NewsJun 11, 2019

Addressing mental illness one page at a time

Research by Lesley professor and students identifies books that can open path to healthier classrooms

Fareesa Sayeda speaks with educators at a table.
Above: Fareesa Syeda speaks with educators at a workshop for English language arts educators held at Bridgewater State University.

Associate Professor Brooke Eisenbach and a team of her students are bringing mental health into the classroom – through fiction.

They believe that engaging students in stories that have realistic and positive portrayals of youth facing mental health is one way to create more inclusive and healthier classrooms.

“We’re seeing a lot of schools focus on social-emotional learning and we’re hoping to see a turn towards mental health as well,” said Dr. Eisenbach, author of “Queer Adolescent Literature as a Complement to the English Language Arts Curriculum” (2018).

Two years ago, Eisenbach and undergraduate education students Camille Gerard, Patrick Lessage, Fareesa Syeda and Samantha Zarkower teamed up to research middle school and young adult books that address mental illness and how they might be used to destigmatize and educate students and teachers.

As Eisenbach explains, they were looking for books that have positive portrayals of treatment and show protagonists who weren’t defined by mental health but were moving toward treatment and assistance, not a magical cure. The group also looked for “own voices” books, written by authors who experienced mental illness.

“I think this is a less talked about topic in the classroom. This is something we need to discuss more openly so students feel more safe,” said Syeda ’19.

As a high school student, Syeda didn’t encounter many books that had a positive portrayal of mental health issues. Through the team’s research, she realized how important it is to bring mental health discussions into the classroom and the role that books could play in that dialog.

“Adolescence is really the age where students are becoming more independent and keeping things to themselves and finding their own niche,” Syeda said. “I think it’s really important for students to see themselves reflected in the books they read and also have a small window into other’s experiences so they can be a little bit more empathetic.”

The research team developed resources to help teachers bring mental health discussions into their classrooms. Here are some of their suggestions:

  1. Before you begin assigning books, make sure you have a welcoming and inclusive classroom so students feel safe.  
    “It’s an ongoing process throughout the school year,” says Eisenbach. “It encompasses everything from the choice in furniture, to décor, to classroom content, book selection, conversation, management and more. It’s cultivating a classroom space of trust, respect and reflection. The students need to see, hear and feel that they are valued and included in every decision within the classroom community. If the students don’t feel safe, valued, included and understood, nothing else will matter.”
  2. If possible, partner with a school counselor or school psychologist who can provide resources and extra support in conjunction with readings.
  3. Be keenly aware of what you’re asking students to share because no one owes you their story.
  4. Grow your own mental health literacy, so that you avoid spreading biased or false information as your class engages with these novels.
  5. Each story is unique, so each will require a different approach. Let students know one book doesn’t represent all experiences. Instead, help students gain understanding and perspective through each story.

Here are a few recommended books:

  • “Under Rose-Tainted Skies,” by Louise Gornall, is an own voices story that deals with agoraphobia.
  • “OCDaniel,” by Wesley King, features a main character who struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder, while a secondary character has schizophrenia.
  • “Lily and Duncan,” by Donna Gephart, is told in dual narratives. This story charts a friendship between a boy with bipolar disorder and a transgendered girl.

Spreading the word

For more than a year, the students have shared their research and materials through conference presentations and articles, including one published in “The Leaflet,” a publication of the New England Association of Teachers of English.

They were so passionate about demystifying mental illness and making it
accessible not only to teachers, but students themselves in a way
that didn’t offer easy answers but hope of recovery.
Elizabeth Gonsalves, English Language Arts Department Head for Abington Middle/High Schools

After hearing them present at the New England Association for Teachers of English Conference, educator Elizabeth Gonsalves invited them to conduct a workshop at the English Language Arts Collaborative, hosted by Bridgewater State University. Approximately 40 educators attended the Lesley team’s two workshops.

“They were so passionate about demystifying mental illness and making it accessible not only to teachers, but students themselves in a way that didn’t offer easy answers but hope of recovery,” said Gonsalves, the English Language Arts Department Head for Abington Middle/High Schools.

A high school teacher since 1983, Gonsalves has seen a dramatic rise in anxiety and mental illness among her students in recent years, and “they often suffer alone because they feel no one understands.” She believes reading fiction where they can see some of their own stories will make them feel more understood and less anxious as well as encourage them to seek help.

Gonsalves hopes to collaborate with the group more in the future.

Going forward, Eisenbach said she and the students, two of whom graduated in May, plan to continue their research. Next, they will collaborate on a book proposal that will include partnerships with teachers, school psychologists and counselors.