Editorial: Dismissing and Demonizing Mental Illness in School

MENTAL HEALTH ART-- stand up to mental health stigma and show compassion for those who have a mental illness

MENTAL HEALTH ART– stand up to mental health stigma and show compassion for those who have a mental illness

Justin Metcalf, Staff Writer

Sometimes students are truly unable to appear and perform in school. Students get sick, transportation needs can not be met, and emergencies happen, but what about mental illness? Is mental illness a valid excuse for students to be absent? Should those dealing with a mental illness be given extra time to turn in work?

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), “approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” School work is defined as a major life activity. When students have a physical sickness, they are typically excused from school -with an official doctor’s note, of course- and given a reasonable amount of extra time to complete assignments.  Mental illness, however, is slightly trickier than this.

A doctor’s note for a depressive episode is difficult to attain, so how can proof for an excused absence be provided due to a mental illness? There are ways to treat mental illness, but not everyone has access to treatment options. They can be expensive and individuals may not feel comfortable openly discussing their disorder with a doctor. Furthermore, proof should not be required. Students should be able to sit down and discuss the issues they are facing with their teachers and why they may require more time. Once again, this is a task easier said than done.

Not everyone understands mental illness,  moreover educated teachers/adults are sometimes no better at understanding it than students. Certain stigmas are connected to certain illnesses. Those with depression are told to “pull themselves together” or “stop being dramatic.” People wrongly believe having bipolar disorder entails suddenly shifting from content to outraged while having absolutely no control over one’s emotions. Added, the names for these disorders get thrown around so casually that they lose their true meaning. Because of stigmas like these, students with a mental illness may feel uncomfortable discussing their disorder with teachers and peers. For this reason, it is important for teachers and students to have an accurate understanding of mental illness.

If a student does, however, feel comfortable explaining their disorder with a teacher/adult, the student should be taken seriously. Shaming and disregarding a mental illness is just as abhorrent as stigmatizing it.  If a student needs to take a break from class or needs extra time on a test due to their disorder, the teacher should allow it.

There are a wide range of mental illnesses that affect everything from mood, thinking, and behavior to actions and bodily functions.  Not every mental illness has an understandable “because.” An upsetting event does not have to occur to spark up depression. There does not need to be too much going on for someone with ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivty disorder) to have no concentration. Those battling with a mental illness do no need to give an answer, likewise they may not have an answer. If someone seems to be dealing with a mental illness, that does not mean they should be bombarded with intrusive questions.

The key to understanding mental illness is respect. If there is respect for those dealing with mental illness in school, their lives and the lives of everyone else will be made easier.  NAMI has provided a list for 9 ways to fight mental health stigma: 1. Talk openly about mental health, 2. Educate yourself and others about mental health, 3. Be conscious of your language, 4. Encourage equality in how people perceive physical illness and mental illness, 5. Show empathy for those living with a mental health condition, 6. Stop the criminalization of those who live with mental illness, 7. Push back against the way people who live with mental illness are portrayed in the media, 8. See the person, not the illness, and lastly, 9. Advocate for mental health reform.

Students who are dealing with a mental illness deserve the  same respect and compassion that every other student receives. Mental disorders are on a spectrum and each disorder requires specific needs. It is important for everyone, students and teachers, to truly understand mental illness and how to make students with a mental disorder feel comfortable and safe.