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Our Public School System Needs to Talk About Mental Health

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My mental illness is a disability I’m very, very aware of.

I’m made aware of it every day. I’m made aware of it when I sit in class and cannot sit still without a million thoughts racing through my mind. I’m aware of it when throughout the day, my entire body urges me to crawl back into bed. I’m aware of it when people treat me like a bomb ready to explode, when all I want is to be treated like a person. I’m aware of it when sending a simple text makes me sweat until my palms are soaked and my hands shake.

I’m aware of it when I have to leave the classroom to cry. I’m aware of it when everyone in my life tries to fix my problems, or calculate my thoughts and feelings down to one experience. I’m aware of it when it’s hard to get about of bed. I’m aware of it when I look down and see that I’ve scratched at my hands so much that I’m bleeding.

I’m aware of it when I’m alone. I’m aware of it when I’m with people. I’m aware of it on the days I feel good because I’m afraid that the next day I won’t feel this way. I’m aware of it on the days I feel bad because I can feel all eyes on me, staring at me, watching me fall apart. Little do they know that the days when I cry, when I shake, when I waver, are the days I am fighting the hardest. The days when I smile and when I laugh, I am still fighting, but the war is just not raging as loudly. Most of all, I’m aware of it when people don’t know how to help or talk to me.

Over the past few years of my life, I’ve been diagnosed with panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and seasonal depression. Want to know what a panic attack feels like to me? It feels like a train full of insecurity, anxiety and depression hits you. It feels like the world gets too bright, too loud and too crowded all at once. All I want to do is plug my ears and close my eyes. It feels like drowning in a tank that everyone just walks past without noticing. The worst part, though, is the lack of understanding and compassion from others who say I am “overreacting.”  In reality, it’s a chemical imbalance in my brain that sends pangs of anxiety throughout my body in unexpected and unpredictable circumstances.

I was lucky enough to receive training on how to talk to others experiencing these feelings and thoughts through a volunteer program. I think a large problem with our education system in the United States is the things we teach our kids, or rather, do not teach them. We know how to measure the angles in a triangle, but we don’t know the difference between obsessive compulsive disorder and panic disorder. We know how to properly use MLA citation, yet we don’t know how to spot the signs of depression in a friend or what to do if we do. We can draw a parallelogram, but we don’t know how to talk about the faded red lines on the arms of our best friend. It’s like the system is built to make us isolated, to make us afraid and unable to help others.

We should teach our kids the warning signs, teach them to listen to those suffering. The halls of my high school are filled with my demons because not even I was trained to fight them. We need to arm our kids with weapons of self-love and compassion to fight off their own demons and the demons of their peers.

I’m tired of the neglect of mental health in this country, and I’m tired of my disability being overlooked, devalued and invalidated. I’m tired of seeing articles that question my experience, and I’m tired of explaining myself. If our education system is so progressive, then mental health should be included, valued and understood on the same level that physical health is. My experience is valid, and so is that of everyone else.

I hope that you can all see that too. One in four people have a mental illness in the U.S. It’s not invisible, but present everywhere. America needs to wake up to mental illness.

Follow this journey on Erin’s website.

The Mighty is asking for mental health related back-to-school pieces. Parents: do you have advice or a story about navigating the school system with a son or daughter with a mental illness? Students: Do you have a back-to-school story or tips for maintaining your mental health while in school? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: June 20, 2016
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