As many of us are well aware, obsessive-compulsive disorder is an often misunderstood disorder. Though I do believe progress is being made (albeit slowly) there is still such a lack of understanding surrounding OCD. Most upsetting to me is when I come across professionals such as doctors, social workers, therapists, and teachers who have little to no knowledge of what OCD entails.
Imagine this scenario: After a teacher admonishes a student for continuously “playing” with her pencils, markers, and other items on her desk, the eight-year-old girl musters the courage to confide in the teacher that she fears she might seriously harm her classmates if she doesn’t arrange these things “just so.” The distraught girl must place the items on her desk in a particular way to keep anything horrible from happening. The teacher, alarmed, feels the child might be a threat to others and follows the school’s protocol. Before you know it, the “authorities” are involved, the girl is traumatized, her parents are upset and confused, and goodness knows what else happens.
Now imagine this same scenario, except the teacher in question has a basic understanding of various brain disorders, including OCD. After asking the girl a few questions, it is obvious to the teacher that this child is terrified of her obsessions, has no desire to hurt her classmates but rather desperately wants to keep them safe, and organizes her desk as a compulsion to make sure everything is “all right.” The teacher strongly suspects the girl has OCD and arranges a meeting with the appropriate counselors, as well as the girl’s parents. A referral is then made to a therapist who specializes in treating OCD, an official diagnosis is made, and treatment begins.
What a difference a little education can make! I believe all school administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors should receive basic training in mental health issues. Explanations of common disorders, their warning signs and symptoms, as well as the steps that should be taken to help children suffering from various illnesses, should all be included in workshops, continuing education classes, and discussions for educational professionals.
I also believe students should receive this same education, in an age-appropriate manner, of course. Not only will this information aid in making children more compassionate toward, and less fearful of, those with brain disorders, it will also help them recognize any warning signs they themselves might have or develop. Children can be amazingly accepting. Many of you might be familiar with the heartwarming story of Brad Cohen, an elementary school teacher with Tourette syndrome who was rejected twenty-four times before being hired to teach the lower elementary grades. He explained his disorder to his class at the beginning of each school year, and that was it (from the children’s perspective anyway).
Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of educating children is that providing them with information on brain disorders will likely decrease the stigma associated with all types of mental illnesses. Indeed, we always talk about “reducing the stigma.” But if we start educating children early enough, maybe we could even “erase the stigma.” If our children can grow up never even knowing the stigma of brain disorders, there would be nothing to reduce. And accepting others and their differences might just be the most meaningful lesson they ever learn in school.