Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The stigma of mental illness in schools

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(Jacek Cieplinski)

(Jacek Cieplinski)

My skin felt clammy and pale, my heart was on the verge of pulsing out of my chest, and my thoughts were unceasing and nauseating. It only made the situation worse that I was in high school chemistry class in the middle of a lab. I attempted to stare off into the distance to take my mind off of these paralyzing sensations. However, it was to no avail. For each calm moment that I had salvaged, I was pulled away from comfort by the overwhelming vocalizations of my peers and teacher. I thought it would be dramatic to run to the nurse’s office or bathroom when there would be little comfort for me in those places either.

I was paralyzed by fear.

Since the age of six I have been aware that I have an anxiety disorder, which is a relatively common age to display symptoms. It was nothing new. As I grew older, however, I felt my stress increase while I felt there were fewer ways to cope with it.

Dealing with a mental illness can be relatively exhausting. Attempting to manage anxiety, depression and other mental illness has a distinct learning curve. Receiving therapy and medication are some obvious routes to doing so, but from my own experiences, these are not automatic fixes to a mental health problem.

The stigmatization of mental illnesses is present in society and in the people with mental illness. A study on the subject from World Psychiatry reveals that people with mental illnesses, “struggle with the symptoms and disabilities that result from the disease,” as well as with, “the stereotypes and prejudice that result from misconceptions about mental illness.”

Anxiety is not viewed in the same way as a cold or the flu. For these temporary illnesses, acquiring a doctor’s note and documentation is not difficult, and people are excused because of the illness. People with anxiety, however, may inadvertently be forced into shame.

As I grow older, the shame associated with mental illness becomes increasingly present in my life.

In high school, there were days that I constantly felt prone to having a panic attack and I had no refuge. Even if I could not bear sitting in a classroom with noisy peers, I had the perception that I would have to out of necessity. Just raising my hand to go to the nurse’s office or bathroom felt ridiculous, particularly with a limited amount of students allowed outside of the classroom. If I took too long, I worried about the social ramifications from my peers and disapproval of teachers. Every option that I had to escape only seemed to be filled with more anxiety than I could handle.

As a student at the University of Massachusetts, I admit my fears of social consequences are not as prevalent as in high school. Mental illness is not stigmatized on our campus as heavily as it is stigmatized in high school. However, I still do not see my anxiety as a valid excuse to miss class, particularly with the cost of my education. If I have a panic attack before class, I force myself to attend out of necessity. Having anxiety is not like having a cold; I cannot go to University Health Services to ask for a doctor’s note that excuses me for having anxiety, though I wish the issue could be solved so simply.

I recently read an article on Huffington Post in which 17-year-old writer Kamrin Baker calls for more widespread education about mental health issues through her campaign, Joy is Genius.

“There is still a massive stigma surrounding people with anxiety and depression in my school, and though teachers and counselors can be wildly sympathetic and helpful, no one really cares to educate the masses,” she writes.

Like Baker says, shifting the seemingly universal stigma away from mental health issues like anxiety or depression is not overly complex. It seems the only way to change societal perceptions of mental illness is to make mental health education a statewide or national priority in public schools. This may assist in minimizing the shame associated with these issues.

In high school, I was barely educated about ways to cope with my mental illness, ways to help others cope with mental illness or recognizing the signs. Although the University has some great programs in place to educate the UMass community about mental health issues, I wish that I could say the same about my experiences in high school.

At a time when all I wanted was to live like a normal adolescent, both explicit and implicit societal stigma forced me to feel ashamed of the odd person that I was. Though I experience similar feelings of shame in college, I am at least provided with resources to help. If my peers (and even teachers) had known how to recognize the ceaseless anxiety attacks and stigma that forced me to suffer in silence, my high school experience would have been much more comfortable.

Brianna Zimmerman is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

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