Sunday Reflections: Thinking About Mental Health, a #MHYALit Post by Ally Watkins
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. For today’s Sunday Reflections my friend and frequent #MHYALit (Mental Health in YA Lit) contributor Ally Watkins shares a thoughtful piece about her own personal experiences. You can read all of the #MHYALit posts here, or click on the tag #MHYALit.
I had my first panic attack when I was in the fifth grade. I was sitting at my desk in my classroom doing a worksheet, and everything was fine. Until suddenly, everything wasn’t fine. The lights were too much, the work was too much, the people were too much, and then I was sobbing. It was terrifying and humiliating. None of the adults present had any idea what was happening to me, other than thinking I was maybe getting sick. I don’t remember if my parents were even told about the incident. I wouldn’t fully understand what had happened for nearly 15 years.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Here’s something to be aware of: if you work with children and teens, you are going to come into contact with kids that have mental illnesses. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 teens live with a mental health condition, with half of those developing it by age 14. The CDC reports that among children aged 3-17, 3% suffer from anxiety and 2.1% suffer from depression. (Both sites have more information and reading available.)
If you teach a class or do a class visit, multiple kids in those desks are dealing with these issues. If you have a large program, several of your attendees are living with mental illness. These kids may have had panic attacks like I did, or they may be despondent, or they may be overwhelmed and falling behind in school because of their health. They may not have any idea what’s happening to them.
Kids’ brains aren’t fully developed. They’re not making fully-informed rational decisions on the best of days, in the best of circumstances. And consider this: kids with mental health problems are constantly inundated by messages from their own brain that don’t line up with reality. A teenager with depression may believe that no one cares about them or that life isn’t worth living, even though that is patently untrue. A tween with anxiety may be in a constant state of panic, even if the stimuli in their environment don’t merit that visceral response. These things are hard enough to manage as an adult with a biologically more well-developed sense of reason and some years of experience under your belt. But take a minute to imagine how terrifying the world must seem to a child or a teenager whose perception is skewed by illness. Especially if that illness is undiagnosed.
I wrote a post in the fall called How To Help which highlights a few practical ways that we can provide for kids dealing with mental illness. We’re not doctors. We can’t diagnose or treat, and we shouldn’t try to. But as librarians and/or as educators, we need to be aware of what’s happening in our kids’ lives and be sensitive to that. We can work to fight stigma and we can help spread the idea that mental illness, like any other illness, isn’t anything to be ashamed of. We need to work to create safe, inclusive environments for all of the children and teens that we serve.
I don’t know what I needed that day in the 5th grade. But what I do know is that it can never hurt to have more adults understanding what the kids in their schools and libraries are dealing with. Educate yourself.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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