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Fellow Teachers: Please Have Empathy for Students Who Take Medication

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Last week, I had an appointment with my doctor. I left with a prescription for an increased dosage of my antidepressant and a new one typically prescribed for high blood pressure and sometimes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. I had them filled, even though I have neither high blood pressure nor ADHD.

I had expressed my concern about having difficulty learning and organizing new information, but somewhere along the way, I mentioned I couldn’t concentrate. Apparently, I raised the red flag for ADHD, and since I was having trouble expressing and processing information, I was not successful in getting my point across. Out of frustration and a looming deadline to learn a new curriculum, I started taking the medication as a last ditch effort to get past the roadblock in my brain.

Within the first two days of taking it, I felt my brain backfiring, as the tiny pill tried to find the target it was aiming for without messing up everything else around it. However, my entire being was quickly affected.

For three days, all I could do was sleep. Moving around exhausted even my fingertips. Stringing words together to express the muddled thoughts swimming around my brain into a coherent sentence was nearly impossible. On the third night, I felt as though I had completely disconnected from the world around me. When I stood up, I had to steady myself to keep from passing out, and I no longer felt any emotions or cared about anything. Confusion and panic would set in when I couldn’t remember where I was or where I was going.

Long story short, my husband insisted I stop the medication, and within 24 hours I no longer felt as if I was dying. However, I still continue to have lapses in memory along with difficulty comprehending and processing information. Why? I haven’t quite figured that out yet, although I have my theories.

Yet, as all of this was happening, many of the students I have had the privilege of teaching through the years popped into my mind. What did they have in common? They had all been on a course of medication to treat mental health issues. Often, they were on meds I was currently on or had taken.

The point of this is not to discuss whether or not children should be medicated. It’s to consider the reality that so many kids are currently dealing with powerful drugs. If they have affected me in the ways I’ve described, then I can only imagine how my students might possibly feel at any given time.

Think about this for a minute: I have been dealing with bipolar disorder for 30 years but only eight years ago received a diagnosis and began treatment. I am a well-educated professional, with the ability and means to research every treatment, track my progress and articulate how I’m feeling with my husband at my side to debate with my doctor when things are spinning out of control. This has helped tremendously in taking charge of an illness I have learned a great deal about. Yet, I am still struggling.

When I miss a dose or change meds, my mind and body react, often in negative ways. However, I have a general understanding of what’s happening and why. Does a 9-year-old have those means or capabilities? I’m not talking about the parents’ understanding. That’s different. I’ve had many students over the years who don’t even know they are taking medication because they’ve been told it’s their daily vitamin, while others are well aware of their diagnosis and medications. They realize how they feel and behave is changing but don’t necessarily understand why. They equate it to being a bad kid and have made up their mind, at the ripe old age of 9, that they are incapable of doing what is required of them and will always be a failure.

As I could do nothing but sleep for three days, my heart went out to my kids who couldn’t keep their eyes open during a test or sit still for more than five minutes because their parents forgot to give them their pills or their insurance had run out. I’ve greeted students in the morning and could immediately tell if they had taken their meds and have selfishly thought, “I’m in for a long day.” Too many times I’ve seen the empty look in their eyes or the wild glow I can relate to all too well.

I know what it’s like to want to rip my hair out or throw a desk across a room out of frustration or because the sensations coursing through my body are unstoppable and unbearable. I know what it’s like to experience withdrawal because I’ve forgotten to take my meds and it’s the only sensation I can focus on, even though I know there are tasks that need to be completed. I understand how it feels to sit in a room full of peers feeling inferior because I can’t follow what’s going on. I’ve cringed during group “fun” activities because the depression inside me had taken over causing any attempt at being enthusiastic to become nothing short of torture.

But you know what? I’ve had eight years of therapy to help me understand and learn healthy coping strategies. Imagine being 9, just beginning this process, while sitting in a bright, noisy classroom and trying to absorb information for six hours a day. Learning to cope has just begun and this is only if they are able to find, get to and afford a counselor.

When a student tells me they want to die, disappear or they simply don’t care anymore, I get it. Not always, but often it’s because something is wreaking havoc in their brains. It is not their fault even though most of the time they believe it is.

I could go on and on about the education system and the lack of resources we as teachers (and parents) have to deal with these struggling students. For now, I just want anyone who deals with kids to get a glimpse of what it may feel like because so many kids do not have a voice. They swallow a pill and hope to make it through the day successfully.

I wish I could say to every kid I’ve come in contact with who has started down the path of dealing with mental illness and medication that I get it. I understand. I’ve been there, and they are not alone. Unfortunately, I fear the repercussions I could face due to the stigma that exists about these illnesses. This has to change.

If anything at all, think about what I’ve shared and if you have a child or student who may be struggling, have compassion and try not to let your frustrations show. They realize they might not score as high as you need them to on a test and they feel badly (and perhaps worthless or unintelligent) after they fall asleep or scream at you for the 10th time that week. As difficult as it may be, show them you care and love them anyway. When someone says to me they might not understand what I’m going through but they are here for me and love me regardless, it could likely have been the only reason I didn’t give up that day.

I was prescribed blood pressure medication for ADHD, which I did not have. I couldn’t (and still have trouble) comprehending a fourth grade curriculum that I’ve taught for several years. Imagine what a child, who is staring blankly off into space, may be feeling. Or if they don’t get it regardless of how simple it may be,  love them and tell them you are there for them. Make a solid commitment to never give up!

Image via Thinkstock.

This post originally appeared on Mao Tribe.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Originally published: October 3, 2016
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