Part I: A New Kind of Poverty

suicide preventionOn Monday September 7th, most of us will be enjoying a day off, hopefully full of sunshine and BBQs.  What most of us won’t realize is that Monday begins Suicide Prevention Week.  It is this week and its importance to my family that has me writing this morning.

Following the death of my cousin Patrick, my family has become incredibly vocal about the importance of mental health.  Encouragingly, my family has not been the only place I have seen an in increase in conversation or calls for conversation.

My school year last year was a tough one, for both students and teachers.  Back in the spring, following an incident on campus that made local news, the zone superintendent came to a staff meeting.  He explained to us that our students were “different,” their home situations “extreme.”  We all stared back at him, willing him to tell us something we didn’t know.  He said we needed to “hold hands and just make it ‘til June 11th.”  The ideas of ‘just making it to summer’ and ‘next year is a new year’ have no place in education, particularly for students who are already behind in their education, sometimes by many years, but we’ll save the rest of that rant for another post.

The man running the meeting asked what the staff thought would most help our kids.  A brave colleague who is one of the best teachers I encountered in my school had a clear answer: access to mental health services and counseling.   The super began to rattle off some half-assed resources, focusing on one that the teacher countered had a six week wait list for an introductory evaluation appointment.  The teacher pressed on saying that she felt most (or at least a decent portion) of our students desperately need mental health support to be able to physically and emotionally endure the tough home lives and situations they live every day and be able to actively participate and learn in school. *Snaps to that*  She was ridiculed by the super and when she approached him after the meeting one-on-one, he walked away mid-conversation.  These are the people who are preventing the conversations that desperately need to happen.

Looking around the room, I could tell I was not the only staff member or teacher who agreed 100%.  I had spoken to various people (both colleagues and friends from outside of school) about this same issue, made apparent to me when I taught IW in my first semester.

A wildly intelligent young man who many had written off, IW was a good kid on a bad path.  What stood out to me most was not his intelligence but the anger he carried inside.  He has seen horrible things in his life, had lived in horrible situations and I even heard from a colleague that he may have witnessed his father’s murder.  ­­­­­I’d be angry, too.

Weeks after this meeting, I would listen to a students’ graduation presentation on divorce.  The project is meant for students to explore a topic of their interest, write a paper, create a product demonstrating what they learned and give a presentation judged by teachers about the topic.  For this young man, his parent’s divorce about 7 years ago was still beating him down.  He wrote a poem for his product and in it compared divorce to death.  To the student, this wasn’t a school assignment but a type of counseling.  The oral presentation was the only counseling available to him.  A time when he could say exactly what he was feeling and know adults were not doing anything but listening.  He was hurting and angry.

Even with students in less visibly extreme situations, if I put myself in their shoes, I would be angry.  Why was my family living in a hotel, making me late to school every day because I have to take the city bus to school?  Why did my mom have to work 3 jobs and miss my sports games just for our family to barely scrape by? Why did my friend feel he had no options but to turn to dealing drugs as a way to support his family?  Why do I attend a school with fights worthy of WorldStar? Why? Why? WHY?

Some may think the above questions may be ignorantly stereotypical, yet I can name one (if not multiple) student(s) in each of the above situations.  Being a teenager is hard enough, without the extreme situations they live through.  And when it all becomes too much, they have nowhere to turn, or worse, they turn to me and despite my best efforts and the emotional support and love I try to convey, I can’t actually do anything to help the situation.   We had a few counselors and a social worker at my school in Charlotte, and luckily for our kids they were extremely dedicated.  They could not provide what our students need most:  counseling to make them mentally healthy, enabling them to succeed.  How can you learn when you are not emotionally healthy, and how can you learn enough to grow multiple grade levels each year to get back on track?

They need accessible, efficient and affordable mental health services, and not ones that require insurance to be seen.   Mental health issues plague the young and the old, the wealthy and the poor, the insured and the non-insured.  They are a plethora of diseases that do not discriminate.  Until the point in time where my students have access to these services, students like IW will continue to be suspended on days when his anger is just too much and he explodes, telling his teacher to just “fuck off” as he walks out the door.   He will continue to fall further behind his affluent counterparts who would have immediately been monitored and put in grief counseling had they witness the murder of a parent.

Mental illness is a quicksand, preventing the bright futures of my students.  They don’t need another type of poverty to fight.  It is not well with my soul.  Join the conversation.

For more information about National Suicide Prevention Week and easyways to get involved or raise awareness visit  http://www.suicidology.org/about-aas/national-suicide-prevention-week

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