My students knew I was depressed before my colleagues did

During our training, we were told that students are far more perceptive than we’d expect. Students can tell if you don’t care, students can tell if you’re fake, students can tell if you’re pretending to be someone you’re not. These are all true, but who knew they’d also sniff out my depression?

They didn’t exactly read it from my face, but there are plenty of other signs they could pick up.

I was in the hospital visiting a student who’s recovering from a traumatic injury (and overall near-death experience), when I decided to tell him about my history with depression. It thought it would be a good way to start a conversation about how we can commit to learn and grow from life’s tragedies.

But before I could elaborate, he cut me off: “Oh, I knew that. I saw that book you were reading.” He’s referring to The Catholic Guide to Depression (How many times have I referred to this book on my blog? You’d think I was getting paid to plug it…). I have a rather messy workspace in the classroom, and would leave my non-class-related things at random corners. Now I wonder how many students saw my little orange bottle of antidepressants.

On a separate occasion, I was letting my students know ahead of time that I wouldn’t be in school the following day. I didn’t expect anyone to bat an eyelid, but one of them began “badgering” me.

“Why?”
“I need to see my doctor tomorrow.”
“Oh, during the day? What’s wrong with you?”
“We can talk about this after class.”
“No, just whisper it to me.”

While his desk mate was paying no attention, I casually explained, “I will be seeing a therapist tomorrow. The first appointment has to be during the daytime. Don’t worry, I won’t have to miss school for this in the future.”

Of course, he wanted to know more, this time with a hushed voice and a look of concern in his eyes.

“Wait, so what’s wrong with you?”
“Just finish your work, and we can talk more after class, okay?”

The sweet boy just wouldn’t have it, so finally I whispered, probably against protocols of appropriacy, “I was diagnosed with depression. But don’t worry, it’s under control.” I did not expect him to whisper back, “Oh, I think I have that too.” But I’m thankful he did — otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to support him as comprehensively as I now can.

Sensing that there is much potential for this “secret” to be “used” for good in the classroom, I told another student. This particular student wasn’t struggling with anything particularly atypical of a high-schooler, but he struggled a lot with motivation. He found it hard to want to do anything that was difficult or unfamiliar, which you unfortunately encounter a lot in Math. I was getting a lot of “I don’t want to do this anymore” and “I’m calling my mom” from this boy.

One day, I sat him down and told him about how hard it was for me to go through college while depressed. I shared this not to guilt-trip or shame him, but to explain how things would have turned out much different had I lived according to the mantra of doing only things that are easy or comfortable. I also shared how my deepest regrets from my younger days are exactly that: forgoing many opportunities for growth simply because they weren’t within my comfort zone. “You know, that’s why I still can’t ride a bike today.” That drew a chuckle, but I knew I finally had him in a way that would last a longer than my previous ‘life lectures’. The message was clear: we won’t grow if we’re never uncomfortable.

I believe there is room for vulnerability (in appropriate doses and at appropriate times) in the classroom. It makes you more human, a concept many students find difficult to grasp.

And it helps establish genuine relationships. Some believe it’s better to keep things “professional”, but I doubt that’s universally applicable. These relationships, in turn, will help you teach. Not just classroom material, but lessons in life and virtue.

IMG_7379
A candid shot taken by my colleague

Related post: My students are helping me recover from depression, “It all started with tea.”

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18 thoughts on “My students knew I was depressed before my colleagues did”

  1. This confirms what I first learned last year, kids are deeply perceptive and affected by the people in their environment. You are also perceptive for recognizing this on your own. I believe we trust our intuition a lot more when we are younger; being taught that all knowledge is cerebral/logical leads us to discount our gut.

    During a period of great silent stress in my marriage, my son developed OCD. The therapist said he sensed the tension and was acting out the unaddressed stress in the marital relationship. She was right. Once my husband finally came out and said he changed his mind about having a baby, my son’s OCD symptoms gradually disappated. He is in such better spirits now that my covertly abusive husband lives away from us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing! I’m happy to hear your son is doing much better, and that you are no longer in an unhealthy living situation! You make me wonder if my depression had anything to do with the great tension between my parents…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It could well have played a large role. I imagine it destabilized your sense of security. A family in crisis is hard on everyone, but most of all on the children.

        I hope the tension between your parents has resolved. My parents had a rocky, emotionally abusive marriage…it definitley affected my feelings of being grounded in life.

        During the period of time my son had OCD, I ended up having an episode of suicidal ideation and I know it was a result of the tension my husband created by claiming all was okay when it wasn’t and then dropping the “no baby” bomb on me.

        I am glad you found meds that are working well for you. My doctor recently prescribed me trazodone and it is crazy how my mind is clearing from the meds at work and also by the side effect that allows me a full, uninterrupted night of sleep. I am starting to feel vibrant again. The right medication can change things so dramatically.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent points. I served as a pastor for 18 years while battling bipolar and some of the most fruitful ministry moments I experienced was when I could share my struggle with others as a way to empathize as well as encourage them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You are an excellent teacher. As a parent, I feel it is important that teachers recognize their importance as role models and community leaders. You are in the forefront of creating our nation’s future. Depression is one of only many topics that society needs to understand better and learn to tolerate or properly address. It is a fact of life. I’m not saying every personal issue needs to be shared with every student, but for some young people it would be appropriate, like the boy who said he believed he was depressed too. Maybe he will explore seeing a therapist himself because someone he knows, trusts and respects has done it and wasn’t too embarrassed to share. Thank you for being you. Best of luck!

    ☀ Memee

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Memee, thank you so much for this comment! I’m not yet a full-fledged teacher and am current working with small groups of students at a time. The plan is to obtain my Master’s in Special Ed next year to become fully certified! 🙂 You’re right that there needs to be discretion and good judgment exercised when deciding what to share/not share, and I absolutely agree with you on teachers being role models and community leaders. I think you’d really love this post, where I write about precisely that: https://karenwriteshere.com/2014/12/03/please-dont-be-a-teacher-if-youre-not-going-to-love-your-job/

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  4. It is so wonderful you are doing this. If you are not open with them and honest they will not feel as comfortable with you. I am alive today because one of my teachers was not “appropriate”. She let me come talk to her even when I had moved on to a new school ,and was there. She let me in and in turn I let her in. When I had reached the end of my rope and I could not hold on anymore I turned to her because I knew she would help me. And she did. Because of her I am alive and I got the help I needed. Now it is 8 years later and (in part) I became a teacher because of her.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for sharing that part of you with us. People underestimate students but what’s so glaringly true is that they are people who have been, in essence, exercising their brain matter with a wide array of topics since they could barely speak. Their young nubile brains are ripe for soaking up all the information they come into contact with even the unspoken things. You’re important to them so they are interested in you and they paid attention to you. I think that’s amazingly sweet.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. So good to hear a teacher be honest about their own mental health – it helps destigmatize mental illness, empower students to open up about their own struggles and for the building of powerful relationships with your students. Congratulations!

    Liked by 1 person

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