When our children are little, we can handpick the people who care for them and influence them. But as they grow older and spend time in school, sports, after school activities, and outside interests, they will be exposed to a wide variety of people.
Being a teacher, coach, or any kind of mentor to children is a huge privilege that comes with great responsibility. Just as they would look for physical health issues – someone who is injured or hurt, they need to look out for mental health issues. They need to create an environment where it is okay to speak openly. Because of their influence and position of authority, they are many times the people who our children trust to share their problems with.
We aren’t with our kids day and night – they go out into the world and encounter people who they come to respect and listen to. We hope we put them in the right environments, and we try to choose their influences but, in reality, we have very little control over the messages being delivered to our children.
We can surround them with family and friends who will look out for them, but we need the adults in their lives to be compassionate and empathetic. We need our teachers, coaches, and staff to know what to look for in their students – to recognize when someone is struggling. Though it may not be part of their job description, it could save someone’s life.
My husband coaches lacrosse at our local high school. A few years ago, the varsity head coach, at the time, lost one of his coworkers to suicide. He was so shaken by it – it shocked everyone in his office. At practice the next day, he pulled the team together and had a very serious talk with them. He didn’t sugar coat his message – he told them about his coworker – a young guy with his entire future ahead of him and everything going for him. A guy who seemed happy – he told them no one knew he wasn’t ok.
The coach said “Whatever you are going through, please tell someone, ask for help. I’m here for you, your parents are here, the other coaches are here – please don’t keep it inside. Don’t be ashamed. There is nothing for you to be ashamed of.”
My husband relayed this story to me when he got home that night, and he said the head coach handed it so beautifully, and he could see that the players were listening very intently. He said it was really amazing to witness.
I immediately texted the coach to tell him that he may have saved someone’s life. I said “You may never know the impact you had. But just saying those words to these kids who admire you and look up to you could make all the difference.”
We need more people like him who can deliver such a message in a way that it is heard by our sons and daughters. This is so critical. We need all our teachers, coaches, band/choir/theater directors, principals, staff, adult influencers and mentors to be mental health advocates and to deliver this exact same message – “You don’t need to be ashamed. If you need help, ask for help, and someone will help you.”
As parents we do our best to create an environment where our children know it is okay to tell us anything. But sometimes, it’s someone closer to their age or someone they relate to on a different level that they may go to when they need counsel or help.
It was a trusted teacher that my son turned to when he finally verbalized out loud that he need help for depression. They insisted that he tell us that evening or they would – and that was the impetus for him telling us. I won’t let myself think of “what could have happened” if he’d told someone less compassionate or trustworthy.
Later, when he was doing better, I asked him why he’d kept his depression a secret from us for so long. He said that his feelings terrified him, and he didn’t want to scare or worry us. Little did he know, as parents, we basically worry about them all the time.
His teacher had spoken openly and made their classroom a safe space for speaking up so when he was ready to ask for help, he’d confided in them. They’d told him they could listen but only we (his parents) could get him help, and they assured him that would understand. We are so grateful, and they will always hold a special place in our hearts.
Teachers, coaches, and mentors, you influence our kids in ways great and small. Never underestimate the power of creating an environment where kids feel safe and know they can trust you.
Your words carry so much weight, and when you proactively say , “it’s ok to need help”, “don’t be ashamed”, “tell someone” you create a space for kids to have the courage to say “I need help.”
Note - for teachers, counselors, and adolescent mental health providers, please check out Ezra's Invisible Backpack (https://www.wordsthatrock.com/). It's a wonderful book that helps children understand and express their emotions - even difficult ones. If we normalize mental health discussions when they are young they will have the language to speak up when they are struggling and need help.