He arrived at my school a disheveled first grader. Severely disabled with mental illness, devoid of emotion or affect, like an automaton, and lacking any semblance of a moral compass. If you are an educator, you undoubtedly have taught one or two students at some point in your career who were difficult to reach, but who profoundly touched you. Jonathan was that student for me. I recently learned that Jonathan had taken his own life at the age of 16. Hearing of his passing, I immediately thought of the unpublished blog post below. I started writing it just under a year ago, but didn't finish it and decided to bury it. At the time, I wondered if it was too honest, too vulnerable. I am posting it now, because I'm fed up. Enough is enough...
Several years ago while on a flight with my wife from Pittsburgh to St. Kitts, I experienced a major panic attack. As the plane bounced about through a bad storm and turbulence, my facility to perceive threats misfired: We are surely going down...God help us. White-knuckled and paralyzed with fear, I looked to my left for some re-assurance from my wife. I remember feeling irritated that, in dramatic contrast to my terror, my wife could not have appeared less concerned, comfy-cozy in the seat next to me, a beautiful peaceful smile betraying her deep dreamy sleep.
We landed somewhere around number 1,207 in my silent counting. On two subsequent occasions, overwhelmed with irrational thoughts and concern, I dramatically refused at the last minute to get on flights that had been booked for months.
Abnormal anxiety was my nemesis when I was a boy. I had become so afraid of sitting in a dentist’s chair at age 8, that I was routinely given a strong sedative hours before each dental appointment. The drug had little to no effect on me, and in fact, seemed to boost my adrenaline and anxiety to such high levels that I once physically attacked the dental hygienist and had to be restrained. My parents, mortified by my outburst of disrespect and clueless about abnormal anxiety, grounded me for two weeks as a consequence for my behavior.
It wasn't until I was in my 30's that I experienced a series of life events that triggered a perfect storm of anxiety, unleashing a monster and catching me completely off guard. It literally knocked me off my feet, challenged my faith, and rattled the foundation of my marriage. I didn't know what was happening to me. I didn't want to eat. I dreaded getting out of bed. I obsessed over random body pain and became fixated with a profound fear of death. I regularly experienced the most terrifying irrational dark thoughts, like the recurring image of me hanging on to the edge of a funnel that I believed with all my soul was about to pull me down into some black abyss. Yet, my inner distress rarely showed on my face. Sometimes, when I could not bear being trapped inside my head and faking normalcy for the people around me, I would excuse myself and drive to the local Walmart, sit in my car in the parking lot, and cry my eyes out.
Thank God for my wife's unwavering love, and her insistence that I seek medical attention. Under the care of professionals, I learned that fear of flying, fear of the dentist, and the many other irrational thoughts were never really my problems. They were manifestations of undiagnosed mental illness - depression, generalized anxiety and panic disorder - that I had weathered for years, learned to suppress, and masterfully hid from everyone around me, until my pot boiled over.
One of the worst panic attacks I ever experienced occurred while I was with my family in Washington, DC. I was following them through the Korean War Veterans Memorial, walking among those brave steel and granite ghostly soldiers, and I started to feel myself being pulled down into the funnel. My wife and kids continued to move forward toward the Lincoln Memorial, and I followed close behind. A thundering jet flew over the monument, triggering in my head a flood of irrational thought: Oh my God, turbulence...start counting...1... 2... Time started to slow down.
We walked toward Abraham Lincoln, and I caught in the corner of my eye a band of young people dancing on the edge of the reflecting pool. They were singing about Jesus. I stopped to look at them, wondering briefly if they were singing at me. I followed my family up the steps to Abraham sitting in that gigantic chair, presiding over what I most certainly thought by that point to be my death, as my fingertips struggled to clutch the edge of the funnel. It was surreal. The monument was crowded with people, but I heard only my heart beating in my throat and the Jesus-singers in the distance. My kids and my wife were smiling and pointing at Abraham who looked squarely at me. Judgement. I turned slowly and peered out over the long reflecting pool toward the Washington Monument, and with resolve I concluded: This is it. I'm going to die right here. "What did you say?" my wife asked. I didn't realize that I had said those words aloud. I looked at her, and with absolute sincerity and genuine belief, I replied. "I'm dying. Here. Now." And, I let go of the edge of my funnel.
Here is the kicker: Through that whole episode, my wife, the person who knows me, my heart, and my soul, better than anyone could not see on my face the terror that I was living in my head. It didn't show on my face. My face never gave me away. Never.
Mental illness does not discriminate. Nobody is immune, Not me, not you, not our students. More of our children suffer from mental illness than we know. A 2013 study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that 13%-20% of American children experience a mental disorder in any given year. If One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest chronicles stereotypical overt mental illness, there is also a covert silent agitator on the extreme opposite end of the spectrum. Unlike physical body impairment, mental illness often does not yell "look at me" and it does not always manifest in any abnormal outward behavior. We can't always read it on children's faces. Their own parents can’t always read it on their faces.
More than once in my career I have become frustrated with teachers and colleagues, who when told by parents that their child suffers from generalized anxiety, reply, "Well, she is fine in my class." Really? If that is the case, then what exactly would "not fine" look like to you? Does anxiety bleed? Does it bruise or swell? Is it a certain color or have a unique odor? Does it jump up and down and scream at you, "Hey, I'm Generalized Anxiety Disorder and I'm torturing this 8 year old girl!" Of course not.
Ironically, I'm on an airplane right now on route to Denver. The turbulence is awful. Some of the worst I've experienced. I'm not counting. I’m not panicking. I'm writing this blog post. My past has taught me to be on guard for depression and anxiety, but these don't define or control me. I control me. I've learned to recognize my triggers and I know my limitations. I am as happy as I have ever been, because I've learned to tend to my mental wellness.
Mental wellness is a necessity for children to engage, learn, and grow in school. What are we doing as school leaders to ensure that the mental health issues of our students are addressed? The National Alliance on Mental Illness (@NAMI) Public Policy Platform (2014) takes a stance on how our P12 schools should address mental illness: "Because children spend most of their productive time in school and services can be integrated into their daily regular routine, ... [schools] should provide and/or facilitate and sustain provision of appropriate mental health services, supports, and appropriate accommodations." A recent Education Week article (January 20, 2015) outlines four ways to strengthen mental health supports for students:
- Offer a continuum of school and community mental-health supports.
- Broaden access to school mental-health supports beyond special education.
- Improve school-community collaboration to provide integrated and coordinated mental-health care.
- Empower families to manage the myriad decisions and resources they need to address their student's mental health needs.
Mental illness is to be respected, not brushed aside, and not left for someone else to deal with. One doesn't just will their own mental illness to stop or go away any more than a broken hand can be willed to be unbroken. We are not medical professionals who can treat mental illness, but we are connectors for families. Foremost, we are advocates for the wellness of the whole child. Advocates use their voices to bring awareness and to call to action. My story pales in comparison to Jonathan's. Unlike Jonathan, I have a voice, and with that voice comes tremendous obligation. "To whom much is given, much is required." So, for all of the Jonathans in our schools, and for those students who have learned to mask depression, anxiety, and other mental illness, this is my call to action. Are mental wellness supports available to students and families in the school you lead? If not, please do something about it. Enough is enough.