Two parent family? Check.
Highly regarded public school? Check.
Excellent student? Check.
Involved in extracurricular activities? Check.
Mentally ill? Check (nods sheepishly).
I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa–more Americana than apple pie. We had our own basketball court and a sprawling yard in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. There were family vacations to Colorado; Spring Break trips to Mexico. There was the the annual Thanksgiving extravaganza, where my aunts and uncles would descend on our cozy, brick home. In short, I had every advantage–involved parents (most notably, a caring mother), supportive aunts and uncles, and a rigorous academic environment.
But OCD or, quite frankly, any mental illness doesn’t give a damn about your family pedigree, upscale neighborhood, or academic credentials. It just doesn’t.
OCD first emerged during my teenage years. I remember the agony of turning in a seventh grade assignment–as I tossed one aborted draft after another into the wastepaper basket. The content, I am sure, was fine but I was obsessed about my handwriting. “It has to be perfect,” my mind implored. And it had to be; I remember my neverending frustration when I couldn’t meet my insatiable handwriting demands.
Yes, handwriting. Insert head shake.
My obsessional handwriting thoughts would soon metastasize into obsessional everything. On a family vacation to Florida in ninth grade, my OCD flared its ugly nostrils. The horrific thoughts besieged me; I felt defenseless as my mind staged a bloodless coup.
A self-conscious and probably sheltered teenager, I struggled with these horrible thoughts. While I had loving parents and involved mentors (my aunts and uncles; engaged teachers; doting grandparents), these OCD thoughts were a heavy burden–one that I was shouldering alone on my scrawny shoulders. A proud overachiever–I was always the studious type overstuffed with extracurricular activities, who could I divulge my churning OCD secret to? My family wouldn’t understand; my teachers would be equally perplexed.
Something was wrong–even if I didn’t know what exactly it was (my formal introduction to OCD would come years later).
Here’s the thing: While I was struggling on a (self-imposed) OCD island of one, I wasn’t alone–and you (or your son/daughter) aren’t either. According to an NPR series, one in five kids living in the United States displays signs or symptoms of a mental health disorder. And according to NAMI, half of individuals living with mental illness experience onset at age 14 (right around the time I was tossing my seventh grade assignment–repeatedly–into the trash).
The more complicated answer: What to do about it? While mental health issues are ubiquitous, less than half of youth with a mental health condition receive the necessary services. And with public schools increasingly facing budgetary constraints (this Washington Post article highlights the stark financial realities facing public schools), simultaneously underfunded and overburdened public schools are ill-prepared to address the current mental health crisis.
So my question(s) to you: How would you address mental health’s swirling undercurrent? Should teachers undergo comprehensive mental health training? What role should school health care professionals (nurses, psychologists) play in mental health diagnosis/treatment?
There are roughly 57 million students–a fifth of them with demonstrable mental health issues–eagerly awaiting your answers.