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When You're Told You Can't Do Something Because of a Mental Illness


High school. Senior year. A Wednesday in October.

I walked through the doors with a bundle of excitement at my fingertips and a fluttering heart. Today was the day of a class trip that everyone had been looking forward to for months. I had been having a rough couple of weeks, and this was the first time in a long time that I was anxiety and depression free. It felt great. I was happy and lighthearted, laughing with my friends.

As I passed the front office, the principal was standing there, evidently waiting for me to go by. He called me aside and brought me into his office. I was still smiling, thinking he just had a quick question to ask me. But my good mood came crashing down to reality when he sat me down and said the following:

“Here’s the thing. I am aware you have been having a hard time lately. You’ve been to see the school counselor and seem to be having a lot of anxiety.” He paused. I froze as I realized something bad was coming. Anticipation crawled up my spine. “Well, we just don’t think going on this trip is going to be the best thing for you.”

I stared at him. Was he serious? Yes. He was. He went on to tell me they were contacting my parents, and my mom would come to bring me home. I sat there, unbelieving. The world became blurred as angry tears filled my eyes. Why was this happening? I couldn’t understand. I was in a good mood. I was happy. I was OK. Why were they sending me home? What had I done wrong? The depression and anxiety that had disappeared for a day came crashing back into my mind, triggered by the dismay and lack of control I was feeling. I went home with a helpless feeling in my heart.

I was told the school made their decision because they cared about me and had my best interests at heart. I disagreed. The school might care about me, but they also cared about their image and liabilities. They didn’t want an anxious kid having a panic attack in public and causing them a problem. So they sent me home.

For three years, I have been well acquainted with depression and anxiety. This means I know my limits. I know when it’s going to be a hard day, and I know when it’s going to be a manageable day. And I need people to trust me. I wish someone had just sat me down and asked, “Can you handle this trip?” But no one did. They made the decision for me without knowing what was going on in my head. If I had come to school in a panic, if I had been on the verge of an anxiety attack, the measures they took on that day would have been justifiable. But I came to school excited. I came to school in a better mood than I had been in days. Yet they sent me home. They sent me home not because my mental illness was showing itself, but simply because they knew that it was there, somewhere.

I am not telling this story to receive any pity. That’s not what this is about. I am telling this story to show what it’s like when someone tells a person they can’t do something because of their mental illness. When we are at our most vulnerable, the worst thing someone can say is “you can’t.” We don’t need that, because we are already telling ourselves that over and over: “I can’t do this. I can’t keep going. I can’t ever get better.” We don’t need to hear any more “can’ts.” What we need to hear is “you can.” We need encouragement, support, validation. We don’t need someone to make us feel like a liability. We don’t need someone sending us home before we even have a chance to try.

Having a mental illness is hard enough as it is. It makes it even harder to feel like no one believes in you, that no one thinks you can get through a day without having an episode. So one of the best things you can say to someone who is struggling with their mental illness is “you can do it.” Please don’t tell them they can’t.

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Thinkstock photo via LSOphoto