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A prayer for people with mental illness, those who love them to be seen

By Judy Knotts
Special to the American-Statesman
Judy Knotts is a parishioner of St. John Neumann Catholic Church and former head of St. Gabriel's Catholic School and St. Michael's Catholic Academy. Her newest book, "You Are My Brother," is a collection of past American-Statesman faith columns.

I’m going to share a secret regarding teachers. It doesn’t matter what subjects they teach in grades kindergarten through 12th — phonics to physics — for them, it’s usually all about the children — their personality, their potential, their uniqueness. The good ones realize the subject content is secondary to the students in front of them.

The first days of school teachers are as excited as children. They want to learn names and identify the quick-silver smart impulsive ones, the shy ones who won’t look you in the eye or speak up, and the dogged ones who try earnestly until they understand. 

If the teaching professionals are experts with tricks up their sleeves, they work out little student kinks and glitches in the classroom. They, not the students, set up learning groups so no one is left out. They give up their lunch break to sponsor interest clubs and tutoring sessions. They pair students to bring out the best in both. Most of these techniques work.  

Despite their skills, teachers know when to seek help. A guidance counselor or the school nurse can be resources for concerns— “Why is Jenny frequently in tears? Why is Dominic so angry?” 

Seasoned educators are not trained mental health experts. They just have seen hundreds and hundreds of students, and have a good sense of when something is not right and way off the norm. This important basic screening method benefits everyone, the child, the classroom, and the family. Next step is a referral to those with the credentials — pediatricians, psychologists, psychiatrists. 

Why is this rough screening and then more systematic analysis important? Because it saves anguish. Sometimes, it saves lives. According to The National Mental Health Association, “Mental illness is not uncommon among children and adolescents.” Moreover, “Mental health problems affect one in every five young people at any given time” and “As many as 1 in every 33 children may be depressed. Depression in adolescents may be as high as 1 in 8.”  

Even with teachers’ awareness, we hear in the news, depressed children and young adults can go un-noticed until something tragic happens — a terrible act of violence, a shooting, a death by suicide.  I have known six teens or people in their 20s, whom I remember as children, who lost their lives to suicide. Nothing is ever the same for families and friends after this.  

We don’t know exactly what causes mental illness. The National Institute of Mental Health says a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors could play a part. For those of us, who are not medical researchers or physicians in the field, it is enough to know that mental illness can attack any one of us or any member of our family. This alone should give us pause. Mental illness is color blind, respects no ethnicity and cares not a whit for privilege.  

There is no cure, but like many illnesses, some treatments are possible — medication, therapy and support groups. They require compliance, which sometimes doesn’t happen. In addition, drugs and alcohol may be used to escape and block out pain. 

Many of our runaway youth living on the streets are teens and young adults diagnosed and un-diagnosed with a mental illness. Regardless of background, two weeks of being unsheltered, begging for food, searching for a spot to sleep and living in squalor changes one’s appearance and outlook.

Years ago, a homeless young man, a former student, came up to me and said, “Dr. Knotts, don’t you recognize me?” Sadly, I didn’t. 

For parents with children suffering from serious mental illnesses, diagnoses, treatment options and the illnesses’ progression leave them exhausted, frustrated and frightened. On top of that, the public stigma hurts. Are they to blame, they wonder? Who knows? Who cares? 

So let’s pray for those in pain we cannot see. Let’s pray our hearts and heads will be open, to understand that mental illness is not weakness. It is not willed. It is not wanted. Finally, let’s pray we won’t be tempted to judge.  

 For we are one. 

Judy Knotts is a parishioner of St. John Neumann Catholic Church, and former head of St. Gabriel’s Catholic School and St. Michael's Catholic Academy. Her newest book, “You Are My Brother,” is a collection of past American-Statesman faith columns.