I tutor a number of students from my local high school, which offers a remarkable English course called Psychology and Literature. What an idea! Although I’d never heard of such a course at any other school, Psych and Lit is extremely popular here, and I’ve been very impressed with the concept and the content.
My favorite assignment has students researching one of a selection of mental illnesses, and then writing a fiction piece from the perspective of a person with that illness. I worked with one of my students (I’ll call him Joe) on this amazing project.
I loved the idea right away. Getting young people to think deeply about mental illness, and gaining some appreciation for what it must be like, sounded so valuable. But I also wondered what students might make of this experience. Could they “get into” the head of a person with mental illness in any meaningful way?
I was also quite aware that because I don’t have a mental illness, my own capacity for understanding and relating was limited. I was excited to hopefully gain some insight, myself. But I was also worried about helping Joe treat the subject in as accurate and respectful a manner as possible.
Joe selected bipolar disorder as his topic of interest, which gave him effectively two mental states to study: mania and depression. Joe’s initial assumptions about both conditions were the predictable, common knowledge misimpressions. Joe figured that mania was like “being hyper,” and depression was like “being really sad.”
We spent a lot of time talking about depression, with me pulling from information I hoped Joe could relate to. I found this wonderful quote from a woman with chronic fatigue and depression:
Imagine you are wearing a suit of armor and the floor is a magnet.
This got Joe’s head working. It was an image both he and I could savor. We sat quietly and really felt that heavy pull of gravity. Imagine moving through life feeling that! Depression, Joe began to understand, is not simply Big Sadness.