Editorial: Mental Health is Everyone’s Responsibility
October 28, 2018
On the morning of August 28, 2018, nine-year-old Jamel Myles made his way to Joe Shoemaker Elementary School in Denver, CO. It was a Thursday, Jamel’s fourth day in the fourth grade. That afternoon, his mother picked him and his sister up from school, and after a family dinner, the kids were sent to clean their rooms. It was shortly after this that Jamel’s mother, Leia, pushed open his bedroom door to find that her son had hanged himself. Leia performed CPR, but it was too late—Jamel, 9, had successfully taken his own life.
Family and friends described Jamel as a creative, loving child. He loved to style his hair like his big sisters. He loved cartoons. He was also the target of unrelenting emotional abuse at school, because Jamel had come out as gay.
Some readers may question if a fourth grader has enough self-awareness to “come out.” While many sources claim that children first begin to acknowledge and question their sexuality between the ages of 9-12, those who emphasize Jamel’s sexual identity miss the point entirely: no matter what, it is our collective responsibility to build a safe, inclusive, and supportive culture in which children can grow into healthy young adults. The truth is that Jamel was punished for daring to be different in a world in which difference is still met by fear, ignorance, and hatred.
As a parent, I can attest to the reality that children are born with a unique temperament, a blueprint for who they will become. As a community, we can celebrate each child’s uniqueness and gently guide them to evolve into their best selves; if, on the other hand, we force children into narrow definitions of identity, they may perform in order to fit in, but they will always be unhappy, unfulfilled, shadow versions of their true selves.
We need to do better. The death-by-suicide of a 4th grader is the tragic, all-too-common consequence of a world in which we are constantly “connected” but increasingly isolated. Sometimes, this distance is simply the result of being caught up in the daily rush: school, work, homework, chores/responsibilities, sports, family. More than that, though, I think it’s a symptom of a larger problem—our unwillingness to view anxiety, depression, and self-doubt as normal and treatable, and our failure to practice empathy and compassion toward ourselves and others.
The stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness is the fly in the ointment of modern culture. As much as many of us might champion causes as diverse as free expression, or LGBTQ+ rights, or anti-racism, or women’s empowerment/#metoo, we still often retreat from difficult conversations about mental health.
See, mental health is not just one thing, but many. Sadness, anxiety, depression, self-hatred, and other forms of emotional despair are related but can often be traced to different causes. In other words, when it rains, it pours—and we are all sometimes guilty of leaving those we care about standing in the rain.
If they could talk to us, what would they say? The Mighty, an online health community, recently asked members to identify the one thing they wish people understood about their experience with mental illness, and their responses are telling:
“The serious lack of motivation. It’s so much more than that, but I don’t have the words to explain it. They always just end up thinking I’m lazy.” — Lisa C.
“My sadness — out of fear that others will judge me because of how minimal these problems seem to be. Little do they know, these ‘small’ problems are much bigger for someone like me. I’m constantly told: ‘to not beat myself up,’ ‘that’s nothing to cry over” or ‘you’ll get over it later.’ Sharing is hard when certain people can’t understand what it’s like to be in your shoes.” — J.T.
“Having everything doesn’t equate to happiness. People tell you to smile and remind you of all the people that ‘have it worse than you,’ and expect you to feel grateful for the daily continuous struggle that accompanies depression and anxiety. [I think] most of us are doing the best we can and do not need to be preached to.” — Jennifer H.
“The reason why I cancel plans at the last minute or when I disappear from our social circle from time to time. The few times I’ve spoken about it, people don’t get how being with people who love me is going to affect me. They don’t understand it’s nothing personal but a ‘me’ problem.” — Daria C.
“Simply the fact that I hide so much. I have so much inside of me that never comes out for several reasons. Either I can’t find words to accurately express the feeling or, more commonly, I don’t want to be more of a bother to people than I already feel. I feel like I need constant validation and that my problems are so redundant, but I keep them to myself a lot more than people around me realize because I know I’m already annoying enough.” — Shannon S.
The responses above point to common, relatable experiences: feeling that one is a burden to others, feeling unmotivated, feeling trapped in a cycle of anxiety, shame, and depression, and feeling unable to talk about it because of a fear of being labeled “crazy,” “needy,” “dramatic,” or “negative.” Ironically, we’ve all felt these struggles from time to time, which means we should be able to relate at least a little to what others are going through.
So, what can we do as a school community to support each other’s emotional health? To start, we should notice those around us in trouble and take the time to ask—really ask—if someone is ok. After that, just be willing to listen.
* Disclaimer: the most important rule to follow is to keep yourself safe. Do not attempt to confront someone you feel is unpredictable and may be violent or unstable. If you are concerned about someone but are uncomfortable intervening, always tell a trusted adult/school official. If someone you know has made serious comments about self-harm or suicide, the right thing to do is let someone know, even if your friend pleads with you to tell no one. If in doubt, call the toll-free number below for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (24 hours—they also have a chat feature).
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255