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“The Long Dark Days of November” was actually an agenda topic at our most recent staff meeting. The general conversation surrounded how many of us, especially our students, may be feeling at this time of year. My principal outlined a couple things to think about – it’s midterm so many students may be disheartened because they are not doing as well as they would like; they may even be giving up because they feel incapable of doing better. Furthermore, it’s the long dark days of November, that long haul with no breaks til Christmas where daylight is shorter and you feel like you go to school and get home in the dark. Everyone is probably feeling kind of low. Not only that, while many of us look forward to Christmas, many do not. In fact, many find it the most depressing, loneliest time of the year.

The fact that we had that conversation speaks to how far we’ve come in being able to talk about mental health and wellness. Not so long ago it would have been the cursory “buck up” and move on. Definitely a step forward, but there is still much to be done. Stigma still rears it’s ugly head and an alarming number of youth do not get the help they need. York Region produced this infographic:

Only 1 in 5 get the help they need is one of the saddest statistics I’ve ever read. That means we have, as a supportive society, failed 80% of youth in need! Equally alarming is the fact that cases of depression and anxiety have increased so dramatically. In an article in The Independent, “Teenage Mental Health Crisis: Rates of Depression Have Soared in Past 25 Years”, author Geraldine Bedell reveals a distressing figure:

Rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years.

In fact, according to studies performed by Alan Lopez and Christopher Murray, mental health issues rate in the top 3 causes of disability in 21 countries around the world (see table below). Furthermore, Joanne Silberner notes in her article, “A Global State of Mind” in Discovery Magazine that

half of the 10 leading causes of disability [are] from psychiatric conditions: depression, alcoholism, bipolar disease, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Depression alone [is] the leading cause of disability in every region of the world except sub-Saharan Africa, and outranked the death and disability caused by anemia (a sign of malnutrition), heart disease, cancer, malaria and lung disease.

Joanne Silberner, “A Global State of Mind”, Discover Magazine, December 2017.

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Many articles spend their time expounding on the causes of this extremely disquieting trend, but I am not going to do that. The causes of this crisis and ways of solving the problem are beyond my scope of control so I prefer instead to focus on what I CAN do.
All of the articles and statistics prompted me to “think inside the box” as George Couros would say and develop a unit for my senior English class that focused on Mental Health. I began with polling my students about memoirs they would like to read that focused on mental health. We came up with a short list of 5 books including When Rabbit Howls; The Quiet Room; Girl, Interrupted; The Evil Hours; and Monkey Mind (a more extensive list can be found here). I began by having the students complete an awareness quiz, then we moved on to short, informative lessons and videos about myths surrounding mental health, stigma, and various illnesses to build understanding. We also invited in the Mental Health and Wellness Lead from our board and we had Skype calls with other experts in the field. Students then used databases and performed research about the mental illness in the memoir they read and composed annotated bibliographies which served as the base for group presentations that they collaboratively developed in order to teach the class. Alternatively, I also had a group of students develop Public Service Announcements to promote understanding and reduce the stigma of Mental Health in our school.
Student feedback for this unit has been extraordinarily positive. Over and over again they cite the need for opening the dialogue and learning more about mental health and wellness in a relatable way. This unit has served as a positive and safe forum for our students and remains a critical tool for increasing student involvement, teaching them empathy and empowering them to make their world a better place.

For further information about this unit, you may access the full unit in this OneNote Notebook.

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