How School Shootings Affect Me as a Teacher With Mental Illness
Every weekday morning at 5:30 a.m., the alarm clock goes off to begin another day as a high school teacher. The stress stemming from listening to the piercing sound of my alarm clock can be felt all over my body. Often times this stress triggers anxiety or paranoia. I struggle to overcome the hurdle called getting out of bed, which can vary anywhere from immediately to almost an hour.
Many thoughts run through my mind as I try as calmly as possible to begin my day. However, lately there has been a common theme with my racing morning thoughts: how the media portrays the apparent “correlation” between having a mental illness and mass shootings.
In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and students nationwide protesting for changes in gun control, I find myself struggling to process the unpredictable reality of these events from the very minute I wake up. I feel deep sorrow and sympathy as I view the situation as an outsider. Trying to put myself into a teacher’s shoes during a mass shooting is something I hope to never have to deal with in my career.
Time and time again, after these events are reported, headlines will report the tragedy, followed by expressions describing the shooter as “mentally disturbed” or “mentally ill.” While it may be true, reporting in this way suggests every person who is “mentally disturbed” or “mentally ill” is capable of carrying out a mass shooting. That is absolutely not the case.
As someone who has a mental illness — borderline personality disorder (BPD) — I feel angry, frustrated and saddened by feeling like a target rather than someone who needs support. Not only that, but being as that I am a teacher, I begin to feel ashamed and afraid that I have this condition in my school environment. Society already holds teachers to a very high standard, and to add a mental illness on top of that — a disorder that stereotypes those struggling as insane, violent, suicidal, lacking empathy and volatile — I feel like I lose all ability to defend myself that having a mental illness does not make me less of a person or a threat to those around me. If anything, I am more of a danger to myself than anyone else.
Students describe my classes as being energetic, comfortable, interesting and fun. My idiosyncratic personality gives way to create lessons that are full of life and activity, while disclosing my wide array of interests. Having interests that frequently change as a result of my BPD does not make me unstable or unpredictable; it means my students learn more about the world around them.
Having BPD as a teacher, in my opinion, is an advantage. My students are always my first priority because I show them the love and care I wish I had as a child. Never in my life would I want any of my students to struggle as I have. If a student is having a bad day, I will listen. I will care. When the media suggests that people with mental illness are a threat to communities, especially schools, it feels like I am less than a person because of my past history. It does not highlight anything my mental illness allows me to do well; all that matters is that I have a “serious mental disturbance” and should be made to feel like less of a person because of it.
Working in a school environment with BPD has been a therapeutic way to use my challenges and life experiences to guide my lesson plans, manage my classes and interact with students. It has taught me to step outside of myself and see the world from different perspectives, which contributes to why I love the subject I teach. It is a vivid reminder that we are all human and mental illness does not discriminate, no matter who we are or where we come from.
I hope for nothing more than a future where mental illness is not blamed for every mass shooting that takes place. The stigma around mental illnesses needs to end. I hope to see that one day in my lifetime, not only for teachers, but for everyone struggling with mental illness out there. We are strong for what we have been through and cannot continue to allow those around us to bring us down. Mental illness is not a weakness or a flaw in character.
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