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How Does Mental Illness Affect The Classroom?

Opinions expressed in articles posted to the "From our readers" section do not necessarily reflect those of WEAC. If you would like to contribute to this page, please send your e-mail to OnWEAC Editor Bill Hurley at Not all articles submitted to OnWEAC will be posted, and some may be edited for length.

By Gwen Thompson

How does mental illness affect the classroom? That was one of many questions asked during a five-week session of workshops offered earlier this year by NAMI-Dane County (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) for teachers and parents in the Madison Metropolitan School District.

On average, 50 teachers and a few parents attended weekly. There was a different guest speaker or panel of speakers for each workshop, which totaled five workshops.

Teachers and parents alike would sign in and then take their seats in the Sennett Middle School lecture hall while learning about mental illness in the classroom, what can be done about it, how it affects the student and the family of the student, and other concerns as well.

Many teachers attending the workshops expressed frustration over how to handle mental illness in the classroom. One commented that she knew about mental illness but was not prepared well enough by her training. Another said he knew about mental illness but found the school system inadequate to deal with it; that children, whether 5 years of age or 17, did not have adequate resources from schools.

During one workshop, when discussing resources for a student with mental illness, debate ensued about the the role of a school psychologist in a mentally ill student's life. Dr. Mike OrRico, school psychologist at Allis Elementary School in Madison, believes his role is limited. The treatment that he uses relates directly to school.

He believes a good social worker or school nurse would spot problems with children but that schools also need to build consultation teams.

"I've made a decision that I don't do any counseling with students about anything that happens with their life outside of school. Because for me to do that, I feel I would need a medical background. Until we have the proper mandate to provide those things – of course I'm listening for abuse issues from the child, but I don't do psychotherapy. I keep things school-related."

At the first workshop, Dr. Kenneth Herrmann, of the Wisconsin Medical Society, emphasized the symptoms of mental illness that often get overlooked. In children who cannot verbalize their feelings yet, educators should look for a student experiencing a lot of stomach aches and headaches, one of the biggest symptoms of depression and anxiety in younger children. As children get older, they are better at verbalizing their feelings and show more symptoms, such as crying spells, concentration difficulties, or changes in mood. Very often, Herrmann said, a student who looks like he or she has Attention Deficit Disorder is really having a problem concentrating and is suffering from depression. For adolescents, look for irritability. Irritability, Herrmann said, is a very important symptom of depression and adults should not overlook it as just a "phase."

A key ingredient in handling mental illness in the classroom is working with the parents. Many parents are stressed and overwhelmed from years of dealing with the student's mental illness. One parent suggested that other parents first take care of themselves and try not to get burned out. One way to do this is to look toward NAMI for support and information, along with staying creative with solutions.

For example, one girl could not attend gym with the other students. In order to overcome that problem, an accommodation was made and the girl went to gym privately.

Another accommodation was allowing a girl to have a modified schedule, since attending school for a full day was not possible. The girl did graduate from high school. In these cases, the parents were proactive; however, many parents agreed that support from school staff is invaluable.

Teachers should be aware of financial and other issues affecting families. Many times insurance doesn't cover thorough treatment of mental illness, making the family pay out-of-pocket and finally going into debt. There are very few public mental health programs in the state that focus on children, and waiting lists to get public services can be months long, creating stress for many mentally ill students and their parents.

Another panel, consisting of students and former students, also had important points to make. One former student suggested having a peer talk to the class; that rather than having guest speakers, if a student from another school or one of their own spoke, students might be more likely to listen. The important thing is to have the courage to speak up about one's mental illness in front of classmates.

A current student advised other students not to let the stigma prevent them from speaking out; and not to be afraid. One former student suggested bringing in student speakers from other schools, because some students will not feel comfortable admitting their mental illness to their own school.

When the panel was asked where they found their strength, numerous answers were given. One former student replied, "My faith." He also said his mother had been his source of strength because she was there for him "from day one." Living life day by day; and having a structured day and "doing things" was important to him; including building confidence with a little success here and a little success there.

Another panelist replied, "writing and addressing my feelings through poetry..." along with journaling. Another described tearfully how she would and still says "Dear God, help me through my (psychotic/depressed) episode."

While church can be helpful, not all churches are open to mental illness and some shun a member once he or she admits to having mental illness.

Another panelist mentioned family members and how much she depended on them. (Many times the family is not supportive and it is best to turn parents towards their local NAMI chapter for support and information and as a springboard to other sources.) "They're the ones that are always there," she stated. "They help put the pieces back together." She also mentioned dance as healing for her. "The movement feels good," she said.

There are many things students can do for themselves, this panel suggested, but there are many other factors in wellness, including receiving good medical treatment.

Mona Wasow, who has taught in the UW School of Social Work and has a son with schizophrenia, was the final panelist in week five of the workshops. She felt strongly about stigma. "I look forward to the day when we can talk about mental illness," she said.

Alateen, Briarpatch, and Emergency Mental Health were some of the resources Wasow suggested for kids. Another resource includes "Wisconsin Family Ties," a hotline by parents for parents, during daytime hours at (608) 267-6888. This is a good source for information and referrals.

Because NAMI-Dane County is such a good resource for parents, teachers, and consumers, teachers were told that whether or not parents seek help for their children, to direct parents to NAMI-Dane County. NAMI-Dane offers free classes about mental illness for both consumers and family members; has a library of top-notch books, videotapes and audiotapes that are reviewed by the NAMI library committee before approval; and has support groups.

The fact that teachers spend many hours a day with students doesn't mean a teacher has enough information to identify problems. The idea made its way around the room that teachers, school social workers, and school nurses need more information and training to identify children having problems, and that part of that was being accomplished by this series of workshops.

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Posted December 5, 2003