It’s becoming more clear than ever that mental health issues are very real and very prevalent in our society. There are few of us who aren’t impacted, either by living or working with people who struggle, or dealing with our own mental well-being.
Mental health issues are nothing new. Soldiers returned from war 100 years ago with post-traumatic stress disorder, just as they do today. People likely had anxiety and depression in the Middle Ages. The problem was that no one talked about these challenges as normal. People who had them were seen as weak or labeled as “crazy.” So very few would talk openly about their struggles. They and their families suffered in silence and the problems perpetuated.
Even today, there’s very little understanding of these conditions and great trepidation in admitting we have them.
National Basketball League star Kevin Love, for example, recently stated that he has struggled with panic attacks that prevented him from playing the game he loves. He said he kept it a secret out of fear of being seen as “weak or weird or somehow less reliable as a teammate.”
When Toronto Raptors star DeMar DeRozan openly tweeted about his trials with depression, it was not only met with tremendous support and empathy, it freed others to speak about their mental health challenges. Love, for example, admitted that DeRozan’s comment on social media made it much easier to discuss openly what he was dealing with.
There’s definitely a great deal of ignorance regarding mental health. Despite the fact that many high school students deal with anxiety and depression, teachers receive little training in how to respond effectively to these students. And specialized programs to give students the supports they need often have long waiting lists.
How do we deal effectively with mental health to help the individuals who face challenges to achieve their dreams? The DeRozan example gives us many answers.
First, his statement regarding depression was met with acceptance and respect. One of the most fiercely competitive athletes in the world told us that beyond the spotlight he faces a darkness that simply won’t go away. It’s important to remember, however, that DeRozan is no more heroic than the children who show up for school every day despite the shadows in their lives.
Second, DeRozan has demonstrated that depression doesn’t have to be debilitating. He has chosen to accept it as part of his life, to seek professional help and to continue to grow as a person.
Third, the fact that DeRozan used his celebrity status to demonstrate that mental health issues are normal is extremely important. This is not only very empowering to people who have these conditions, it also gets people talking. The more we talk and ask questions, the more opportunity health professionals have to share useful information. When the truth becomes common knowledge, fear is diminished and the situation improves.
We have a long way to go in improving the understanding of mental health issues and in serving those who have them. As we learn to treat others with the respect they deserve, as we share useful information and as we give people the tools they need to empower themselves, we realize that mental illness is really no different from physical illness. The solutions are also similar.
The more we learn, the more we realize that facing mental health challenges is simply part of the human condition as we strive to become the best that we can be.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.