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How My School Treated Mental and Physical Illness Differently

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If I ever came down with the flu or even a common cold during my time in school, accommodations were made for me left and right. If I needed to skip one homework assignment, I was allowed to. If I needed to make up a test, that was fine. If I had to skip out on a group project while I recovered, it was understood. I was sick, after all, and sicknesses change one’s schedule just a bit until they’re better.

When my friend broke her leg, she was exempt from all of her required P.E. classes until she healed up. When another friend had to leave school due to constant migraines, he was granted accommodations until he could get his headaches under control.

But things change when the illnesses or injuries are mental. All of the sudden, accommodations begin to disappear. Help hides away in a dark, forlorn corner because mental illness is seen as intangible and difficult to measure.

If there is one thing I am sure of, it is this: mental illnesses are experts at hiding in plain sight. My closest friends did not know about my struggles with anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies until about a year ago when I finally decided to open up to them.

“But you’re so happy all the time,” one of my best friends said, “And you have straight A’s; It doesn’t seem like you’re depressed at all!”

This is the tricky thing about mental illness: it isn’t a cut or bruise that can be seen with the naked eye. No amount of X-rays or physical checkups can identify it. Unfortunately, this makes it seem less real. When people cannot see the damage, it becomes harder to conceptualize.

Even so, 300 million people are currently living with depression and that’s only one of the many mental illnesses that exist. Despite the massive call for increased investment in the realm of mental illnesses, only 35 percent of people with depression get treatment.

I am beyond fortunate to have had the opportunity to invest in treatment for myself, but even that does not cure my illness. My illness still remains. It still strikes at unpredictable and inconvenient times, and I manage it as it comes. Beyond medical treatment, we need awareness. We need decreased stigma. I recently appealed for a math substitution at my university. I’ve grown up with a severe math aversion that causes terrible relapses of dangerous symptoms when faced with even the simplest of math problems. I even changed my major during my freshmen year of college to be more proactive about my mental health and eliminate as many triggers as possible. When I finally got an appointment to discuss my appeal for a substitution after around 10 weeks of waiting for responses, I was given a total of three minutes to talk and then promptly told that my request was “unreasonable” even with two doctor’s letters and concrete diagnoses.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t entirely surprised. Oftentimes, pre-judgments are made about people with mental illness before they can even make their case. These judgments may claim people with mental illness are lazy, overreacting or, as I was told, unreasonable.

When my friend went to a health center at her university after experiencing severe panic attacks and suicidal thoughts, she was told that, “Everyone has a rough time adjusting to college.” and, “Sometimes deep-breathing can help.” When another friend attempted to speak to her high school teacher about panic attacks during tests caused by her generalized anxiety disorder, she was told that, “Walking up and down a few flights of stairs before a test can help calm nerves.”

When I graduated from high school, I friended some of my old teachers on Facebook. About a year later, one of my past teachers posted a status about how he believed that students with disability accommodations and good grades were “faking it.” Though I was appalled, I wasn’t shocked. To this day, I wish I had written him a message explaining to him the often dual nature of mental illness. Having a disability accommodation does not mean one will also have terrible grades, just as having a mental illness does not mean one will be unable to function otherwise.

The way we view and treat mental illness needs to be altered. Though there are many people who are ready and willing to help, the lack of knowledge and awareness surrounding mental illness needs to change significantly.

The question is: How? It’s a valid question with various answers. At the end of the day, mental illnesses are not “one size fits all.” There are multiple illnesses and even within the same illness, the experience can vary from person to person.  The topic of mental illness, among so many others, is still a hard one to talk about. We’ve come far with acceptance and tolerance which is a wonderful thing, but stigmas still exist. Mental illness is not a weakness nor is it something to be romanticized. It is not something that should make you think any less of yourself, nor is it cool or edgy. Fancy prose does not make mental illness “beautiful,” because at the end of the day, it is not. But it is also not something that should be dismissed or ignored because of the negative connotations often associated with it.

We do not need to “celebrate” mental illness to bring awareness. We simply need to acknowledge that it is real, share our own stories when we’re ready and move forward in fostering an understanding environment.

We need to understand the way we talk also affects stigmas – for both mental illness and other issues. Being moody does not equal bipolar disorder, being sad does not equal having depression, being excessively neat does not equal OCD and so on. These may be little things that are thrown around as adjectives here and there, but they do harm nonetheless.

That being said, we don’t need to walk on eggshells to have a discussion about mental health. We simply need to find the line between condemning it and glamorizing it.

When stigmas decrease and awareness increases, we will be more apt to address the overwhelmingly case-by-case basis that mental illness tends to present itself on. But one thing is clear: change needs to happen. We need to change how we view mental health and how we treat it. Rather than wonder how someone so successful and popular could have possibly died by suicide (i.e., the recent celebrity suicides), we need to ask why he or she did it. Rather than question why a seemingly happy individual can simultaneously be experiencing a severe mental illness, we need to question how we can treat them. We need to be ready to listen – whether we experienced mental illness ourselves, know someone who has or have been never experienced mental illness a day in our life – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are open to the experiences of others, we withhold judgments and foster compassion and the desire to change. Because at the end of the day, change is what we need.

Unsplash via Timothy Elberly

Originally published: October 16, 2018
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