Mental Health in the Classroom: Experiencing Depression as a Teacher
As I type these words, two things are true: I am experiencing a surprisingly formidable
depressive episode, and it is open house season, the time of year when many recently graduated
high school students invite friends and family over for food and celebration.
As a high school teacher who primarily teaches seniors, I spend most of my June and July
weekends driving from house to house, enjoying appetizers and chatting with former students. I
am a naturally nostalgic person, so I appreciate these moments of lighthearted reminiscing and
semi-solicited advice-giving. (I also appreciate the free food, but that's a different thing entirely.)
I first identified my depression late in 2015, several months before participating in This Is My
Brave's 2016 Chicagoland event. As I explained during the event, I began to investigate my
mental health more thoroughly after I became frightened by my inability to internalize positivity.
Through most of my early life, I had been able to guide myself, however slowly or haphazardly,
toward happiness, but that skill seemed to be gone—my default mental state had shifted—and
that new reality scared me. I teach George Orwell's 1984 as a part of my AP Literature
curriculum, and a quote from that novel seems to effectively characterize the feeling: "He felt as though he were wandering in the forests of the sea bottom, lost in a monstrous world where he himself was the monster. . . . The past was dead, the future was unimaginable." This quote does
not encapsulate all aspects of depression—and reading 1984 primarily as a commentary on
mental illness might be an ineffective way to approach the novel—but the idea of trudging
through thick patches of seaweed with the weight of an ocean on your shoulders might connect
on some level with anyone who has experienced depression.
I was initially reluctant to share information about my mental health with my students. My logic:
teachers should never burden students with personal problems. Students of all ages experience an abundance of anxiety and stress, and teachers should mitigate those feelings whenever possible, not enhance them. Also, discussing mental health requires a certain level of vulnerability, and some pedagogical ideologies argue that vulnerability, in general, tends to have a negative impact on lesson plans. Appearing less than imperial might undermine the learning process. Teachers have to be strong.
Camouflaging my reluctance as professionalism worked for some time, but those hesitations, I
eventually realized, are not unique to educators. Many individuals who suffer from depression
believe that they should not burden their friends and family members with their internal
struggles. Many individuals who suffer from depression fear the consequences of emotional
vulnerability. Many individuals who suffer from depression believe that they must be strong for
the sake of others. And some believe that if they show strength long enough, they can shove
depression out of the way.
All of those feelings, however understandable they might have been, were unproductive, and I
decided to move past them. Though my educational philosophy was (and is) committed to the
idea that teachers should help students overcome their struggles, not vice versa, my initial logic
in regard to classroom-based conversations about mental health ignored a fundamental concept
of fruitful human interaction: empathy. To empathize is to relate to the experiences of others, and
empathy offers little comfort if it is not communicated. Empathy allows teachers to build lasting
rapport with students. And more generally, empathy reinforces compassion, giving it additional
significance. Social theorist Jeremy Rifkin argues, in part, that empathy is "the invisible hand"
that enables large-scale social cohesion. I agree with Rifkin, but I prefer a more microcosmic,
mental health metaphor: empathy is a secret language, an emotional shorthand between two
people that bypasses the potential unpleasantness of explaining the nuances of personal
experiences. To offer empathy is to offer more meaningful communication.
I was working toward treatment of my depression, and I knew that I had meaningful experiences
to share with others. Sometimes the best way to clear your mind is to remove the fog from
someone else's. So I decided to (at the right time and in the appropriate manner) share some of those experiences with some students.
I quickly learned two things: 1) relatability is a powerful thing, and 2) strength and vulnerability
are not mutually exclusive. My students exemplified the second fact. After I shared my
experiences with depression, some students felt comfortable telling me about their experiences
with mental illness, and the amount of perseverance and perspicacity that they displayed in their
stories was staggering.
And I continue to hear similarly significant stories each year from a variety of impressive
The polished, classroom-poster version of my admiration highlights the many praiseworthy
academic successes of students who suffer from mental illness, but the deeper form of my
admiration is more human: I admire their tenacity. Many of these students have experienced
significant hardships (and sometimes tremendous amounts of emotional pain), yet they come to
school (which, on some days, can feel like being inside a dystopian novel) every day from 7:45
AM to 2:45 PM—and they try. They try to learn. They try to participate in sports and theatrical
performances. They try to laugh with friends. They try to support one another. And, more often
than not, they succeed.
That requires strength. In fact, it requires a hell of a lot of strength. It is humbling, as a teacher,
to get to witness such fortitude each day in my classroom.
I still sometimes find myself in the thick of mental distress. But those experiences help me relate
to others. When I need additional motivation, I remember the many individuals, especially my
students, who have shared their stories with me. They have, perhaps unintentionally, taught me a
great deal about strength. They taught me that emotional vulnerability is a muscle, and to flex it
can be an act of bravery.
I look forward to teaching these lessons to future students.
Ben Boruff is an English teacher at Wheeler High School in Valparaiso, Indiana. Ben teaches AP Literature and sponsors a number of clubs at his school, including National Honor Society, Debate Club, and GSA. In his spare time, Ben writes indie comic reviews and a bit of poetry.
See more at BenBoruff.com.