Sonya Sones
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For Teachers
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me at age thirteen
me at age thirteen
 
When I was thirteen years old, my older sister, who was nineteen at the time, had a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized. I was deeply disturbed by this turn of events, grief-stricken at having so suddenly “lost” the big sister whom I’d always looked up to and admired.
I experienced many of the same feelings a person might have if someone they loved were to suddenly pass away. And the situation was made even more painful by the fact that when I went to visit her in hospital she didn't even recognize me and wasn’t able to take any comfort from my presence.
I was haunted by the fear that I would go crazy, too. But I couldn’t talk to my parents about my worries, because they were too anxious and depressed themselves, to listen. I was painfully aware of the cruel stigma attached to mental illness. And this made me feel like I couldn’t even talk to my friends about what had happened to my sister, or about the cyclone of emotions it was stirring up in me, for fear of being snubbed. At age thirteen, fitting in is more than a desire—it’s a necessity.
Naturally, all of this gravely effected my performance at school. My grades fell because I was so overwhelmed and distracted that I had difficulty concentrating. I was burdened by my terrible secret. I felt horribly isolated. And my social life dwindled, as a result, right when I needed more support than ever.
If only I’d been able to talk to even one teacher about what was going on with me, my pain would have been significantly eased. But I couldn’t, because I felt I had to keep my secret not just from my friends, but from everyone. And how could my teachers help me through it, if I wasn’t even willing to let them know what was going on?
As educators, the first step towards being able to help a student who’s experiencing a similar crisis, is to be let in on the secret. If you are fortunate enough to be trusted by a child living through this painful situation, I expect that just the simple act of listening to them will probably go a long way towards helping them to deal with what’s happening. And perhaps you could recommend that they try keeping a journal. Journaling certainly helped me to survive those harrowing times. Pouring out all my feelings onto those clean white pages every night gave me an enormous sense of relief.
But the sad truth is that your student will more than likely choose to suffer in silence. Because, in the thirty-five years since the onset of my sister’s mental illness, there’s been pitifully little progress in obliterating the stigma against the victims of this disease and their families. And since one out of five people are stricken with a mental illness in any given year, vast numbers of people are being affected by this.
So, I think the larger issue of consciousness raising needs to be addressed. Do we wait until we somehow hear that a student has a family member going through this, and then direct our attention towards making it easier for that child? Or do we begin to think about the possibility of creating curriculum that focuses on raising consciousness about mental illness?
Maybe we could start by exploring the physical causes for mental illness, so that the distressingly common myths that mental illness is a choice, or a sign of weakness, or all just a “big act,” can be dispelled. We could learn to tune in, and become more sensitive to how advertising pokes fun at the victims of mental illness. We could collect articles in magazines and newspapers about the frequently tragic results of run-ins between untrained law enforcement officials and the mentally ill. Once you start looking for it, the regularity with which these kinds of incidents occurs is mind-boggling.
Then we could delve into how mental illness has been portrayed in literature, so that students who are not living through this terrifying experience, will be able to gain a deeper understanding of what it feels like to lose someone to mental illness, or even to succumb to it themselves. Books like Girl Interupted, The Bell Jar, and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, are moving depictions of what the descent into madness actually feels like. And books such as When She Was Good, Memories of Summer, and my own book, Stop Pretending, explore the horror of what it feels like when someone you love is stricken with mental illness.
 
me at age thirteen
an article from
the LA Times
Break the Silence
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the program
 
We could look at films which portray mental illness, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Snake Pit, As Good As It Gets, Ordinary People, Sybil, and The Three Faces of Eve.
Discussing these books and films would go a long way towards helping students to a deeper understanding of this disease and all its repercussions. And by helping your students to become more sympathetic towards the victims of mental illness, you’d be helping to make them more tolerant towards anyone who is “different.”
My sister was diagnosed as bipolar, but with the help of medication and regular ECT (shock treatments), she’s been able to lead a productive and satisfying life. She married, earned a masters degree in library science and was a public librarian for over twenty years. When I told her that Stop Pretending was going to be published, she was delighted. She said, “A book like this could be used to open up discussions about mental illness in schools.”
And you, as educators, can make that happen. You can make such a difference. What a wonderful position to be in!
Sonya Sones' books
Copyright 2004-. Sonya Sones. All rights reserved.
To Be Perfectly Honest Stop Pretending What My Mother Doesn't Know What My Girlfriend Doesn't Know One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies The Hunchback of Neiman-Marcus Necessary Noise Sixteen Sonya Sones Collection Saving Red