As students present information on select art works from AP Art History’s top 250, teacher William Renninger asks specific questions regarding the pieces to encourage academic discussion. Holding the highest passing rate in the nation for his class, art, culture and history are all researched subjects in Renninger’s room. A topic seldom discussed in other classrooms occasionally surfaces the conversation -mental health.
“I think it’s important to demystify it so it’s not something that’s shameful, so people recognize this is pretty common,” Renninger said. “So, hopefully there are students who recognize that if they’re feeling the same way they can talk about it with their parents instead of being either ashamed or unwilling to talk about it.”
Renninger is unafraid to discuss his own struggle with depression and mental illness, and even touches on the topic if it connects to an artist or a work being examined. Although Renninger feels comfortable speaking about mental health with his students due their good relationship, he notes society’s abrasive attitude towards mental illness, and hopes for the topic to become unshrouded for future generations.
“I think people see any kind of struggle with mental illness or mental health as being less legitimate than a physical problem,” Renninger said. “Like if I came in with a broken leg on crutches people would hold the door for me and feel sympathetic, but they have a different attitude if you’re suffering from something you can’t see physically.”
While Renninger naturally finds joy in his job, he still has to be proactive about combatting depression in other aspects of his life.
“This is the one area where I don’t have to work to feel happy,” Renninger said. “Coming to the classroom, teaching the subject that I teach, that genuinely brings me joy. It’s everything else in my life that I sort of have to pay attention to and make sure that I’m finding joy in other things.”
Different methods Renninger uses to confront his mental health include medication, therapy and a custom six step program chart his wife designed. The chart includes six main components that encourage healthy behavior that Renninger can gain points for each day. Even with active attempts to manage his mental status, Renninger still acknowledges the fluctuating highs and lows of his mental health.
“It’s up and down, it’s not like I’ve improved drastically,” Renninger said. “Even though you can’t tell because I work really hard to be even in my classroom, outside my classroom it’s a constant struggle. It’s not easy.”
Through being open and unashamed of his personal struggle with depression, Renninger hopes to encourage students to take charge of monitoring their own mental health. Renninger also urges students to understand recovery is not a road they have to take alone.
“Find a support system, find a system that works for you whatever that it is, find a therapist that works for you, medication, whatever it is, it can be a combination of any of those things,” Renninger said. “But what you can’t do is what I’ve done many times, which is just ignoring it hoping it’ll go away, because it doesn’t. You need to be proactive, and you need to tell other people so if you’re not being proactive, they can help you be proactive.”