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How Students May View Mental Illness in the Workforce

It’s the end of the school year, and for most secondary teachers that means a lot of essay grading. While I’ve become accustomed to it after doing it for nearly 15 years, I guess there are still topics that can throw me for a loop. In grading pieces responding to a stimulus about work, I came across a piece questioning whether or not the mentally ill should be “permitted” to be a part of the general workforce. I was taken aback by this piece, despite the fact that it did present both sides of the issue. The writer looked at the benefits for the mentally ill population who engage in work, but also examined the loss that businesses experience when the illness causes their employee to miss time, be less productive or have negative relationships with co-workers who buy into the stigma surrounding mental illness.

This leads me to wonder how students view the mentally ill on the whole. While I have had positive experiences in revealing my struggles with bipolar disorder, this doesn’t tend to come out until I have a relationship with a student. If my students walked into the classroom and on day one I introduced myself as their English teacher who lives with bipolar disorder, I wonder if that would change the manner in which they react to my mental illness. I’m almost sure it would. Who wants to have a teacher who is actually bipolar? She may be a mess, and your grades may end up a mess as a result. That would definitely be upsetting to students if they started extrapolating based on what they have heard or what they assume about mental illness.

I can’t help but hope I would be the one to change their perception though, much like I tend to do for those I reveal my illness to once we have established that relationship. I am lucky enough to be someone blessed with a high-functioning version of bipolar II, and more days than most, I’m a grounded and mentally stable adult figure in my students’ lives. I can only think of two days where I was really outwardly distressed this whole school year at work, and I have taken maybe two days off to preserve my mental health. On my bad days, I broke down moderately once and heavily the other time, but my students were pretty forgiving. I think they realize how much I give and saw it as a natural thing that I had to have a day where I fell apart.

I guess it just threw me off and frankly hurt, to think any student would view the mentally ill as a stigmatized group versus seeing them as individual people who can hold down jobs and function successfully in society. I know many of my co-workers, and many teachers worldwide (as researched for a previous Mighty article) endure mental health challenges and I would like to think that more make a positive difference in the lives of their students than not. I’ve been blessed to be directly told that my mental health struggles and the admission thereof has helped students to feel a little less alone as they negotiated their way through high school and beyond.

Hopefully, through the efforts of organizations like The Mighty, No Stigmas, Project 375 and others, the stigma reduction will continue to the point of near elimination and those of us engaged in the struggle will not be seen as liabilities to our employers. Then we will be able to share our struggles without being seen as a risk to workplace productivity and employee relations. Until that goal is reached, I think I’ll keep fighting in my little world of education.

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Thinkstock photo via michaeljung