This piece is dedicated to my mother, affectionately known as Lovely. Even as I write this, I am still recovering from the impacts of mental illness and suicide. Though there are suicide hotlines and organizations that offer help to people considering suicide or those impacted by it, by and large, it’s a lonely and invisible space. I consider myself a suicide survivor. It is part of my story and my work in changing student’s lives is deeply connected to this fact. Only days after my 32nd birthday, my beloved mother took her life. When your mother dies, everyone wants to know how, and that’s a normal question for most. But when you come from a “good” family with structure and high expectations, it’s embarrassing to say how she died, so I would say, “she was sick.” That’s actually very true, but it’s not the kind of sick that people understand and not the kind of sick that is socially acceptable. So people press, and ask, “Well what did she die of.” So I squirm and my eyes wander and I open them really wide to stop the tears from flowing and then I just blurt it out, “She killed herself.” While I feel a small amount of relief, the person asking is now mortified and doesn’t know what to say or do, and I don’t know how to help them, because, we don’t talk about this. Even as a family, we don’t talk about the how. It is this unspoken event that sits in the background. Her death was a shock and it certainly was devastating, but as I reflect, there were signs. I’m no expert, but after a decade of therapy and support, I want to share my reflections as someone left behind and how this informs my work in education.
How We Can Talk About Mental Illness and Suicide in Schools
We don’t talk enough about mental illness and suicide in our schools. There are phrases we throw around to explain away someone’s differences or to discard people who can’t get it right, like, “he/she is crazy.” But as teachers, parents and community members, if we are truly about social justice, reform and active engagement, this is one of the things we must talk about—at length—and be more sensitive about. And I don’t mean in the way that we talk about Kanye and Trump or how we talked about Dave Chappelle. I mean really talk about it, like how we talk about cancer, lupus and multiple sclerosis.
Take Care of the Super Student Those that seem like they can do it all can also be silently suffering. Keeping it all together may look easy, but the pressure of maintaining can be debilitating. In our data focused and results-driven world, how can we make sure to create spaces for our young people to learn and be free to make mistakes without huge amounts of pressure to be perfect?
Trauma Is Real Conversely, our schools are full of students who experience high levels of trauma. As a leader, I think more and more about whom we have in front of children and how that can trigger their trauma. It’s not enough to be content experts and skilled practitioners. To work in schools (no matter the socio-economic make-up), educators need a solid understanding of trauma-informed language and practices. Our students need teachers who confront their biases and develop asset-based perspectives.
Listening Is an Act of Kindness It’s hard for all of us to do, especially educators but listen with an empathetic heart. Our students are trying to tell us what they need, but the constructs of schooling sometimes prevent us from truly hearing them. When we listen, we open up opportunities to build relationships. When we build relationships, student can feel connected. If they feel connected, they may ask for your help. Our schools need to “visibilize” our students whose voices go unheard.
If you are or know someone considering suicide, call 1-800-273-8255 or visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.
Photo courtesy of the author.
LeeAndra Khan is CEO of Civitas Education Partners. Previously she served as a middle school principal in Oak Park, Illinois, and formerly spent 10 years in three Chicago high schools as a principal, assistant principal and math teacher. Before beginning her journey into education, she spent 10 years as a civil engineer designing roads, highways, gas stations and bridge inspections.
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