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Understanding Mental Illness in School and Common Misconceptions

Shannon Christensen, Writer

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May was National Mental Health Awareness Month. Along with awareness for mental health issues, the pure understanding for common mental illnesses is crucial in being supportive of the people who suffer from them.

In high school, most students are not aware of the real and serious impacts that mental health issues can have on their peers. A great sum of teenage students are known to not take mental illness seriously, passing it off as just being lazy or an excuse to get out of certain situations. Even some health care professionals like doctors and pediatricians are known to not take mental illness as seriously as physical health issues. Due to the stigma around mental illness, teenagers who do not suffer from them tend to make them into a bad joke.

After interviewing students and even alumni of New Milford High School, it was revealed that their peers show a kind of ignorance and criticism towards the concept of mental illness during school. An anonymous freshman at NMHS shares their story of a teacher not being sensitive or understanding at all towards mental illness and anxiety.

“The first time I had an anxiety attack was in school; I started crying because of a teacher yelling at me in front of the class, all attention on me. He eventually just told my friends to take care of it, and started making fun of the anxiety,” they stated. Shortly after the event, the student explains as other classmates were moving something for the teacher, he says, “Be careful with that box! It’s fragile, like a seventh grade girl!” 

Most students can appreciate that a teacher’s job isn’t to be a therapist for all of their pupils, but they also believe that teachers should be considerate for students with mental illnesses. NMHS alumni Natalya Malarczuk (’16) shares her opinion on a teacher’s position in these situations. “Way too often are symptoms of mental illness in teens dismissed as being lazy… if teachers really care, they should make the environment about learning and not about how much work you can do in a certain amount of time.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, twenty percent of teens ages 13-18 live with a mental health condition and 37% of mentally ill teens (age 14+) will drop out of school. With surprisingly high statistics like these, many teachers do try to be understanding with certain student’s issues.

NMHS English teacher Kellie Lawrence expresses her understanding of students’ life problems outside of school, noting that school isn’t the only atmosphere they have to live in. “I’m aware that life happens outside the classroom, so I remain open-minded to the fact that students struggle outside of school and those struggles can follow them into the classroom … I feel that some teachers, or people in general, have their own levels of empathy and those levels dictate how sensitive they might be to an emotion-infused situation.”

Many students do look up to their teachers for guidance or even just someone to listen to their struggles. Junior Isabella Lopez (’18) states, “I think most people have at least one teacher they can open to. I have a couple of teachers that I know I can converse with because they’ve made it clear that they respect me and what I’m going through.”

Relationships between students and teachers could play a huge role in their lives, as the student has someone to look to for guidance in certain life situations.

Throughout the halls, some students say they witness many situations in which their peers comment on other student’s personal issues. “A lot of times the things I hear are from students speaking about other students and things that stem from their mental illnesses or other serious personal problems, things the people talking don’t really understand. There’s a reason some kids can’t be in class everyday, and why this girl’s ‘always’ in the nurse, and that guy never has to get up to talk in front of the class. People don’t get that mental illness varies,” Lopez says. 

Whether you experience mental illness yourself or are just a supportive friend, it is important to know the different elements that go into student’s issues. Knowing not to dismiss signs or symptoms, making sure the person is okay, or when to reach out for help can be the few useful skills that can help people for years to come. Being open to the subject is always the first step, especially in an often immature environment of a high school.

An anonymous freshman states, “students are not sensitive enough when coming to not talking about it in health, as some make fun of or invalidate others; people could go on for years not knowing that they have a mental disorder. If we made it an open discussion instead of avoiding the tough conversation, it could help more people who are really struggling.”

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Understanding Mental Illness in School and Common Misconceptions