A Classroom with a View

Reflections on Teaching High School English


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Talking to Teens about Mental Health through Literature

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Image credit: pebbled on deviantart

TW: mental illness, suicide, sexual abuse

Recently my school has seen an explosion in the number of students who report struggling with a variety of mental health challenges, but especially anxiety and depression. I have had more students than ever being hospitalized, more than ever missing a significant amount of school due to anxiety-related school avoidance, more than ever requiring a non-traditional classroom experience. I’m still a relatively new teacher, but my veteran colleagues agree — our kids are struggling.

They’re not alone. I’ve heard my anecdotal evidence echoed by the anecdotal evidence of other educators across the state and region. This past fall, the New York Times ran a significant article titled “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” describing precisely this phenomenon.

Regardless of its causes (which I don’t pretend to fully understand and I’m sure are numerous and complicated), as a teacher, I see its effects every day in my classroom. It is in this context that I just concluded my unit on J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a unit which I teach through a lens of psychological criticism and trauma theory.

I’m sure you’ve read it (I hope you have). Its highly original 17-year-old protagonist Holden Caulfield tells the reader about a weekend in his life when he got expelled from yet another prep school (his fifth), ran away to NYC, and hid out in a “pervy” hotel, all leading up to a mental breakdown that lands him in a psychiatric facility. Teaching this text through a lens of trauma theory means that I frame it for my students around the original trauma that sets Holden adrift, the loss of his little brother Allie to leukemia.

In the lead up to this unit, I worried about whether teaching this text in this way would be triggering for any of my students, if I was running the risk of re-traumatizing them by discussing subjects like the loss of a loved one, suicidal ideation, and child sexual abuse, which I already know some of them have experienced (and I’m sure many others have that I don’t know about). In some cases I contacted home to give parents advance notice. I geared myself up for complications, difficulties, a resurfacing of a painful past or present.

Here’s what happened instead.

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