I could never remember a specific time when I really began learning about mental illnesses and disabilities. However, I can firmly say that it was never in one of my high school health classes. Unlike pregnancy, a healthy diet and drug effects, mental illness was never something meant to be a topic of discussion. Of course, addiction and eating disorders were mentioned, but they were never really talked about. Never were there any real portrayals of mental health issues presented to show students how to preserve or manage mental health. There was never a lesson that spoke on how to care for loved ones who have a mental illness. In all reality, the absence of these teachings only created a horrendous atmosphere that promoted ableism and stigmas about mental illnesses throughout my school. It took me years to finally merge these classroom images with real life experiences from people who live with a mental illness/disability.
More and more schools are incorporating the importance of social justice issues and consent. Them recognizing these concepts is, of course, a huge step in progress. It is also crucial, however, that we must not deny that the U.S. school system has failed to portray the actuality of ableism and sanism. Not only have they failed to contest to these two ideas, but have failed to confront the reinforcement of oppression in regards to those with a mental illness/disability. The U.S. Education System, in a lot of ways, has created an overlying currency that fails to diminish mainstream stigmas surrounding mental illness. The failure to include and educate high school students on mental illnesses and disabilities has only contributed to those with a mental illness/disability to be stigmatized and victimized by ableism and sanism, which has only caused harm.
To some degree, there needs to be a demand for radical changes within the education system (for example, a greater prioritization of mental health services) to fully address the role of schools in the fight against ableism and sanism. But even without structural and policy changes, there are ways schools can start to combat these issues.
Integrate mental health and disability awareness into school curriculums
Unlike my school, there are more and more schools in the nation that include mental illness/disability awareness within specific curriculum units. There needs to be a better narrative on combating these issues. They need to be integrated continuously.
Discussing mental health and disabilities would largely vary depending on the subject matter for the particular course. There are many books written by, about and depicting disabled individuals. Political science and history classes should discuss the historical and contemporary reality of violence against disabled people and individuals with mental illness, such as police violence against mentally ill individuals and various activist movements such as the Section 504 Sit-In in the 1970’s.
Support the voices of mental illness and disability activists
Non-disabled student contextualizing disabilities and mental illnesses as a reality is extremely significant throughout this process. Implemented individuals who advocate for social justice issues regarding mental illnesses and disabilities, discussing their work and perspectives makes these movements much more real and personal. This also allows mentally ill/disabled students to hear other stories and it gives the message that they are not alone. This can be incredibly empowering and validating for them. For able-bodied experiences, understanding these issues and stories can help dismantle stereotypes.
Having people talk about invisible disabilities can broaden students’ understanding of disability and help validate the narratives of specific students. Similarly, engaging in a discussion about eating disorders with people of color is also necessary, considering there is still a huge, disillusioned atmosphere surrounding mental illness and disability in Black and Latinx communities.
The task of destigmatizing mental illness and ending ableism is far more rigorous than it seems. Also, it includes much more effort than the suggestions stated previously. However, the initial action of integrating, validating and supporting disabled individuals and individuals with mental illness through our education system. This, in no way, implies that my school treats mentally ill and disabled people horribly. However, this is simply a statement in which I am suggesting primary ways in how we can do better. What the steps we need to take when combating these stigmas are. How society can do this as cohesively as possible. Start these discussions, learn about these stories, continue redefining accommodations. Diminish ableism and sanism with every inch of strength. Do not allow stigmas surround those who do not have the same advantages as most of us do. Contribute in contesting these boundaries.