SPEAK FREELY: MENTAL HEALTH AND THE POETICS OF COLLECTIVE HEALING
May is, among other things, Mental Health Awareness Month. Any educator who has spent much time in the classroom knows that our students are experiencing mental health crises with increasing frequency. Over the course of my career, I have personally lost students to suicide, offered a safe space to students experiencing panic attacks and encountered a spectrum of students who struggle to navigate daily life. I have shut down lessons repeatedly to give space to students who simply needed time to grieve, or breathe, or feel seen in their struggles. My experiences are not unique; educators have become accustomed to acting as support systems for students, and that need is only growing larger as we navigate the seemingly endless cycle of environmental crisis, human brutality and attacks on personal freedoms.
Starting the Conversation
Discussing mental health in the classroom can be incredibly daunting, especially as educators face public criticism and accusations of indoctrinating students. Naturally, I turn to poetry to frame these conversations. One of my favorite places to start is with a TEDx talk from Rachel McKibbens about the therapeutic function of poetry. McKibbens is well-known for her unflinching poetry, much of which addresses her own mental health and the experiences that have affected her mental health. She begins her talk with a vulnerable and honest introduction in which she speaks to her own mental health, the history of mental health in her family, and the constant battle she has with her own brain. McKibbens then moves into a discussion about the moment she encountered Anne Sexton’s poetry and how it gave McKibbens the language to describe her own experiences.
Visibility and representation are vital to healthy cognitive development, and myriad research into the sociological needs of students suggests that educators play an essential function in self-actualization. McKibbens speaks to the power of feeling seen in a way that students react to, but she doesn’t end there. The latter half of the talk speaks to the importance of self-expression, including the ridiculousness of asking students in crisis to channel their experiences into poetry. She acknowledges the various ways in which students resist poetry or believe it to be meaningless. By the end of the talk, McKibbens has tackled many of the things educators struggle to communicate to students, setting students up for their own reflections on mental health. This is an ideal resource for educators who don’t know how to answer students who reject writing poetry, or who believe that no one understands their situation.
Curating a Playlist
Poems about mental health are incredibly common; I currently have about two dozen poetry collections stacked next to my keyboard, and I have no doubt that I could open any one of them at random and find several poems about mental health. Personally, I am often moved by poems that bluntly tackle the most painful experiences. In my first years as a high school teacher, I mistakenly flooded my students with poems about trauma, crisis and isolation. Then a handful of students joked that my class should come with a disclaimer about the need for a therapist. They were not criticizing the poems I brought into the classroom; indeed, the most common comment I get on evaluations continues to be that I change student perspectives on poetry. Still, students picked up on how I failed to balance heavy, sometimes triggering poems with moments of relief and hope.
These days, I work hard to select poems that remain honest without utterly destroying my students. When it comes to mental health, I lean on video performances more heavily than usual because I’ve found that students have a stronger reaction to seeing and hearing poets speak about mental health. I begin with a video, then have students react to the poem through timed free writing. During this time, students cannot speak, and they must continuously write, usually for 2 minutes. After this, we discuss the poem itself. Before students leave, I give them a prompt to work from at home. Students will submit these poems to me and have the opportunity to share them in class, but they are never compelled to read them aloud or share them with peers if the feel uncomfortable.
Andrea Gibson is a staple in my classroom, as much because they are a dear friend as because students almost always react to their work with vigor. One poem that I return to every year is “The Madness Vase,” also known as “The Nutritionist.” The poem begins with a list of advice Gibson has received about how to deal with their depression and suicidal ideation. They then discuss Tyler Clementi, noting that news of Clementi’’s death reached them on a night when they were seriously considering suicide. Gibson closes the poem by speaking to how common depression is, and how people with “heavy hearts” are also “phonebooths with a red cape inside.” Gibson ends the poem by encouraging the audience to collectively promise to continue living. They tell the audience, “Let me say right now for the record, I am still gonna be here asking this world to dance even if it keeps stepping on my holy feet. You, you stay here with me, okay? You stay here with me.”
When I say that students react to this poem, what I mean is that this poem has acted as a promise between myself and several students who struggled with suicidal ideation. It is a powerful entrypoint to discuss what keeps us here, as well as how difficult it can be to navigate the seemingly endless advice about how to “get better.” Another poem that helps address this visibility is “Mental Health Barz,” by Ebony Stewart. Like Gibson and McKibbens, Stewart opens with an honest window into her own mental health. One of the most important things that Stewart adds to the conversation is how often people appear to be well-adjusted and strong, only to navigate immense pain internally. In the poem, Stewart employs a phrase that has become heavily circulated: “Check on your strong friends. Check on your strong friends. Don’t believe us. I promise we’re pretending.” Stewart speaks to the importance of having open conversations about mental health, even with those who seem to be perfectly fine.
I also like to include a bit of music, and Mary Lambert’s “Secrets” offers a perfect foil to the heaviness around mental health. Lambert is equally honest about the realities of mental health while also speaking to the stigma around mental health. Her song is a powerful anthem to embracing our experiences and recognizing that we are valuable exactly as we are. She also echoes the idea that sharing our experiencing, refusing to hide mental health conditions and struggle in silence is essential to healing. At the outset of the song, Lambert proclaims, “I’ve got Bipolar Disorder. My shit’s not in order,” before calling out society with the lines, “They tell us from the time we’re young to hide ourselves inside ourselves.” The juxtaposition of honest and authentic lyrics about the state of mental health with bouncy pop instrumentals lightens the conversation without sanitizing it.
Artists are increasingly committed to addressing the stigma around mental health, which helps educators frame conversations in the moment. At the time of this writing, Kendrick Lamar has just dropped his latest album, which begins with the song “United in Grief.” Lamar opens the song with an internal monologue that encourages Lamar to “tell ‘em the truth,” after which Lamar admits “I’ve been goin’ through somethin’.” In the first verse, Lamar addresses stigma and the toxicity around encouraging men not to speak about grief, as well as the tendency to minimize women’s suffering as overly dramatic and dangerous. Throughout the song, Lamar reminds us that everyone grieves differently. He also mentions attending therapy, rejecting the notion that we should hide treatment for mental health.
Lil Nas X similarly addresses mental health in “Sun Goes Down,” where he admits to thoughts of suicide before telling listeners that “it’s much more to life than dying over your past mistakes.” He describes feelings of sadness and isolation as a child that haunted him. The video for the song situates Lil Nas X in high school, which helps students further identify with both his grief and the way he overcomes the situation. Again, the thread of communicating during a mental health crisis continues as the rapper admits, “It’s hard for you when you’re fighting and nobody knows it when you’re silent.”
Ultimately, May offers educators an opportunity to close out the year with frank discussions about one of the most important issues our students face. For many, summer introduces a stronger sense of isolation. They lose access to support systems and may feel increasingly invisible. We can help combat those feelings by showing students how to articulate their struggles, challenging stigmas that encourage students to minimize or hide their struggles, and providing a playlist that students can turn to in moments of crisis.