“He should A) never have been able to get a firearm. B) People who are crazy should not be able to get firearms. C) …”
NRA representative Dana Loesch was two-thirds of the way through her list at last Wednesday’s town hall when students shouted her down. In an arena packed with grieving young people, families and educators, it was neither the first nor the last time she’d be interrupted. But it wasn’t her arguments about guns that raised the crowd’s hackles this time. CNN’s transcript doesn’t include the content of the interruption, but on the video it’s clear what the students are yelling: Don’t say “crazy.”
The Stigma of Mental Illness
After tragedies like the shootings in Parkland, Sutherland Springs and Las Vegas, we look for evidence that can lead us to answers. There are a few things we know about mass shooters. They’re almost always men. They’re usually white. Their average age is 35. They tend to have a history of domestic violence. And the majority are mentally ill.
Inevitably, it’s this last fact we focus on.
Unless a shooting is explicitly and obviously a hate crime, media coverage of these tragedies rarely accounts for race. National discussions following mass shootings have recently begun to touch on gender. Occasionally a writer or analyst will interject the idea that “toxic masculinity” damages boys and men—and endangers those around them—by insisting the only emotions “real men” display are anger or rage. But toxic masculinity is typically explored in thoughtful op-eds; mental illness lands on the front page.
Before night fell on the day of the shooting, neighbors told reporters that the suspected shooter “looked depressed”; he was “the kind of kid who would do something crazy.” The mayor of Broward County informed CNN that the shooter had received mental health treatment. By Friday, The Washington Post and BBC had each run stories with headlines about his depression. By Wednesday night’s town hall, he was, according to Loesch, “an insane monster.” The next day, the president called him a “savage sicko.”
After tragedies like the one in Parkland, it’s natural to want to talk to your students about what happened. And mental illness plays a significant role in that discussion. But it’s also a time to exercise caution about the words we use to discuss mental health-and to understand how dismissing a shooter as “insane” or “crazy” can do more harm than good.
Mental health experts agree that these disparaging representations do significant damage by increasing the already significant stigma surrounding mental illness and making it less likely that people living with mental illness will disclose their symptoms. This can be particularly dangerous for children and adolescents. Already, only one in five children or adolescents with mental illnesses are receiving treatment. And even though 75 percent of all mental illnesses begin before age 24, people with mental illness wait an average of eight to 10 years after their first symptoms to seek help.
Treatment isn’t something that should wait. Among 15- to 24-year-olds, suicide is the second-leading cause of death, more than the top seven natural causes combined. Of young people who commit suicide, 90 percent struggle with mental illness.
So What Can You Do?
1. Learn about the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding mental illness.
Mental illness is surprisingly common: Around one in five U.S. adults live with mental illness in any given year. The overwhelming majority of people with mental illnesses are no danger to others. In fact, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims than the perpetrators of violent crimes. And people living with mental illness face both unconscious and conscious bias—with devastating consequences.
When researching mental health, and when talking to students, you’ll want to be sure that you remember your intersectional lens. Gender, race, religion and language can all affect the way mental illness is perceived and experienced. Studies show that people of color and English language learners are less likely to receive treatment for mental illness. And men are less likely to seek treatment than women.
There are any number of online resources that will help you learn more about mental illness so you can facilitate discussions. Several provide lessons you can use to teach about mental health. We recommend the National Alliance on Mental Illness. (Their StigmaFree campaign is a great place to start, their Fact Sheets and Infographics are an easy way to access data and their “Ending the Silence” program includes a classroom-ready video.) The National Institute for Mental Health offers a reliable source for statistics that also offers lessons on mental illness.
2. Know how to support students with mental illness.
While you cannot—and should not—take the place of a mental health professional, you can support your students by knowing the warning signs of mental illness and being prepared to respond if they disclose. After brushing up on the policies and support systems in place in your school, district and community, try these sites:
Classroom Mental Health, from the University of Michigan Depression Center, is designed for high school teachers but adaptable for K-8. The site includes an array of classroom resources, along with recommendations for supporting students inside and outside of class, working with families, and supporting vulnerable populations.
Mentalhealth.gov, run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, includes resources for educators, including a detailed list of warning signs for students in distress. And Erika’s Lighthouse offers recommendations for supporting students with depression, including accommodations you can make in the classroom.
3. Consider mental health when building your inclusive classroom.
One simple way to make your classroom more inclusive is to consider the language you and your students use when talking about mental health. By stopping a conversation to speak with a student about why words like “schizo,” “crazy” or “psycho” are stigmatizing, you can simultaneously educate students about mental illness and work to reduce bias.
But don’t just consider what you and your students are saying; consider what you’re not saying. Ask yourself: How do I include people with mental illness in my curriculum? Are they reflected in the texts I choose for my classroom library? When discussing contemporary activism, do I include celebrities like Beyoncé, Selena Gomez and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, who have disclosed their experiences with mental illness?
It’s also important to consider how you make mental health visible through historical figures. For example, you might tell students that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin changed the world while battling depression. You can counter literary and historical depictions of mental illness—Bertha Rochester setting fire to the attic in Jane Eyre while Nero fiddles through world history—with examples of artists like Emily Dickinson, who channeled her illness into her work. Like Dickinson, J.K. Rowling wrote about her depression: In the Harry Potter series, it materializes as the swarms of Dementors that prey on her characters.
Last Wednesday night, through their grief and their anger, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High reminded us how necessary it is to fight stigma and discuss mental illness with the nuance, understanding and sensitivity it deserves. We owe them that. We owe it to all of our students.
Originally featured in Teaching Tolerance– Author Julia Delacroix