The first show of our Melbourne Odyssey was by musical comedian Gillian Cosgriff – “Whelmed”.
Chastity: I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?
Bianca: I think you can in Europe.
-10 Thing I Hate About You
According to Gillian,”whelmed” was originally a sailing term for when the waves are almost but not quite breaking over the deck – in other words, you’re 98% of the way to disaster, but not quite there yet. Virtual hands up if you think this describes your life! Gillian Cosgriff can relate.
Gillian was incredibly funny, turning tales of competitiveness, perfectionism and anxiety into self-deprecating and relatable anecdotes and songs. I won’t tell you any more about the show, although I encourage you to go see her if you get the chance. What I would like do is take a turn for the serious, and talk about is the process of bringing up your mental illness in public.
Gillian used her own anxiety as a fuel for her comedy. Other comedians we’ve seen over the years have done the same – I laughed all the way through Matt Okine’s set, but at the end of it I wanted to hand him a pamphlet for Beyond Blue.
I feel like most of my anxiety comes from worrying about whether I remembered to take my anti-depressants that morning.
– Gillian’s Dad
Talking about mental illness is becoming more and more common as the movement to de-stigmatize these problems gains strength. I think this is a good thing, and I hope that you do too. For me the issue is personal, since I have experienced some degree of depression and anxiety since 2010.
At this point in my life, I’m fairly practiced at bringing my illness up in social situations. I do this for activist reasons – I can contribute to the normalisation of mental illness by being open about my own. I also find it very personally rewarding, as opening up about my problems often makes people feel comfortable sharing their own. Realising that you are not alone, that other people you like and admire also deal with mental illness is a great feeling.
What I’m having trouble working out is how my personal and political feelings about mental illness should be expressed in a professional context – in the staff room, the playground, and even the classroom.
When it comes to bringing it up with potential employers, I don’t actually have a choice – I’m required to disclose any disability for WHS reasons, and since my depression/anxiety is chronic it counts as a disability, even though it’s managed and shouldn’t affect my teaching.
During my two practical placements, I took the leap and brought up my illness in staff room conversation. I didn’t have to deal with any direct prejudice, although some teachers made negative comments in my hearing about students who had anxiety-related exam provisions, apparently convinced that they were “gaming the system”. This made talking about my experiences less comfortable, but I believe it also made it more important. After all, if I can use my experiences to build understanding and sympathy for anxiety then this will hopefully have a positive flow-on effect when the other teachers are teaching mentally ill students.
The issue I’m really still struggling with is this: should I talk about my mental illness with my students, and if so, how and when should I do so.
Now I know some teachers would be unequivocally against the idea of revealing such a thing. After all, when you walk into a classroom you’re not showing the students the unfiltered you – you use a persona to create the distance you need to enforce discipline. Talking about your medical conditions could definitely cross that line between personal and professional.
Another problem with talking about mental illness is that students are often a captive audience in a way that friends, co-workers and comedy gig audiences aren’t. If a friend doesn’t want to swap anxiety stories for whatever reason they can change the subject, ask me to stop or simply leave. Due to the power differential between student and teacher the student may not feel comfortable ending the conversation/shutting me up. This is a very serious concern for me.
On the other hand…
Schools in NSW share with families and the community the responsibility for teaching values.
According to the DEC, respect is a value of NSW Public Schools. Caring for others is a value. And part of my job as a teacher is to model and explicitly teach these values. As such, fighting the negative stereotypes of mental illness is actually part of my job description. And one of the most powerful ways I know to do this is to be honest about my own problems, while demonstrating that people with mental illnesses can lead meaningful, productive lives.
This is a lot of deep reflection to be prompted by a comedy show that dedicated an entire song to the life cycle of chameleons. In truth this has been on my mind for a while, and I haven’t come up with a solution yet. For the moment I’m keeping my mind and my options open. I’ll be looking to my friends and co-workers can contribute their own experiences and opinions. In the end I hope that this whole problem will become obsolete, as mental illness becomes an ordinary part of life instead of a shameful secret.