Mental Illness

Sometimes, the topic of mental illness comes up in class. It usually goes something like this: the kids without mental illness say things that they don’t intend to be inflammatory but are, and the kids with mental illness get offended. You know, things like, “All you have to do is decide to be happy.”

Well, if you’re born with a chemical imbalance or if the events in your life have thrown your system so far from normal that you’ve developed a chemical imbalance, you can’t just “think your way out” of that shit storm.

But that’s a tough concept for people to understand.

So I tell the kids this story from my own life – well, my sister’s life – that really helps. You’re free to borrow the analogy if you ever need it.

My sister always made sure she sat in the front of the classroom so that she could see the board clearly because she didn’t want teachers thinking that she was one of the “bad kids” who sat in the back. She thought it was unfair that schools were built with classrooms so large that someone was forced to sit in the back of the room and she thought that kids who chose to sit there were clearly inferior students who didn’t care about their grades.

Then she got glasses. And then she realized that those “bad kids” in the back of the classroom weren’t choosing to sit there because they didn’t care; they were sitting there because they didn’t have problems seeing the board.

The thing is, my sister didn’t know she needed glasses until she was 15, when she said something in class about not being able to see the board and her teacher sent her to the nurse for a simple eye test. Until she said something that someone else paid attention to and recognized as a problem, she didn’t know anything was wrong with her. She had no way of knowing that the rest of us didn’t have problems seeing the board because she was in her body with her eyes, not in our bodies with our eyes. And when she did realize something was amiss, she needed glasses to fix it. She couldn’t just decide to see the board better or to stop squinting at road signs and subtitles in movies. Glasses were her only way to see and experience life like the rest of us.

Mental illness is like that. Sometimes, people don’t know they have a problem until someone else says something. Sometimes, people need help from something outside of themselves (glasses…medication) in order to experience life in a more “normal” way.

Phrasing the story like this usually leaves my class quiet for a moment until someone – usually someone with a mental illness – nods slowly and says, “Yes. It’s exactly like that.”

Phrasing the story like this also gives kids without mental illness something real and physical to hold on to, especially since so many of them wear corrective lenses and understand my sister’s story because it’s also true in their lives.

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