Imagine for a minute that you are sitting in a classroom. Your leg is shaking rapidly, your heart is pounding, and you are worried that the teacher will call on you. What if I don’t know the answer? What if everyone laughs at me? These thoughts and many more continuously race thorough your mind. The teacher tells you that for the second half of class there will be a class discussion and everyone must participate. Your hands begin to sweat and tremble. Your heart races even faster. You feel as though you cannot breathe. You hate speaking in front of the class. You do not like being the center of attention; in fact you would rather be invisible. From now until the class discussion you are not able to concentrate on anything the teacher says due to your constant worrying about talking in front of the class. All you can think about is having to participate in a class discussion. During the class discussion, you do not speak. The teacher tells the class that anyone who did not speak will receive a zero. You want the points, but your anxiety prevents you from saying anything. You feel paralyzed. In your next class, the teacher announces that there will be a pop quiz over last night’s reading. You immediately begin to panic inside. You think to yourself, what if I don’t know the answers? What if I fail the quiz? Your hands and legs begin to shake. You are so worried about failing the quiz that you cannot concentrate on the questions. Your anxious thoughts are blocking your mind from retrieving the answers. You cannot get extra time on the quiz because you are a good student and the teacher does not see the problem. Everyone experiences anxiety, she tells you. This is only a small fraction of what a child or adolescent with an anxiety disorder experiences on a daily basis.
Four million children and adolescents suffer from a serious mental illness that causes functional impairments at school, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
These functional impairments are not understood by teachers and therefore, the child’s symptoms are exacerbated by teaching methods such as unannounced quizzes and class discussions. Functional impairments can lead to poor academic performance, an inability to learn, and school failure, with fifty percent of students fourteen years and older experiencing a mental illness dropping out of high school.
The problem starts with teacher training and education.
It has been my experience that teachers are not properly prepared to work with students with mental illness. Education degree requirements do not include extensive coursework in areas of mental health. Many teachers are not sensitive to mental health and how it impacts a student’s academic performance. Moreover, the teaching methods employed by teachers only exacerbate student’s symptoms. If they were empathic to the difficulties these children face, teachers could better meet the specific needs of the student to help them learn most effectively.
You have the power to make a change for these students. You can help by supporting the development and implementation of appropriate professional mental health training for teachers. You can contact the school boards of education in your states as well as the university accrediting bodies and let them know that all children deserve the right to succeed in school. It is time that all teachers became aware of mental illness and supported these students.
-Gina Milligan is an MSW Candidate at the University of Michigan