Laughing About Mental Illness? The Joke Is on You

October has fallen upon us, and schools around the country are in full swing. While most student and parental fears have calmed down, school supplies are taken care of, what has been defined as edible and non-edible on the lunch menu, and students having a decent idea of what their typical day may look like and what to do when various bells ring, there are still some unknowns that are laced throughout the year. The two unknowns that constantly sit at the forefront with concern are potential bullying and the uncertainty of security drills.

In New Jersey schools, the annual ‘Week of Respect’ takes place, with a myriad of activities that take place for both students and teachers to be mindful of harassment, intimidation, bullying, and those with mental illness. and the impact it could harm anyone. Sadly, a recent trend in school bullying has been to correlate bullying behaviors to mental illness. As a Superintendent of Schools, this could not farther from the truth. In no way, shape, or form does an act of bullying mean the person is mentally ill. Lessons that are being taught this week take a deep dive into why people bully and also teach that those about various types of mental illness. Lessons this week also attempt to explain why some bullies and some with mental illness take extreme actions, including taking extreme measures that range from mass shootings to suicide.

Each month, one fire drill and one school security drill must take place. Having been an administrator in various capacities over the past decade, I have witnessed and engaged in myriad drills, from evacuating students and staff off-grounds due to a nuclear reactor incident to navigating the hall during a fire drill with doors barricaded. Most drills haven’t changed too much over the decade (you can see what drill and when by either contacting the Board Office or reviewing the monthly BOE minutes), but what has changed in the past two years is that many are now intertwining mental illness for the sole reason of such security drills.

Like all of you, I am sickened by the thought of any mass shooting. Yet, on an almost bi-weekly basis, we are reading, hearing, or watching news reports of mass shootings taking place around our country. It pains me to even write this, but surely it’s going to be a matter of time before we see another incident happen in a school. Once the incident occurs, the general banter of the meaning of the 2nd Amendment will take place, there will be a spike in gun purchases, and the country will continue to label anyone with a mental illness as dangerous to our society. Over the past year, I have witnessed the ‘if-then’ movement rise. The formula of “if you are ill, then you will commit a mass shooting” is grossly unfair and place every person who struggles with mental illness in a negative light. As a person who has struggled with Bipolar II disorder for more than 25 years, I feel now is the time to stand up and tell people that this is simply not the case.

l was initially diagnosed with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety when I was a junior in high school. Over the years, my diagnosis, medications, and therapies have changed. Thanks to advances in medical science, medicines, and therapies are constantly improving, allowing those who struggle with any mental illness a fair shot at life. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 23% of American students suffer from a mental illness. In the case of adults, 1 out of 6 suffer. Over 500 billion dollars is spent every year on and medications and treatments in the United States. Additionally, the topic of illness has gone from being taciturn & taboo to loquacious & acceptable. The workplace is offering services while embracing mental illness. In New Jersey, over 454 school districts are now allocating funds for social-emotional learning, counseling services, and are aggressively taking on ending the stigma associated with those who are mentally ill.

For more than two decades, I have hidden in the gallows, as I have observed those who are either shamed or are blamed for having a mental illness. Sadly, I have watched colleagues, parents, and others correlate mental illness to living in straitjackets in a rubber room. Thankfully, I have also witnessed several movements aimed to end the stigma. More and more each day, we are seeing celebrities open up and share about their illnesses and read about those in the past that struggled. While I am certainly no Winston Churchill or Demi Lovato, I know that I am a good person who would never partake in a mass shooting, but who does struggle with my illness on a daily basis. I know many diagnosed (those hiding or are out) with a host of illnesses — from depression to eating disorders — also are not going to partake in domestic terrorism.

While I could easily hide behind the letters A-D-A and could sit home and collect government benefits for the rest of my life, I partake in society and the workforce. I’ve been in education for 18 years, ranging from teaching Kindergarten to being appointed as a Superintendent of Schools. While I’ve certainly had some ‘off-days’ (those with Bipolar II tend to have hypo-manic episodes that range from euphoria & grandiosity to hopelessness & insomnia), I have a lock-step system in place where if I (or others) witness any symptoms, I immediately contact my doctor, therapist, and take medication to combat the illness. The assumption that I am going to partake in a mass shooting or harm others is insulting and ridiculous.

I could almost assure you that after some of my colleagues read this, some will distance themselves, some will disconnect from me on social media, and surely the comments that will be left on this editorial below will be of a negative tone coming from creative usernames and shallow commentary penned by those who are hiding behind a screen. As a Superintendent, I’m used to that — gadflies, snicker — I even have twitter hashtags, and signs at Board of Education meetings dedicated to me! It’s part of the job in today’s times, and most public figures acknowledge this. What I will no longer settle for is being labeled as some psychopath or irritant because of my illness.

The struggle is real. Every day. Yet with tolerance and acceptance, the public shaming eases up a little bit each and every day. Please be mindful when you come across the next person you meet who has a mental illness. Your kindness will go a long way, and you will see that executing a mass shooting or causing harm in a school is not on their agenda.

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