I am a high school teacher. Which means that in 2014 America, I add “getting shot” to my list of daily worries, along with differentiating instruction, scaffolding for English language learners, managing classrooms of 36 teenagers, grading sets of 140 papers, and coaching after school activities.
This past weekend, some several hours after the tragic shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Washington, a coworker of mine posted on social media her disappointment in the news media’s lack of coverage of this recent event, especially compared to its coverage of ebola. Her point was that school shootings, which often claim the lives of multiple individuals, have become so common-place that it’s not front page material enough to merit local and national news. Instead, ebola, which has thus far only claimed the life of one person in America, garners the bulk of the media hype. I find myself in complete agreement with her, a bit disgusted, and desperately wishing that we would turn our sensationalism as a nation from fear-based suspicions to daily tragic realities and their causes.
What am I talking about? Gun violence? Better campus security? What causes do we need to treat to prevent more school shootings? Two words: mental health.
Is gun violence a problem? Yes. Can campuses be more secure? Most certainly. Does increasing vigilance in either of these areas do anything for my student combating anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts? No.
According to an article published in 2009 for Policymakers, approximately 20% of adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Diagnosable. It’s unsettling to think about how we would begin to statistically address the undiagnosed cases. In other words, at least approximately 1 in 5 young adults will struggle with mental illness. That means that in my classroom of 36 young people, I should be on the lookout for a minimum of seven of my students to display characteristics of depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar, etc. In the last two years of my career, I can easily name two students who have shared with me their suicide attempts. I didn’t date a ton before I married my husband earlier this year, but two of my previous boyfriends struggled severely with mental health. A few members of my family battle anxiety and depression. I have close friends who have been or currently are on medication for anxiety and/or depression. There have been times in my own life when I have been medicated for mental health related diagnoses.
So, with numbers this high, where is the media? Where are the news reports? Why, when a student completely loses their mind and shoots their classmates, do we immediately turn to lawmakers and ask them to revise gun laws? Why do we add extra security locks on doors and have active shooter trainings at our school faculty meetings? Why don’t we have increased training on how to recognize mental illness? Moreover, why have I never sat in a training about how to help a student struggling with suicidal tendencies but I have told my kids where I want them to hide if a shooter comes in our classroom?
Unfortunately, when Robin Williams died in August of 2014 as a result of his own battle with mental illness, the media did begin to raise awareness of mental health. Sadly, it took the death of America’s beloved comedian and actor to heighten sensitivity to these issues and make them “ok” to discuss . The people who died at Columbine, at Virginia Tech, at UCSanta Barbara, at SandyHook, and at the movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado were apparently not important enough for us to look into these problems in more depth.
Furthermore, Williams has been laid to rest long enough now that even the hype surrounding his passing has faded. Instead, we rang in the month of October with “I 3> boobies” bracelets, pink sweatbands, and breast cancer awareness tea parties, t-shirts, and 10ks. Now, look, there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with this. We need to do research on cancer, we need to encourage people to be fighters, we need to celebrate survivors. What does seem a bit amiss about our culture is that we place more of our focus and attention on some “diseases” than others. It is more culturally acceptable to tout a t-shirt that says “I defeated breast cancer” than it is to wear one that says, “I defeated manic depression.” It is more popular to give your money to cancer research than to local and national institutions fighting schizophrenia.
On my own high school campus, October was littered with pink; we hosted football games and volleyball games dedicated to raising money for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Every May, we fundraise for the American Cancer Society by having a seniors vs. staff softball game, and it is wildly successful, an icon of our school spirit and dedication to good-will and philanthropy. And I am proud of all these things. But, it does not, cannot, and never will help us fight the invasion of mental diseases, and the possibility of a shooting that could leave more dead than breast cancer or colon cancer ever will on a high school campus. Recently, a friend of mine tried to host a week long of events for Suicide Prevention Week on our campus through the non-profit TWLOHA. He was told by both our local site and our school district that there was a process he needed to walk through in order to host something like that on campus and to wait for “next time.” Instead, last week and this week, our school hosted an Anti-Bully campaign and Red Ribbon Week. This past summer, facebook and instagram feeds were overcome by the “Ice Bucket Challenge,” a successful attempt to raise awareness of and fundraise for ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. These are all good and fine and wonderful, but realistically need to happen a bit more than one week out of the year, or one summer out of a hundred, and they need to be in conjunction with an equal concern for students’ mental wellness. A few days after my coworker’s attempt was denied, we held parent-teacher conferences on our campus, and I sat back in my chair and listened to concerned parents share with me about their child’s struggle with depression. Are we going to say “next time” when one of these kids does not get the help they need and they chose to lash out by hurting themselves and other students, teachers, and school staff members?
I am not sure if the reason why we choose to promote cancer and other less stigmatized disease research over mental health related research is based on our American myth of self-reliance and success, or just good old fashioned shame. What I am certain of is that if we want to see an end to the much more shameful fact that school shootings have become “normal” occurrences in America, then we need to be willing to get in depression’s face. We need to train our teachers, counselors, and school staff members on how to use more than guest speaker forms to prevent unwanted intruders on campus. We will probably need to do more than just raise awareness by asking people to wear a certain color on one day out of the year or do something shocking in front of a camera. We will need to make it just as acceptable for kids, teachers, and administrators to wear shirts announcing their struggle with and defeat of mental illness as it is for them to wear cancer survivor shirts. We will need to put mental health initiatives on the ballot in equal measure with gun restriction laws. We will need to, as a nation, commit to caring about our young people with half as much concern as we care about foreign disease invasions. Because, the truth is the disease IS here, and it’s been killing for a lot longer than ebola.