In the spirit of the Bell “Let’s Talk” campaign, I have decided to do just that. I know this is a long post, probably the longest I’ve written, but it is honest, true and heartfelt. I am writing this based on my own experience and those I have witnessed in my 13 years as an elementary school teacher.
Thanks in advance to those of you who read it all the way through and an even bigger thanks to those of you who are inspired to talk and share your own stories.
Jack is in second grade. He has diabetes. His parents are really upset with him. His teacher is discouraged with him. They keep encouraging him, but he’s so lazy.
They tell him, “Come on! You just need to focus and work harder.” “I know you can do it.” “Show your pancreas who’s in control.” “You can process that sugar if you try hard enough.” “We believe in you.”
Those messages of positivity and growth mindset just aren’t working though. Jack is trying hard and doing everything he can. He is careful not to eat food that makes him feel unwell. He is getting lots of sleep. He is trying to exercise.
He still is unable to make his pancreas work the way it should. So his family and teacher get upset with him.
This is ridiculous. Isn’t it?
We know that sometimes, diabetes can be controlled with proper diet, exercise and close monitoring from a doctor. Sometimes, it can’t. Sometimes, despite trying to regulate diabetes naturally, people need to take insulin.
I suffer from depression and anxiety, and have throughout my life. At first, I didn’t talk about it at all. I tried to deal with on my own. I didn’t want to be judged.
I remember being anxious from the time I was in elementary school. My anxiety was at its worst at night, so I would turn my mirrors around in my bedroom so that they wouldn’t face me during the night, I would keep a light on or my door open just so, then I tried to keep it closed and sleep in total darkness. I would listen to music to calm myself down until it began to annoy me, then I’d shut it off and finally fall asleep. I would sit in my 9th grade math class and plan my evening routine. I couldn’t focus on a single lesson, let alone pass my exams. (If I drink a glass of water exactly an hour before going to bed so that I would go to the bathroom before getting into bed, then I wouldn’t wake up during the night to go to the bathroom and have to go through the entire routine all over again.)
I would have stomach aches every morning. My mom took me to doctors and I was tested for food allergies and digestive disorders. We made all kinds of changes to my diet, just to end up back where we’d started, with questions and no answers.
I would have extreme feelings of guilt over ridiculous things. My anxiety was about potentially upsetting someone I cared about and then dying, without being able to make up. I always made sure the last thing I said to my family members before they or I left the house was “I love you”, in case it was the last time I would see them.
“Crazy”, right? It must be because I experienced some trauma and maybe had never dealt with it, right?
I knew it didn’t make sense. I came from a caring and present family. I hadn’t experienced loss. I was healthy. Everyone around me was healthy. So I didn’t talk about it, because I was afraid of being accused of attention seeking.
Finally one day, after I’d started college, it was unbearable. I went to my parents and told them I was afraid to go to sleep that night. Something would happen and I wouldn’t wake up, or I wouldn’t let myself wake up because I was so tired.
The next morning my parents took me to the doctor’s and we got a referral to see a psychologist.
I had a few appointments with the psychologist. At first I felt encouraged because someone was finally going to be able to tell me what was wrong, tell me why I was the way I was. She was going to fix me. I spent a few hours in the nearly empty office, talking about everything and anything, without being able to explain to me why I felt this way. Eventually I gave up and stopped seeing her.
One night, my breaking point was when I was alone in my apartment. I called my sister in distress. I was done. I didn’t want to live this way anymore and it terrified me because I didn’t want to die, but I’d found myself intentionally driving through stop signs, hoping to be hit and be done with it. I had really scared myself. She came and spent the night with me and brought me to her doctor the next day.
This was the beginning of my road to understanding who I am and how my body works. My doctor followed me closely, with weekly visits. We tried different medications. Some made me feel worse, some made me gain a lot of weight, but I didn’t feel alone anymore. We were working as a team to find a solution to help me. Eventually, when she wasn’t sure what to try with me anymore, she sent me to see a psychiatrist.
This doctor finally had an explanation. He looked at my entire medical history and family history and was able to figure out why I am the way I am.
As a child, I had vagal syncopes. This means that my nervous system was too sensitive and when it would experience a shock (which could be as simple as being startled or banging my knee on a coffee table), my body would shut down and I would have a seizure. As a baby, it would happen up to 12 times in a week, but as I grew older, it stopped. My nervous system, however, was still very sensitive. This was why I was so anxious and persistently depressed. I was diagnosed with dysthymia and prescribed the medication that would allow me to feel normal. My medication helped regulate the chemicals in my body so that I could deal with situations without extreme feelings of doom and guilt. When I think back to that time, I remember feeling the weight of those dark clouds moving off of my shoulders and feeling light for the first time.
I’ve been on the meds for since then. For a short while, I stopped taking medication. I had occasional ups and downs, and tried cognitive behavioural therapy, which still helps, but ultimately I ended up needing to resume taking medication. My meds allow me to function the same way as everyone else. When I take my meds, I am rational. I don’t have physical symptoms for anxiety or depression. I can be reasonable about fears and tell the difference between justified anxiety (a necessity, to help protect ourselves like when driving in a snowstorm) and when anxiety is irrational.
No matter the encouragement, the diet, exercise, support I had, I have a physical issue that prevents me from functioning well without medication, just like Jack, the little second grader with diabetes.
In today’s classroom, we have students with all kinds of struggles such as ADHD, anxiety disorders, and Tourette’s syndrome. We have students who are gifted and need to be challenged, and students who just have to work a bit harder than their classmates to get the same grades.
The diversity is beautiful. Each child is unique and brings their own color to the canvas that is our class.
I strongly believe that students need to be accepted the way they are and that their needs need to be met by their teachers, no matter how they learn.
I think that before turning to medication, we should try everything we can. We should look at diet options, try to exercise and work on sleep patterns. We should encourage our students (children), we should differentiate our lessons and modify activities. Most importantly, I know that parents, students and the school (teachers, administrators, school psychologists, classroom aids) should work as a team so that every student can experience academic and social success and so that all students can have a positive self-esteems and feel proud of themselves.
I also believe that, like for Jack and myself, sometimes the human body needs some help. Jack needs insulin. I need my meds. And some students will need other types of medications like Ritalin, Concerta or Paxil to help them function properly.
Don’t get me wrong. By function properly I don’t mean “must fit in a mold”. By function properly I mean to be able to learn and progress academically and most importantly, feel good about themselves and be able to maintain positive social relationships.
Some people will be able to function properly on their own, with lifestyle changes and support from the medical community. Others will be able to do so with the help of medications.
We need to stop stigmatizing students, parents, individuals, for going with the medication route. A student on meds does not equate to lazy parents or quick-fix teachers. Students with meds does not mean that without them the students don’t try hard enough on their own. Sometimes, our brains or bodies need some help, the same way someone with a bee sting may need an epinephrine injection to survive while the person beside them only needs a cold compress for the same bee sting.
During this month’s Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign, Let’s Talk about mental illness differently.
Let’s Talk to ensure that no one is embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help, to talk about the help they are getting or the type of help they are getting.
Let’s Talk about stigmas in schools.
Let’s Talk about the correlation between learning difficulties, social development and self-worth.
Let’s Talk about the judgment parents feel depending on the type of help they get for their kids.
Let’s Talk about mental health and kids.