems out of character. It is not our job as teachers to be mental health professionals but students are spending a huge amount of their daily lives in our care and if we set the foundation for them to know that someone cares, understands and wants to help, then maybe we can improve future generations after all.
By Khadejra Golding, Reporter