Reflections on the Death of Robin Williams: When Our Students Are Sad

The death of Robin Williams this week has shocked the world, and for those of us Generation Y-ers, has left us mourning the man who filled our childhoods with laughter.  This tragedy, somewhat not surprisingly, has brought forth great discussion on the subject of suicide and mental illness.  Although it was known that Williams had a history of depression and addiction, it is still hard for many of us to believe that a man appearing to have so much fun could also be battling such demons.  The truth is, most of us do not understand depression and would not be able to easily identify or support someone who is battling the disease.  

As a teacher, I certainly do not have the ability or knowledge to assess or treat one’s mental health, and I feel blessed that I am fortunate to work with an amazing counseling staff who are able to support the needs of the students at my school.  I know that any concern I have about my students will be treated with great care and sensitivity, and that my students will get any help they need.  I was shocked (and clearly naive) when I was at a recent conference to hear that there were schools who just received their first counselor or employed one counselor for a population of thousands.  Upon further research, I was even more surprised to realize that nearly half of the states in this country do not mandate counselors in schools, and even those that do have extremely high counselor-student ratios.   Considering the high rates the CDC reports of students who have considered or attempted suicide, this needs to change and change fast.

Not only must we increase the number and importance of counselors in schools, but faculty, staff, and anyone working with the child need to be trained on the signs and symptoms of depression and the warning signs of suicide.  We need to talk about the difference between what might be considered “normal” behavior for a teenager and what needs to be reported.  We must encourage teachers to trust instinct and provide them with information on what to do when a student confides in them. We must constantly remind them that often the best way we can help a student having difficulty is to report the information, even when the student doesn’t want us to. 

Most importantly, as many people are pleading over social media right now, we must talk about depression and acknowledge the realness of the disease and the pain it often brings when left untreated, and even when treated.  We need to get rid of the stigma.  We need to talk openly about what it means to have mental illness and acknowledge that mental illness exists for kids.  We need to take our students’ emotions seriously. We need to let students see that a visit to the counselor’s office is not punishment.  We need to respect the role of our counselors and listen to their wisdom.  We need to stop eye rolling when we are told that a student is depressed, anxious, or going through a difficult time.  We need to remember that a student’s mental health has a significant impact on his ability to learn.  We need to treat our students with mental health issues with the same care, concern, and respect as we do to those suffering from physical health issues.  We need to continue the conversation even when the novelty of a celebrity death fades.  We need to face reality. 

I am a firm believer that with every tragedy, there is also hope.  My hope is that the tragic death of a man who brought smiles to so many faces will also serve to better the lives of those suffering from a similar disease, especially for our children dealing with sadness.

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