Mental Health 101

My dad always says that real education is what’s left when you’ve forgotten all the facts.  I wish more people thought the same way; however, as I and many others have often lamented, our modern education system seems to be far more concerned with teaching kids how to pass a series of standardized tests and how to meet various state-regulated benchmarks than teaching them how to learn, how to think for themselves, and how to survive in the adult world.  For example, I have heard stories from friends and family in the education field about schools/districts that essentially coddle the lazy and negligent, that allow students to re-take tests as many times as they need until they pass, and that won’t even allow teachers to deduct points if an assignment is late.  Their justification, so I’m told, is that making sure the students learn the course material (eventually) is what’s truly important.  Now, I’m not arguing that the material itself doesn’t matter,  but I also believe that students need to learn other things in school aside from the quadratic equation and iambic pentameter.  They also need to learn respect for authority, teamwork, self-motivation, problem solving, organization, how to meet deadlines, and other useful skills that will benefit them in literally every aspect of life.  This is one element of education that I feel has been sorely neglected — learning how to function in the often frightening world around us.

On that note, I was recently reminded of some heartfelt words I wrote a little over a year ago in another blog post, when I explained “how vastly unprepared I was to handle — or even comprehend — a loved one struggling with clinical depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, a crisis of faith, trust and abandonment issues, etc. I knew nothing, and even now, I’m still learning. But years ago, I naively and arrogantly believed that I was strong enough and could love [my wife] well enough to push past all of the darkness. I believed that simply putting her in a safe, loving situation with ‘a nice guy’ would inevitably lead to healing.  And when it didn’t, it lead to anger and resentment. When I realized that my efforts weren’t enough, whenever our relationship felt like it was spiraling out of control, my lamentable reaction was to attempt to gain control, sometimes through methods that were ultimately harmful.  My life had always fit within a neat, orderly little box. It worked. It made sense. I took so many things for granted. And when life got messy — when those basic structures began to fall away — I refused to accept it. When I felt pushed, I pushed back… and I’ve never regretted anything more.”

Looking back over a decade later, I wish that I had been better prepared.  I wish that I had known more.  I wish that someone had helped me to understand.  And that’s kinda the idea behind this blog post.  After mulling it over in my head for a little while, I now strongly feel that some kind of course in mental and emotional health should be a standard, required part of our public school curriculum.  Just think about it.

Starting around, say, junior high, kids could start learning the truth about depression, anxiety, grief, PTSD, bipolar disorder, physical and sexual abuse, etc.  They could learn about the various ways people respond to trauma and how loved ones can help.  They could learn about the effects of divorce and abandonment on children.  They could learn to identify the signs that a friend may be suicidal.  They could learn the about the dangerous psychological ramifications of bullying, especially in this age of social media.  They could learn (maybe from a veteran) that taking a life isn’t as glamorous as it can seem in the movies.  They could learn about sexual consent and hopefully understand the lifelong damage caused by rape or assault.  They could learn about support networks that are available.  Most importantly, they could also learn that dealing with mental health issues doesn’t make them weird or weak — that’s it’s all too common, and that they’re not alone.

Every time some kid brings a gun to school and shoots up his classmates, his teachers, and usually himself, politicians talk about how we need to do more to address mental health in this country.  Well, that shouldn’t just mean making sure “crazy” people aren’t allowed to buy guns.  It also means doing everything we can to help these kids before they reach that point-of-no-return in the first place.  Give them an outlet.  Give them support.  Give them answers.  Likewise, the #MeToo movement has been instrumental in raising awareness when it comes to sexual harassment and assault, especially by the rich and powerful.  But what if adolescent boys could truly be educated about the serious emotional and psychological toll that such selfish, thoughtless acts often have on victims?  While there will always be sadists and sociopaths out there who actually enjoy inflicting pain on others, I think a lot of these young men don’t fully comprehend the consequences of their actions.  They minimize things.  They think it’s no big deal.  We were both drunk.  She was asking for it.  Well, it might be sobering for them to learn how such trauma can cause lingering effects even decades afterward, on every relationship for the rest of the victim’s life.

Heck, I was in my mid-20’s before I understood that you can’t simply rationalize away clinical depression.  You can’t just tell someone who’s lost in despair, “Hey, snap out of it.  You have a good life.  There’s no reason for this attitude.”  In fact, doing so just makes things worse.  And for years I didn’t understand why so many women waited 10, 20, even 30 years to report being raped.  To be honest, I used to see that as a red flag.  I would scoff at the allegations and think, “Well, if her story is true, then why wait so long to say something?”  But I finally learned that this is actually the most common response there is for victims — that most women say nothing at all for a litany of reasons: personal shame, denial, feelings of helplessness, fear of reliving the trauma, fear of repercussions, fear of people not believing them, etc.  I learned a lot of lessons the hard way.  One thing I learned is that people who are suffering with emotional or psychological problems often feel isolated and afraid; therefore, sometimes they don’t need to be fixed; they just need to be understood.  If nothing else, I think a program like this would help more people to understand, giving us all the opportunity to walk through the storms of life together, hand in hand.

After the 2018 elections are over, I intend to put all of this in a letter and send copies to our governor, the Texas legislature, our senators, my House representative.  I may even put together a proposal on Change.org, so keep an eye open if you want to offer support.

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