“How many of you are scared to go back to school?” Alia, the resident counselor asks the group. Before her lies a small circle of teenagers, each plucked from seemingly polar ways of life, united solely by the darkness that lies within them and the hospital’s four walls. A sea of hands meets her question, though I raise mine the slowest, somehow fearful of admitting that something so ordinary could scare me.
A few days after Alia’s question, I returned to my suburban high school. I saw my counselors and principal first, in a meeting that, from what I gathered, was fairly ordinary for people struggling with mental health issues. They came armed with a barrage of paperwork and thinly-veiled “requests.” When the school’s psychologist recommended dropping around half of my classes, the adults in the room nodded their heads in a perfectly-synchronized, eerie dance. Despite barely knowing me, much less the backstory behind the words “depression” and “PTSD” that rested on the hospital discharge papers before them, they believed that my diagnosis demanded one, and only one, type of medicine.
In the weeks that followed, school administrators carefully monitored my progress in school (and by progress, I more accurately mean attendance). I was told I had two options when dealing with panic attacks in school — to go to a meeting room that was almost always full or to a psychologist’s office that was rarely there. When I stayed home, the attendance office typically marked my absences as unexcused, instead of for sickness, as is the case for colds and the flu. That meant that I was regularly unable to qualify for makeup assessments, as the mark is generally reserved for students that skip class without parental permission.
I was, in essence, posed with a choice between my education and my mental health, two things that I’ve since learned are nowhere near mutually exclusive.
Being the child of parents and grandparents who are success stories of our country’s education system, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my education, but that should never have meant that I needed to sacrifice my safety instead.
Within my school county, there’s a growing movement away from “one-size-fits-all” education plans. Project-based learning allows students to creatively express themselves. Increasingly-relaxed graduation standards allow students to start specializing early in fields of their interest. Even in traditionally more rigid fields like STEM, personalized applications for using high-level theorems and laws have more recently appeared in my classrooms.
Despite that, my school continues to lag behind in understanding that mental health accommodations, too, need to be flexible and adapt to students’ needs. Where learning to some students was an added stressor, it often served as a distraction for me. Similarly, where I needed help managing my attendance schedule, other students require support in different fields, from academic to emotional to pragmatic ones. In the same way that students learn in different ways, we cope with difficulty (and mental illness) in different ways too.
Unlike other diseases, mental illness doesn’t carry one face or impact one type of student — which is precisely why our accommodations can’t be onerous either. Students like me deserve to be told that we can succeed and struggle at the same time, that we can pursue passions and personal growth simultaneously, whatever those passions may be. But, we also deserve to have the resources to feel like we can believe that. In an education system increasingly concerned with personalized learning, it’s necessary to consider mental illness in the way that we do students themselves: multi-faceted, complex, and entirely deserving of attention.