Well, term 4 starts tomorrow and it is Mental Health Awareness Week. I was wondering what wisdom I could share as a counsellor working in a school. By that I mean, what can I say that isn’t already googleable (no…that is definitely not a word).
Maybe that’s a good point to start with. There is sooooo much information online about mental health and unhealth/illness, that sometimes I wonder if young people actually come and talk to me with their diagnosis already sorted for them thanks to some online questionnaires. Not that this is bad or wrong but I get the feeling sometimes EVERY bad feeling or upset is being searched and the worst case scenario picked out. But I also acknowledge how distressing feeling intensely anxious, depressed, or hopeless can be. For some people it is a daily struggle to keep going and I know they are often the ones not talking to someone, not reaching out and quietly suffering.
I think it’s important to realise feeling sad, angry, upset, worried, anxious in themselves is not a mental health diagnosis. Stress is also really normal, and freaking out over exams, feeling overwhelmed by stuff is part of the roller coaster of life. Sometimes I wonder if the happiness bar has been set too high, everyone expects to be feeling good, happy, ecstatic, sweet as. But I reckon a more accurate description of a good mental health indicator is if you feel ‘meh’ to ok-alright. That’s kind of the base-line for most people, but for some reason people start freaking out if they aren’t happy, joyful, excited and loving life 24/7!
So I want to put some balance back in the picture of mental health. Freak outs about speeches, exams, performances, other things like that are common, normal things. Feeling tired, worn out and mentally fatigued after a term of manic internals is understandable. Breaking down, being devastated, upset, by things like death, illness, any sudden grief or loss is healthy and natural.
My hope for this week is that the conversations about mental health acknowledge the vast range of normal emotions – including the not so pleasant ones, because without them we get out of balance and that is where the trouble begins. Dealing with abuse, bullying, harassment, significantly impacts on mental health. Worry about gender or sexuality as well, so if you are worried about any of those things yourself or about a friend – talk to someone, try a school counsellor – just take one for a couple of test drives and see how it goes. Or contact someone like youthline.
Hope everyone has a great first week back.
There are some things you can avoid and some you can’t. If you are in year 11 or above in a New Zealand school it’s likely you’ve experienced exams of some form. In fact parents and older generations will happily give you a version of ‘in my day…’ followed by some seriously exaggerated tale of torture about tests or exams. As a ritual and right of passage they tend to mark the end of innocence with learning. It doesn’t really matter what system you are familiar with exams mean something else. Learning becomes serious business, connected to the future – a life beyond school apparently called ‘the real world’ once the big E makes it’s presence known. In my experience both personally and working both as a teacher and counsellor I’ve noticed a growing trend to define and attach large amounts of personal identity to success (or lack of success) with exam results.
Ok sure I understand that there are things like University Entrance, competition to get into courses and a desire to do well. But I see young people mapping their entire lives out in front of them based on one result. Doing your best doesn’t seem good enough anymore and that is a bit of a worry. I don’t think anyone is to blame but I do wonder at times about a culture of success that is born out of an idea that effort = result and that anyone can be the best creates some fairly unrealistic expectations at times. Exams don’t even really test intelligence in all it’s multiple elements and dimensions. It’s a task, a game that some learn to play really well and some get through while others find the rules just don’t work for them. Ironically if you do your homework you can find plenty of examples of people who have gone onto interesting careers and paths who didn’t do all that well at school.
Getting anxious before an exam is normal and stress does strange things to your ability to remember stuff. You are not your ability to recall. That is a fact that needs to be remembered at all times. Exams do not define you or make you a worthy person. Sure some doors might seem more available if you do well but your life has meaning beyond the criteria of rank scores. You are always Excellence simply by being a unique individual.
Finally I wonder whether exams will exist in 50 years or if they will look different and reflect a new understanding of knowledge, wisdom, individuality and collectiveness. One thing I am sure of, if they are still around once the final one is done it’s time to celebrate hard out.