This past week, I took a professional development workshop on first aid for mental health, a program that originated in Australia and is now gaining widespread adoption in the states. It’s designed to teach skills in recognizing and responding to folks who may be in the early-stages of a mental health crisis or illness. I took it because it was offered at the college where I teach, and I want to be an effective “first responder” for my students.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that an estimated 45 percent, nearly one in two, of students experiences a mental health crisis or disorder at some point while in college. Depression and anxiety are the most common, as students cope with a variety of issues and in some cases, trauma. Some will fail for the first time in their lives. Others will experience the loss of a beloved grandparent or a painful break-up. And it’s no secret that abusive relationships, sexual assault, and substance abuse are hardly unusual on college campuses.
Overall, the information and counsel we were given was really helpful, even if some of it was a bit obvious. (Yes, I do know that listening nonjudgmentally is important, and it’s not a good idea to scream at someone to “calm down” or “snap out of it.”) But I also found myself struggling to separate the issues we were discussing from the memories and shadows in my own life. The facilitators had warned us that the topics covered often bring up our own “stuff,” and they were right.
At one point, for example, we did an exercise in which we were supposed to line up in order of the most to least debilitating disorders or diseases we could have. I winced when the participant holding the “severe dementia” sign moved to the front of the line. My stepmom has full-blown dementia, and it is so painful to see how constricted her life has become. “When will I be who I used to be?” she often asks me, sometimes several times during the same conversation, because of course, she can’t remember we talked about this only moments before.
When we got to the discussion of schizophrenia, memories of my biological mother came flooding back—the times the police would deliver her back to our Brooklyn apartment, disheveled and wearing her nightgown because “the voices” had told her she had to get out. “Please stop running away, Mommy,” I remember begging her. But I don’t think she could hear me.
Lurking just beneath the surface of our lives is so much pain, as well as joy and gratitude for the gift of resilience. All I keep hoping is that recognizing and owning my own “stuff” will help me be more empathetic and supportive to my students, as well as my loved ones.