Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Mental Health Day is inconvenient

Imagine this: you are a grade 12 student who is at the tail end of English and Chemistry 30 that travels through too much curriculum at break-neck speeds with a Diploma exam that is worth half of your entire course's credit. And then imagine having intrusive thoughts where you can't stop thinking about killing yourself, you can't sleep and your anxiety is so high that you have a hard time going out in public.

Imagine this: you are a grade 10 girl who is fixated on chasing perfection which translates into an acute fear of failure. In order to attain your goal of 90 lbs., you starve yourself by only smelling food, imagining the calories entering your body through your nose. And when you do eat, you lock yourself in the bathroom, making yourself throw up followed quickly with 500 sit ups. You cut your arms from bicep to wrists with your dad's razor blade because its the only time you can really feel something. You can see the value in others but can't see why anyone would waste their time caring for you because deep down you know that you are a piece of shit that doesn't deserve to live.

Imagine this: you are a grade 3 boy who has been placed in isolation at school for weeks on end because the adults see you as a threat to yourself and others. You've been told over and over again how bad you are and you are starting to believe it. Relationships are built on coercion and manipulation. Rewards and punishments, threats and bribes are the default. Every interaction with adults is a power struggle where you engage in a cost-benefit analysis. When someone asks you to do something, you ask "what will I get if I do?" and when they threaten you, you ask "what will happen to me if I don't?"

Imagine this: your foster parents go on vacation and while they are gone, they inform your social worker that they have decided not to have you in their home anymore. You bounce from foster home to foster home where strangers who call themselves "family" enter and exit your life faster than a fiddler's elbow. You grow bitter and angry. To salvage your dignity, you isolate yourself from others and focus entirely on ensuring your own needs are being met through control and aggression. To test the conditional nature of these strangers, you look for ways to test their caring by refusing even their most reasonable requests, and you fully expect everyone to fail. Over time, you fail to receive appropriate care and come to believe that deep down this all makes sense -- trust is a swear word, relationships are hurtful and life is by definition hateful. Fuck everyone. Fuck everything.

As a teacher on a children's inpatient psychiatric assessment unit, I have seen variations of each of these four children. Each one is as real as they are tragic.

Despite their complex needs, I have come to see May 9th as an inconvenient day for Mental Health Day.

This can be true for many reasons but the purpose of this post is to show how ignorant and hurtful the school system can be towards children's mental health.

Here are but a few examples I have experienced where the system has placed its own needs ahead of the child:

  • In about a month from now, many students will enter final exam season, and addressing Mental Health on May 9 is adversarial to the school system's needs. Upon hearing that a grade 12 student was admitted to the hospital, one teacher lamented, "I just wish the student was removed from my class list. I know what's going to happen. They are going to miss class and when they write their diploma, they are going to pull down my class average."

  • Upon having their student admitted to the hospital, I had a school's guidance councillor contact me to ask what I was going to do about the student's grades. The student was taking remedial English for the second time and still only had a grade of 24%.

  • Sometimes teachers and administrators send tests for me to "administer" so that the teacher can fill in their gradebook.

Because children do not come to an inpatient psychiatric assessment unit to get caught up on their homework, I often find myself advocating for children in a way that protects their mental health needs against the needs of the education system.

Look, if these children were healthy enough to attend school they would, but they aren't. It's like we are in a boat with a hole that we can't fix because we are too busy rowing. Our relentless race to nowhere is fueled by an insatiable fear of "falling behind" academically. Pushing children to win this race never ends well.

It's time we stop putting the system's needs ahead of children's needs. It's time we pull our heads out of the sand and acknowledge what is truly going on. Until good people open their eyes and stand up for children, Mental Health Day will remain nothing more than a day we can check off our calendar.


  1. I certainly agree with you . I notice that there is an increasing acceptance of teachers using their sick days for mental health days. Students need this too. Beyond the fear of falling behind at school, I think parents feel a stress about leaving their children at home.

  2. It is bad enough that kids' education is limited to getting grades rather than addressing also emotional , socio-moral needs of kids. For challenging kids as you write , putting academics first is a sure way to ensure that these kids fall through the cracks

  3. There's a lot about children and their well being that we ignore out of our own self preservation.

    The teaching position I have at the hospital has opened my eyes to the abuse and neglect that many children experience every day of their lives.

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