When a student asked last summer if she could sell t-shirts to reduce the stigma around mental health I was delighted. I was even more enthusiastic when she talked me through the semi colon campaign (Project; your story … is not over). Naturally, I literally bought the t shirt and have been wearing it ever since.
This student had recently lost her older brother to suicide yet was brave enough to stand in assemblies across the school reminding students that we need to be kind to each other, to find time to talk and to listen. She delivered the assemblies alongside another amazing student who also decided to share her story with her peers. ‘I suffer with anxiety,’ she began, ‘but I refuse to be defined by anxiety. I try to outwit it as much as possible.’
Now I love semi colons and I love talking so I know that this campaign – alongside the ‘We Need to Talk’ initiative – need more than just air time. In both my working and personal life I know too well the importance of valuing mental health as much as physical health, and the English teacher in me is loving a blog which for once will allow a semi colon frenzy; look at me go!
In writing I love the fact that a semi colon offers a little trumpet fanfare to the reader, alerting them that there is more to come and usually adding balance and depth to what would otherwise be wooden prose. I’m not above ranting in the classroom about the absence of any sentence markers. ‘Punctuation provides the traffic signals to the reader, students, and your readers are perilously in danger of over-shooting a cul de sac and plunging into a proof-reading graveyard!’.
Cue a quick round of punctuation karate; students off their backsides and deciding which martial arts action we will ascribe to each punctuation mark. I’m always happiest when a semi colon is awarded a fist punch, swerving high kick and some loud kiai as an expression of intent. We can then chop and punch our way through some quality literature before lunch.
Those ‘assembly’ students have moved on to university now and as we approach Mental Health Day (October 10th) I want to ensure they were a fanfare for more information to come. It’s hard getting air time for both talking and modelling little acts of kindness when the pace of life is so busy and when this approach is sometimes seen as a little ‘soft’. It’s hard showing students that teachers and parents also need to bolster their own mental health on a daily basis, without losing privacy. It’s hard when even if we can acknowledge that a student needs support with mental health, the exams calendar still ploughs on relentlessly and a ‘duvet day’, while understandable, may just leave the student even further behind their classmates.
Our stories are not over; airtime and realistic adjustment to modern life are needed.
If only fragile mental health came with a visible set of crutches or a wheelchair, we wouldn’t expect students to take their lessons in a metaphorical third storey classroom. Sometimes we coax a student back into lessons not realising that their brain is like fudge and they simply can’t concentrate. Getting out of bed that morning may have taken all the energy they can muster. We don’t always get it right – especially when we may be using our own superpowers to keep ourselves afloat. Too often we are outwitted.
Listening and being nice to each other are doable though and they deserve their own t-shirts. I love working in a school where students will come and tell you that they are worried about a friend; I love working in a school where you get thank you cards from students and colleagues. We need more of this and it needs to be two-way traffic.
I know first hand the kindness of strangers and friends. On days when the ‘black dog’ descends, this can outwit him. A text asking how your day is going, remembering you have an important meeting or just getting up at silly o’clock to meet you for a run or bootcamp, these are the things that matter.
On reflection, without going into detail, it’s been a semi colon kind of week; the news hasn’t always been contained by a full stop. I choose to view this as an opportunity to change the story and pitch a positive path ahead. The story may be a little longer than envisaged but looking on the bright side, we could get a book deal at the end. We’ve already got the t-shirt; I might order some new designs for Mental Health Day …