Librarian’s Devastating Loss Provides Mental Health Lens for Teaching "Romeo and Juliet"

After her son died by suicide in April, Michelle Oliver collaborated with an English teacher to look at Shakespeare's famous "love story" in a new way and to teach her students about suicide awareness.

Michelle Oliver (left) and family at her son Matt’s college graduation.
Photo courtesy of the Oliver family


I DOUBT MANY STUDENTS ESCAPE HIGH SCHOOL WITHOUT READING ROMEO AND JULIET. The play is required reading for the freshmen at Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City, MO, where I have worked as the library media specialist for the last four years. Lesson plans around Romeo and Juliet typically cover topics such as the language used in the play, the theater of the Elizabethan era, and character explorations of this famous tale of “star-crossed lovers.” This year, however, I collaborated with our freshman English teachers to add a lesson in which the students look at Romeo and Juliet from a mental health perspective. I created this lesson after losing my 24-year-old son to suicide on April 1 of this year.

Suicide rates are on the rise for all age groups. According to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, rates of depression for high school–age students increased by more than 60 percent between 2009 and 2017. During roughly the same time period, the number of young people who attempted suicide or experienced suicidal ideations nearly doubled—emergency rooms went from seeing 580,000 children age 5 to 17 in 2007 to 1.12 million in 2015. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals who are 10 to 34 years old. We are losing too many precious students daily. Traditional intervention is not working well, and it is time for all hands on deck to tackle this crisis.

Librarians are an integral part of educating and problem solving in our schools. If you have any doubt, look at the American Association of School Librarians’ (AASL) National School Library Standards. According to AASL, we are leaders, teachers, information specialists, and instructional partners. In these roles, librarians are challenged to provide opportunities for students to think, create, share, and grow. Collaboration is also a key part of these standards.

 

A lesson through a new lens

I was approached by Melissa Welch, one of our freshman English teachers, who asked if I thought it would be a good idea to incorporate a mental health lesson into the Romeo and Juliet curriculum. We had collaborated many times, and she knew that our family was being very open about the nature of Matt’s death, with the hope of helping others. I thought it was a fabulous idea and said I would see what I could find.

I discovered a few professional articles about how literature can be used to address mental health and suicide prevention, but little practical help, so I decided to create a lesson myself. I pulled together a list of 12 warning signs of suicide compiled from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as well as other suicide prevention resources. Then, I looked for examples in the play. By the time I finished Act 5, I had isolated more than 30 passages that demonstrated warning signs of suicidal tendencies.

After the students read the play, they spent a day with me in the library. I reminded them that while often referred to as a great love story, Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy about a double suicide and I explained that we would be exploring it from a mental health standpoint. The students worked in pairs on a handout I provided that identified suicide warning signs found in passages their classroom teachers read aloud. For example, in Act 1 Scene 1, lines 127–139, Benvolio and Montague discuss their concerns about Romeo’s mental state. Students remarked that Romeo was showing signs of being withdrawn and unable to communicate.

After going through several examples from the play, students identified the people in Romeo’s and Juliet’s lives who recognized something was wrong. The Friar, Nurse, Benvolio, and Montague were all mentioned. We discussed how in this fictional story, red flags are all over the place. Who knows how the play might have been different had one of their loved ones engaged a bit more?
 

 

Educating through personal tragedy

I then put up a picture of my son at his college graduation. I told the students that there are not always warning signs and shared his story: Matt was an honor student, athlete, and campus leader who was in his second year of law school. To everyone on the outside, he was a happy young man with a wonderful future ahead of him.

My students know me as a very open person, so I handled this lesson in the same manner. I told them that we learned Matt had been drinking heavily by himself in his apartment the evening before he died and that he was stressed about some assignments. We also learned that he owned a handgun—something I did not know he had purchased. I told them that my husband and I always had frank conversations with both of our children about depression and alcoholism, as both are prevalent in our family history. And we encouraged them to be aware of both. I shared that we had spoken to Matt on two occasions this past year as we were concerned about his drinking.

I asked the students if they knew how long it took for someone to think about taking their lives before acting on it. Many guessed a week, a day, or a couple of hours. Jaws dropped when I said it can be as little as five to 10 minutes.

At the end of our time together, I asked if they would go to a doctor for a broken leg or pneumonia. Of course, they all said, yes. I emphasized that mental health is no different and if left untreated can be fatal. We had the students bring their phones to class so they could input the number and text option for the suicide hotline. I told them it may not be a number you need for yourself, but perhaps a friend will need it someday and you can save a life. We also discussed that staying silent is not an option. It is better to have a friend upset at you for intervening than carry that weight on your shoulders and worry about “what ifs.”

 

Making a difference

This was the most difficult but most rewarding lesson of my career. The response from the students and the teachers was incredible, and a number of students have since come to me about their own issues or shared concerns about their friends.

A librarian’s role is unique in our schools. We can do so much more than order books to support curriculum or help students with research. We can notice the student who is sitting alone and looking downtrodden, the student who goes from manic highs to crashing lows, the student who stops taking care of themself, or the student who no longer seems to eat and has lost weight. We can respond to needs in our society and culture by developing lessons and reaching out to or answering requests from teachers in our buildings.

Both my siblings were high school English teachers in the St. Louis area. Years ago, I remember giving one of them a silly poster for the classroom with a picture of an old woman in a rocking chair with the sentence above saying, “Let’s eat Grandma!” The one underneath said, “Let’s eat, Grandma...punctuation saves lives!” My sister, Missy, now a high school theater teacher, got a tattoo of a semicolon after Matt died. She wants people—particularly her students—to ask her about it.

Project Semicolon was founded by Amy Bluel, and she beautifully explains it this way: “A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you, and the sentence is your life.” What if Romeo’s line had been “Here’s to my love;”? Would he have paused long enough to realize Juliet was not really dead? What if there had been a semicolon inserted between my son’s thought of taking his life and grabbing that loaded gun? Would he have gone for a walk or called me? Would he still be here?

As librarians, we have the ability to create spaces for these conversations, to teach about the strength of having a semicolon moment. Perhaps punctuation really can save lives.


Michelle Oliver is the library media specialist at Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City, MO.

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Jen Einoris

Thank you so much for what you did by sharing your experience with the students at your school. I am so sorry for your loss but I feel that you are doing a great honor to him by making sure others know that help is available and to be on the lookout for signals in others. Bravo for your bravery and big heart!

Posted : Aug 21, 2019 10:01


Martha Dinsdale

Too often suicide is kept quiet as a cause of death. It’s too overwhelming because it’s completely preventable and yet it wasn’t. Thank you so very much for not only addressing the proverbial “elephant in the room,” but ushering it out and strengthening the defenses to keep it out. I’ve had two sons struggle with these thoughts and I so appreciate the people who voiced the warning signs. I am so very, very sorry for your loss, but thank you for making your private pain public so that lives will be changed. Peace to you. ❤️

Posted : Aug 12, 2019 12:23


Marie Muth

Thank you for sharing this story. Raising awareness and helping people talk about suicide can only help others. Just so you are aware Kia Jane Richmond has recently published a book entitled Mental Illness in Young Adult Literature: Exploring Real Struggles Through Fictional Characters. Kia Jane is a professor of English at Northern Michigan University. The book is available on Amazon.

Posted : Aug 12, 2019 01:22


Lynette Sievers

Bless you for your openess to talking about your tragic loss. My heart breaks for your family. I have also lost a loved one to suicide and believe that we can only save lives by talking about it. There is so much to learn about this brain disorder.

Posted : Aug 12, 2019 12:32


Rhonda Thomas

I am so sorry for the loss of your son Matt. We just lost my nephew to suicide my shotgun at age 20. I am a retired librarian and know tons of high school teacher that I am about to share this with. The semi colon tattoo is one I have been thinking about. My sisters both got one. Thank you for this article.

Posted : Aug 11, 2019 04:19


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