One of the reasons I love teaching in a community college is that my students want to be there. The biggest hurdle I think any instructor can face is the indifference of a student. In order to learn, a person has to want to learn. Otherwise, there isn’t the motivation to put in the time and effort that is necessary to learn and grow. People often bring their own obstacles to learning, both inside and outside of the class. Scheduling, family and work obligations make up a good part of these obstacles, but the subtle problems of mental illness can be more challenging because they are obstacles we can’t directly see.
Accepting mental illness
The first hurdle with dealing with mental illness is bringing it out into the open. It’s common for a person (not just students) to think that they are stupid, lazy, or incapable of focus when they have a mental illness. One of the things that I like to emphasize is that brain and body are all one piece, they cannot exist without the other.
Aristotle should have been drowned after proposing mind-body duality. You aren’t the ghost in the machine, you are the machine. Get over it.
It makes no sense to tell a person with a broken foot that they “just need to try harder to run” or to call a diabetic lazy for not producing enough insulin. The brain is a complex organ, and it can malfunction as well. Our brain creates our sense of self, so when there is a problem blame can get misplaced on the ‘mind’ rather than on a misfiring brain. Too often mental illness is a disease that tries to tell you it isn’t a disease. It is victim blaming at it’s worst, and misunderstanding outsiders will often reenforce that misconception with their own myopic judgements.
To these students: stop shoulding all over yourself. It’s messy to experience, and it is awkward to watch. You can get help. And to those others who think it is all a matter of willpower, or that they can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” I would kindly invite you to piss up a rope. Be supportive, or get out of the way.
I know a lot of folks tend to think of treating mental illness as just taking medications. Taking medications can feel foreign, like an admission of weakness, or a crutch. Pharmaceuticals may be a step, but they are only part of a treatment. Counselors, psychiatrists, and psychologists use combinations of mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy and a host of other things to help a person overcome or work with their mental illness.
Medication may be part of ongoing treatment. Just like a diabetic can’t produce enough insulin, there are times when you can’t produce enough (or produce too much) neurotransmitters or other hormones. No shame is attached.
Again and again, patience isn’t just a virtue it is a necessity. Remember that people under stress may act out in different ways.
Many students don’t know what they need in order to learn. Standard scaffolding and reinforcement may not be enough to help students with special needs, but they also won’t hurt either. Different students will have different needs… it seems self evident, but I find (some) teachers will keep pushing one tactic without exploring others. Not all of students in a classroom have the same strengths.
ADD or ADHD and other executive function disorders: often the instruction of “sit still and listen” is untenable. One or the other is often the choice for these students. Having something physical to do is often what is necessary to let them cope in class – this can be anything from chewing gum to tapping their fingers (quietly) against their leg. Having a class notetaker is also very helpful, because these students especially will have difficulty following a lecture and taking meaningful notes. If you have a quiet environment for testing, that can be helpful for these students.
Anxiety & Depression: Combinations of stress, low-self esteem and guilt often send these students into a spiral. So as much as possible, take the pressure off! If you can soften deadlines it can remove some time pressure. Praise is essential for these students. I like to give them some easy exercises to begin with, to help them get started. A little bit of forward momentum will really help these students. Getting students to build their confidence (and over prepare) outside of class can also help during exams.
Dyslexia/Dyscalculia: Dyslexia is often misunderstood as well as being misdiagnosed. The classic notion of reversing letters or words isn’t accurate, it simply takes a longer time to process and parse information (and frequently bad behaviors of second guessing themselves is also reenforced). Trying to take notes and understand what is going on can be incredibly difficult for these students. If you can, arrange for a note taker, or allow the student to record lectures. An additional trick is to limit the focus of the student: too much input can get overwhelming, so while working an expression or equation I will block out all but the current step with a piece of paper. Finally, where reading and symbolic manipulation may be difficult for students with dyslexia, you may find that they have good kinesthetic or verbal skills so you can show them how to “walk” and “talk” their way through a problem.
Often we see students get frustrated with repeating the same techniques over and over again. If you have time, talk to them and get them to try different styles of problem solving. Getting these students to work with their strengths is a win for them, and for the classroom. It diversifies the problem solving methods that all of your students can use.
There is a world of difference between the students who need help because of a mental illness and those who are failing because they don’t want to put in the work. If a student complains that they aren’t getting the material, the first thing I ask is how much time they are putting in per week. If the student is putting in 15-20 hours per week, then there may be a problem, and the student can get what they need. Then there are the students who tell me “Oh, I dunno. I spend an hour or two.” Then they may complain that they have a learning disability. ADD, depression and dyslexia can be overcome, but self-indulgent laziness are much harder to deal with. My ability to give a fuck is reserved for students who give a fuck about learning.
So to all of my students: the ultimate responsibility for learning rests with you. I will work with you, but you have to be willing to work.
Mental illness is very real, but don’t let that stop you.