I was really encouraged last week to be ‘confronted’ with various reminders of mental health week in Australia, particularly via the ABC’s various shows on radio and TV. It’s such a vital area to be considering and regularly and honestly reflecting upon, and yet we get so much more excited about terrorism, consumer spending and whether further increases to housing in metro areas constitutes a price bubble. I will confess that my wife is a social worker, and my mother and mother-in-law are psychologists, so via osmosis I take a keen interest in mental health matters through the calendar year, but regardless I was encouraged about how ‘natural’ the conversation seemed to pan out last year as people continually reflecting on their own capacities to cope with mental illnesses.
In my relatively recent role as an Assistant Principal, I am coming across mental health issues all too frequently, in our student, parent and staff populations. At times it’s been intense and confronting to share in what are some pretty horrible experiences that human beings are subjected to. And I know I’m only hearing about the tip of the iceberg in most cases. Mental illness or ‘unwellness’ seems to me to be on the increase, though of course this could just be my perception due to increasing exposure to it. Regardless, I find myself often caught in the trap of just willing the other to show resilience where it’s needed before the problem gets out of hand. Whilst I might be able to walk around in someone else’s shoes, I find it difficult to think and feel around in someone else’s brain. I don’t have enough experience to truly understand the magnitude of hurt and depression that some students and parents are going through and so I have sympathy in abundance and empathy in the shadows. Of course we know that learning for students in their state of mental unwellness is effectively stalled. And as was regularly reported last week, it’s not a matter of popping a Band-Aid onto the brain and waiting for the scab to heal. It’s so much more complex and requires so much more patience. And we’re not well equipped in schools to adequately address these needs of our students. We so desperately want them to be well and able to learn, but we tend to want them to engage in our particular area of curriculum first. Students progress in time, but not in effective, retainable learning.
By the end of the week I was feeling confident that all this public talking was more than just cathartic, but I wasn’t sure where to go with it all. Then I came across this statement over the weekend (paraphrased):
We are not finished – we are all in the making – we make the road of life by walking it.
Initially it provided me with pause for personal thought. What am I achieving in my life? What am I in the making towards? Am I following a ready made path or forging one for myself? Then I started to contemplate the life of someone going through mental unwellness. I think a statement such as the one above is one of hope. That there is a tomorrow that is slightly better than today and that we are all as incomplete as one another. In this sense all of my students are equal, regardless of their current mental state.
I have a few quotes up in the office and one of them is the story below. I suspect there are times when we all feed one wolf and then the other. In the context of mental incompletion and unwellness I think it has something to add to the ongoing discussion that is so important for our education community.
An old Cherokee was teaching his grandchildren about life.
He said to them, “A battle is raging inside me … it is a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The old man fixed the children with a firm stare.
“This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.”
They thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee replied: “The one you feed.”