In one of my classes, we had a discussion about sex education in the United States and we were asked to share stories of what our experiences with public school and sexuality were: what we were taught, what we didn’t know, etc. Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of gaps in our teachings and in some cases, even the most basic knowledge was lacking or inaccurate.
The reason I bring this up is because the issue is not just with sex education, though there is a huge gap in that field, but with basic health education overall. For instance, I remember my teachers lying about the effects of marijuana, claiming birth control was hugely ineffective and various other things besides.
Unfortunately, among the shoddy representations in most health classes was the concept of mental health. As I remember, I took a few health classes in middle school and high school, as well as a psychology class. In those various classes, I believe they mentioned eating disorders (complete with scare tactics), depression (also with scare tactics), fugue, bipolar, schizophrenia, anti-social personality disorder and a few others that I don’t quite remember. They told us a lot of the basics of these conditions, but there was always an air of distance to it, like they weren’t even going to try to relate to us, or explain what kind of conditions we were more likely to suffer from and why. We were not encouraged to visit our counselors. I’m not sure I even knew who mine was.
Looking back, this hits all the harder. I have been on the autistic spectrum all my life and display a few of the hallmarks of it: I rock back and forth, I walk on my toes sometimes, I have a lot of difficulty sitting still. Despite that, I only figured it out maybe a year ago.
After a long bout with depression, I decided to go see a counselor, hoping to find a way to be happy again. Things are much better now, but in the process, I learned that I am on the autism spectrum. Until then, and even a little these days, I always had trouble socializing and was scared of what people would think of me. I had very few friends. I was also very aware of how shy I was and had no idea why. My friends were in band and I wasn’t, so in high school I sat alone at lunch most days, and wondered why the other tables were so full. What had they done to have so many people to talk to? It makes me mad, looking back at it all. There were a few opportunities I wouldn’t have missed, had I known then.
The note I want to close on, though, isn’t about me. It isn’t even completely about the school system, though I can’t say for sure whether or not they could have changed things. One day, a few years ago, I think I read in the paper that one of the people in my graduating class had committed suicide. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t really known them, but I’d talked to them once or twice, been in classes with them.
All of a sudden, they weren’t there anymore. I had no idea why. I would have never guessed they were struggling, maybe even had been when we were both in school.
I think this is what makes me most angry. Politicians argue back and forth about guns. Schools now have active shooter drills, and anti-bullying programs abound. While all of these are useful, even imperative, mental health is as well. Let’s be honest, many of us have been bullied, and maybe a few of us experienced a shooting. However, I would bet that every single one of us, or very near, went to school with somebody who killed themselves.