Being a student is hard work—exhausting work, really. Being an adolescent means waking up each morning to the interminable, often unspoken, questions of “Who am I? Who do I want to be? Where do I fit in?” And on top of simply showing up to class each morning, students are asked to navigate the uncharted waters of their own social-emotional makeup, learning what it means to be a properly functioning, competent, and—hopefully—empathetic human being in today’s world. In the midst of these ubiquitous challenges is the fact that the overall levels of stress and anxiety in our populations as a whole have seen an upward trend over the last number of years (Almeida et al. 511). What’s more is that when we look at school-aged children, studies have shown that just over 20 percent—that’s 1 in 5—adolescents in Canada either have experienced or currently do experience a mental health issue of some sort (Northcott). That means that in a class of thirty, six students will face some form of anxiety, depression, or another type of mental illness.
As educators (who sometimes see our students for more hours on a weekly basis than members of their own family), we have an important role to play in helping our learners gain the resilience, competency, and emotional literacy necessary to thrive in the midst of the challenging, oftentimes scary, psychological landscapes that have become so typical for youth today. I have come to realize that simply being open to sharing my own personal experiences around mental health has been beneficial to helping my students cope with issues they themselves may be trying to work through.
Engaging in these sorts of meaningful conversations in the classroom can specifically help our learners see the truth that they are not alone, that things do indeed get better, and that there are people around them who are willing to listen, empathize, and walk with them in their journey to mental wellness.
My Own Story
I first realized there was something different about me as I sat quietly on the rainbow-colored carpet of my kindergarten class during storytime some thirty years ago. I was listening intently to the teacher as she read from a picture book and found myself jerking my head back and forth until it felt “just right.” This was a habit I had started not too long before but never really gave much thought to until I looked around and saw that no one else was moving in the same way. What’s more was that I found it very difficult, if not impossible, to stop the motion. I was worried about what others would think but felt powerless to do anything but continue periodically jerking my head back and forth. And indeed, there were comments and questions from my classmates, to which I never really had an answer other than “I just need to do it.”
Over the years these compulsive movements morphed from one expression to another and included throat clearing, vocal grunts, repetitive eye blinking, and sniffing. I also found myself filled with repetitive anxious thoughts, specifically about whether or not my mother would come home safe whenever she went out. I felt that if I failed to repeat a certain phrase in my head or didn’t touch a doorknob enough times, something terrible would happen to her, and I’d never see her again.
These tendencies waxed and waned throughout my time in school, but I was never properly diagnosed or given an explanation. I was simply told to “try harder” and to “stop worrying,” among many other unhelpful pieces of advice. It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties, when my anxiety had become clinical and I was nearly unable to function in my daily life, that I finally received an explanation for why my mind worked the way it did: I had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as well as Tourette’s Disorder. It became clear to me that I had been dealing with these mental illnesses since my time on that rainbow carpet in kindergarten.
My journey to finding this out was circuitous, to say the least, and even as I sought help and support in my twenties, it was still a process of meeting with multiple counselors, doctors, and other professionals before I was able to truly start making progress. Mental health issues were also never talked about in any of the classrooms I was a part of growing up, so I accepted as normal the ways my brain functioned and never sought the help I needed. I assumed that everyone lived with a similar amount of stress and anxiety in their life, but they were somehow able to keep it together, so I adopted the mentality of just bearing down and struggling my way through to wellness.
After years of hard work, research, counseling, and medication, I’ve arrived at a healthier outlook on my own personal state of mind and am now functioning more fully than I ever have before. I’ll never be “cured” of OCD, but I am learning to coexist with the disorder and live a full life in spite of my struggles.
Shared Experience and Empathetic Storytelling
Over the last fourteen years, I’ve worked as an educator in both the public and private school systems, teaching K–12 in a variety of educational settings. I have come to learn that by sharing my own story and engaging in authentic conversations about mental wellness, I have a chance to play an important role in my students’ journey to understanding the basic truths that they are not alone in their struggles, that there are people around them who care and are equipped to help, and that things can and will eventually get better.
I believe that every educator has an opportunity and responsibility to open the door to these sorts of conversations in their practice. Everyone has a story to share; everyone has experienced anxiety, stress, feelings of loneliness, isolation, or hopelessness at one point or another, and sometimes all a student needs to hear is someone expressing that they, too, have felt these things. Never underestimate the power of shared experience; the simple words of your story could be a small flicker of light in the otherwise overwhelming darkness some of our students face on a daily basis. How and when you engage in these conversations is somewhat of an art—a form of empathetic storytelling—but if we begin to look for ways in which to weave our own experiences in our day-to-day interactions with students, the opportunities to do so will likely become more apparent than we had initially thought. This is an abridged version of this article. To read more, subscribe to the print or digital edition of Christian Educators Journal.
Hayden MacKinnon has taught across British Columbia for the last fourteen years in both the public and private school systems. He currently lives in Langley with his wife, Jennie, and his daughter, Sophia-Belle.
Almeida, David M., et al. “Charting Adult Development through (Historically Changing) Daily Stress Processes.” American Psychologist, vol. 75, no. 4, May 2020, pp. 511–24. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000597.
Northcott, Alison. “Canadian Teens Still Struggling with Mental Health Even as Pandemic Wanes.” CBC, 26 February 2023, www.cbc.ca/news/health/canadian-teens-mental-health-1.6759486.