Last week, I did something that was very difficult for me. And even writing about it is challenging for me, so I feel this post will be short and/or not articulated well. But here we go. Last week, in class, I addressed the recent suicide on Waterloo’s campus, opened up about my own mental health history, and discussed with the class about mental health in relation to campus and strategies to manage and/or alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression.
It took me over a week to do this. And while I don’t like excuses, here’s what I was going through: When the news of the suicide happened, I was re-playing Life is Strange because I was teaching it the following week. And in Life is Strange, a student, depending on your actions in the game, commits suicide by jumping off of a residence building. In my play-through of Life is Strange, the student did die and I had to put the controller down and step away. As an instructor, I was deeply concerned with how this may trigger students, especially with the recent suicide. Although I did give out warnings to my students, the timing of playing this game was not good. But I also didn’t want to not talk about it, because I didn’t want to create a stigma around mental health issues. But as a person, I was also triggered by the event because I had a friend last semester commit suicide (they were not a student). I was conflicted, wasn’t thinking straight, and paralyzed in moving on with everything as normal.
On the Monday lecture, my anxiety was high. And somewhere in the lecture, I opened up about my friend because I realized I couldn’t talk about Kate, the character in Life is Strange who commits suicide. Throughout the rest of the lecture, I rambled, I got emotional, and I can tell that the atmosphere in the room got really heavy. So, on Wednesday, I decided that I needed to address the recent suicide on campus and to just talk about mental health, whether in relation to the game or to the culture on campus or to mental health in general.
And Wednesday happened. After a group presentation, I sat down and apologized to the class for not, as their instructor, addressing the recent suicide on campus and reminding them that my class is meant to be a safe and accommodating space (something I open every class with in the beginning of the term). I then opened up to the class about my mental health history, something I do in private one-on-ones with students who come to me but hardly in front of the whole class. And I explained why I delayed in addressing the suicide, though it shouldn’t be considered an excuse. We then just talked, first about campus culture and how certain aspects of campus culture contributes to high levels of stress and depression and anxiety. And then, students started sharing how they manage their stress levels, or how they handled grieving, or how they managed their depression and/or anxiety. No one got into specifics, but they still shared these strategies of managing day-to-day life and their workloads.
It honestly was the most beautiful moments in my teaching history.
Afterwards, I got a number of emails thanking me or some students came to my office hours to thank me for that class. And to my surprise, I was the only one of their lecturers that addressed the recent suicide. I realize, however, that I am in a privileged position as a white, CIS male, and that not everyone can open up about their mental health to the class. It was a very scary thing to do, and I almost didn’t do it. So, I realize and respect others who may not have addressed the suicide in their classes for their own personal reasons, and I hope students understand that point. Students did, however, express frustration that their classes went on as if what was happening out in the world wasn’t happening or didn’t have any influence in the university. Their frustration (and the confusion around this) is completely valid as well.
Moving forward, this has really made me think of ways in which my syllabus can communicate the safety and accommodation that make students feel comfortable in my classroom. It has also got me thinking of how to approach and teach texts that deal with mental health (amongst other topics that can trigger students). I’m glad that my students reached out to me to let me know I did the right thing, but I think there is more than can be done in the structuring of the course, its texts, and the assignments to make students always aware that my classroom is a safe and accommodating space. Of course, as of right now, this falls on the instructor, which is labour-intensive and exhaustive. So I am looking forward to future support that will be given (there are talks) and continuing listening to students.