Illness can be incredibly lonely. Often, mental illness is doubly so because it is hidden away inside the sufferer or stigmatized by those it does not affect. We do not have enough mental health care providers in our country and, at least where I live, that is especially true for children. More and more of the emotional support for these children is provided by people in homes and in schools. Teachers do not always receive training in mental health, but it is becoming increasingly important in their daily work.
I believe that one of the best things that teachers can do to help support their students is to talk about emotions and destigmatize feelings of fear, anxiety, and depression in their classrooms. We have to share with our students that they are not alone in feeling this way. We also have to explain that there are differences in how intensely people experience these emotions and how our brains respond to the chemicals that regulate our emotions. Sometimes, people need help to manage the feelings they are dealing with and that is no different than needing glasses, insulin shots, or non-dairy milk. Children need to feel comfortable talking about their emotions so that they do not hide them away.
In Small Things by Mel Tregonning, anxiety eats away at a little boy, literally. This wordless book shows in images what it can feel like to suffer from intense anxiety or other mental illnesses. It also ends with an encouraging message to find support from others when dealing with overwhelming emotions. While this story is wordless, it could be an incredible story to share as a whole class. It might be easiest for students to interact with this book if a teacher is able to project the pages onto a screen. Give students the time to talk about what they are seeing and allow them to process the images in their own ways. Also remind them that if they are not comfortable sharing with the group, they can always come talk to a safe adult or a close friend.
Sometimes the best thing we can do for students is to make the hard things visible so they know that these are not deficits or failings. It may not make them easier to deal with, but at least it offers the hope of a better tomorrow.
Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:
Diversity 6- Students will express comfort with people who are both similar to and different from them and engage respectfully with all people.
Diversity 8- Students will respond to diversity by building empathy, respect, understanding and connection.
Action 16- Students will express empathy when people are excluded or mistreated because of their identities and concern when they themselves experience bias.
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