The first quarter or trimester of the school year has come and gone, and the autumn has clearly given way to the winter. Clocks have been turned back, the daylight hours have become shorter, and people across Maine and New England are preparing for what is sure to be an impressive season of snow and cold.
Along with typical wintertime preparation, a common affliction that affects up to 9 million Americans at this time of year is major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern, otherwise colloquially known as seasonal affective disorder. As classroom teachers, we may observe behavioral changes in our students and fellow adults that may mirror those symptoms, but we cannot and ought not presume any diagnosis or treatment. That work is reserved for the trained professionals to lead, including family physicians, psychiatrists, school-based social workers, counselors and psychologists. One thing, however, is evident: How to best address seasonal depression is one part of a larger statewide conversation about how we educate our young people and ourselves about mental health and wellness in public schools and beyond.
Teachers, policymakers and others have spoken at length about the need for increased mental health awareness and education. Because, beyond the changing of seasons and waning hours of daylight during the Maine winter, we have other challenges to address that may also affect mental well-being.
Many of our children live with food insecurity and generational poverty. Still others lack access to appropriate mental health counseling and facilities. Compounding both of these issues is a shortage of nurses and direct care workers across the state. In our search for answers to these challenges as individuals, professionals, public servants and family members, we find a greater sense of empathy. All of us are touched by mental health concerns directly or indirectly, and school-aged children are as susceptible to these concerns as adults. It makes one wonder, What are we going to do about the need for increased mental health awareness and education?
The 129th Legislature has been making significant efforts on this front. Earlier this year, LD 97 regarding revisions to suicide awareness and prevention and LD 1024 regarding mental health education became law. Representatives of every political affiliation are taking steps to enhance how we as a society are able to proactively intervene and address young people’s mental health concerns, and the timing could not be more important.
Suicide ranked as the second-leading cause of death in Maine in 2018 of people ages 15 to 34, and Maine had the highest rate of diagnosed adolescent anxiety disorders in the nation in 2018 and 2019, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If students are not at ease, they are physically and psychologically less prepared to learn, as research from The National Child Stress Network and The Child Mind Institute affirms.
A settled person is the one who learns best, and space and time for contemplation involves both body and mind. Indeed, we seem to have rediscovered the truth of Asclepius, Hippocrates and the other founders of Western medicine that the two parts of the person — mind and body — are inextricably interconnected. Ultimately, if we want to cultivate the most well-rounded and well-adjusted people throughout our public education system, we must create the space and time for them to contemplate academic content as well as themselves, to play indoors and outdoors, to forge meaningful relationships with peers and adults, and to build the self-efficacy and skills necessary to be resilient in the face of adversity. More social acumen is expected of young people in 21st-century school and work than ever before, even if technology and social media encourage alienation and disaffection from others.
Education of the whole person begins with self-knowledge, and we ought to encourage that pursuit at home and at school. Through mindfulness classes, ready access to mental health professionals in the school and in the community, and increased class time devoted to metacognition and personal reflection, we can help students to become more self-aware.
Life can be hard, so we need to deliberately prepare our young people for academic, social and emotional success in the face of adversity. Maine’s teachers continue to work adamantly on that front, but it will take the entirety of our public services working in concert to meet new needs, foster intellectualism and academic gains, and fuel further socioeconomic progress throughout our state.
Joe Hennessey, an English teacher at Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford, was Maine’s 2019 teacher of the year.