How Does Mental Illness Affect The Classroom?
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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
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)
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
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.
From Our Readers main page
Posted December 5, 2003