By Jeni Gearhart
16.1 million adults (6.7% of the population) have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.
Last year, I was one of those 16.1 million.
I have gone through four distinct depressions in my life. My first year of college, my first year after graduating college, my first year of teaching, and last spring/summer. You don’t need to know my entire history to realize that it is a factor that has affected my life as an adult.
It has not, however, defined my life.
Depression has made me a better teacher. That is the story I want to tell.
Depression has made me more empathetic, more compassionate, and more passionate about my calling as a teacher. Truthfully, though I absolutely hate those periods of my life when I experience depression, those “lows” make me far more appreciative of the joy felt outside of it.
Being prone to depression can make teaching difficult. When you barely feel able to get out of bed, the idea of being “on” for 8+ hours, let alone energetic and happy in front of 30 teenagers can feel insurmountable. Planning an engaging, thoughtful lesson can be incredibly difficult when simply making decisions on what to pack for lunch is nearly impossible.
And yet, teaching keeps me afloat when I feel at my worst. My students give me joy. Pretending to be happy for them makes me feel just a little bit happier for myself. Teaching gives me purpose. My students get me out of bed on those days.
Last summer, when I experienced my worst depression in ten years, teaching pulled me out of it. Well, teaching, a support system of caring confidants, and antidepressants.
I cannot oversimplify this story. This depression is the one that changed my narrative. At the encouragement of close friends, I sought medical help and was prescribed antidepressants for the first time. I was afraid to take them. The stigma of depression made me fear what it meant to be “medicated”. In my depressed state, I feared that I would be judged. I judged myself, even. Why couldn’t I beat this on my own? I chose to take the medication, and it was one of the best decisions for my overall health and wellbeing.
As of August 1 of this year, I have been on antidepressants for one full year. I’m so glad that I forced past both the stigma and my personal fear and made this decision.
As I mentioned before, this depression changed my narrative. I’ve experienced depression in the past, but not until this year have I recognized how essential it is that we normalize the conversation about mental health. Mental health is as important as physical health.
As teachers, we need to be reminded of this fact. We already don’t take care of ourselves. By default, most of us are overinvolved. We have our school responsibilities, extracurriculars, and community commitments. There is more paperwork every year, and less time to do it. The needs of our students (physical, emotional, intellectual) are overwhelming. We feel underprepared and unable to take care of all their needs.
And, I would surmise that most of us got into this field because we have a big heart, and we feel deeply for our students. I would take a guess that the percentage of teachers who struggle with anxiety and depression is probably above the average for the general population (Health.com ranks us at #7 in their top 12 careers with high rates of depression).
We need to talk about our mental health. It is very easy as teachers to put on a show and hide what is going on beneath the surface. The expectation is that teachers are super humans. We have no first name, no opinions, and no personal life struggles.
Now, that does not mean that I should ever let my personal struggle interfere with my ability to do my job well. My students are not my counselors, nor do they need to know the specifics of my struggles. But, I do think that it is perfectly appropriate to tell students that I have dealt with depression and anxiety in the past. Does this matter for all of my students? No. But it starts to normalize the issue. It makes it OK for them to talk to their friends, me, a guidance counselor, or other trusted adults.
I am thankful to be a teacher who has experienced depression. When a student is struggling with depression, I get it. I recognize it, and I have a different level of compassion for them. Do I lower my expectations for them in my class? No. But, I give them grace and point them in the direction of those who can offer more help. I remind them that they are strong. They are capable. They are worthy. They are loved.
We talk about mental health in my English classroom. When we discuss characters who we would otherwise label “insane” (AKA: Lady Macbeth), I make it known that we are labeling their actions for a thematic purpose, but that there is far more beneath the surface that we are not told. When we discuss Hamlet, we also discuss Hamlet’s depression. And, of course, YA lit is full of these struggles.
A few years back, I got a sweet note from a student. A student who never talked to me specifically about her experience with depression. She thanked me for how I discussed mental health (offhandedly, I don’t think it was the purpose of my lesson). She said “Thank you for treating depression like it is something ‘real’, not something that just happens to ‘those other people’. You made my experience real. You made me ok.”
Teaching is hard. Life is hard. Both are so beautiful.
I’m so thankful to be a teacher who has experienced depression.
WVCTE is wondering...
As teachers, what conversations about mental illness should we be having? How do we maintain our mental health in an emotionally demanding profession?
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