The Imperfect Student: It’s Time to Destigmatize Mental Illness

| Written by Joana Ortiz

I racked my brain on deciding what anecdote I could share that would illustrate what’s been on my mind lately. Like the vivid memory I have as a six year old of waking up in the morning and not understanding why I felt a sudden sensation of desperation. I also thought about the time in high school when my parents and I had difficulty crafting an absence slip for the panic attack that kept me up all night out of fear administrators wouldn’t justify an ‘emotional breakdown’ as an excuse to miss a day of class. I even thought about talking about the entire semester in college where lifting myself out of bed let alone my head in class proved to be more difficult than anything else on any given day. However, finding an instance to share with you simply doesn’t suffice. 

Ever since college, and a year or two of therapy, I’ve reached a plateau of contentment to speak freely on my ever-changing struggle with depression and anxiety. The loving pair, as I refer to them.

You see, accepting that there is nothing inherently wrong with me, but rather, that I have a condition in which my mind filters my surroundings has helped me transition into what is now a normalcy in my every day dialogue. Now, I say this because I recognized early on that my open discussion on mental health swims against the status quo in which we frame our public institutions. In fact, as a K-12 student in the public school system, I got quite good at suppressing any sign of either struggle.

As an adult, I’ve learned to connect certain habits, mindsets, and events in my childhood to my conditions, but I often wonder how different my educational experience would have been if my conditions were addressed in the classroom. From K-6, I was an honor roll student, and I walked through the rest of my student career in rigorous magnet programs. These programs provided a well-rounded education and instilled a strong work ethic that translated into my college years and into my current professional life.

Yet, I struggled. I struggled a lot.

My grades severely fluctuated, and I often felt inadequate and incompetent in comparison to my peers and to the standard of achievement as a whole. The crying episodes, the suicidal thoughts, and the anxiety attacks were all a part of a passing phase in my teenage development. That’s the message my worried parents would regularly receive from doctors, school staff, counselors, and fellow parents. It wasn’t until towards the end of my college career that I took it upon myself to reexamine what it meant to be successful as a student.  

Here’s what I’m getting at: In the best interest of the child, the future society shifters and makers, we must acknowledge that mental health is indeed a crucial piece of education reform. In light of current iterations on education reform from the angle of social emotional learning, MESH, or whatever you choose to call it, my ask is that we go beyond simply naming skills (such as self-management, growth mindset, and empathy) as essential to success. To prepare a student for life means to shape their minds to believe they are capable of being their own agents. Yes, teaching children not to give up when math proves to be difficult because there will be less hand holding in college and in their careers is important and good. Teaching a child how to manage time because it is a translatable tool to have handy at every stage and aspect of life is important and good. Teaching children from an early age that empathizing with their peers promotes collaboration and decreases bad behavior is important and good. All of these skills are admirable, but in order to appropriately define what it means to be successful in the 21st century, we must encompass all learning differences.

I’m a firm believer in solving today’s global issues by addressing children first and foremost. To take this even further, efforts in ensuring children worldwide have access to basic needs are alive and commonplace. While essential pursuits, meeting the needs of the physical well-being of a person is just as important as meeting the needs of a one’s mental health – the body is not whole without the mind.

The view of mental health in this country is plainly outdated. In order to prepare students for an evolving workforce, we must learn vulnerability. The numbers tell us mental health disorders are staggeringly high (nearly 1 in 5 American adults every year experiences mental illness [1]). Amongst a host of other learning barriers for students that have been addressed, supporting students’ psychological health has been largely ignored.

As a country, we’ve come to be very familiar with naming mental illness as a high-stakes issue through suicide awareness movements, and we even reserve days and months every year to observe these efforts. While these causes are very worthwhile, I still find myself wrestling with this concept. What happens when the 5k is over and we all go to the nearest brunch spot to talk about how out of shape we are? What then?

If I had the opportunity today to sit in a room with educators, administrators, superintendents, and education policy makers, I would tell them this: Depression and anxiety aren’t mere events, episodes, or segments of my life. It is a layer that coats everything that is me as a functioning contributor to society. From the mundane to the metaphysical, it affects me as a professional, as a friend, as a daughter, as a voter, as a sister, and even as a stranger. Most importantly, it affected the imperfect student that I once was. 


[1] – National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

By | 2015-10-02T12:45:00+00:00 October 2, 2015|

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