I have been spending a great deal of my time talking about the mental health of educators and students. Maybe it’s because so much of my life is wrapped up in dealing with mental health that I feel it’s time we talk about it. Maybe it’s because I hope that my story or experiences help others. Maybe it’s because writing about it helps me. My mother had mental health issues, I have PTSD which has resulted in depression and anxiety, my youngest daughter has depression and anxiety from the trauma of her adoption. I go to school and work with kids that have mental health issues both diagnosed and not. It literally directly surrounds me every single day. Society ignores it because so many of us still remember our grandparent’s world where we were safe to ride our bikes to a friend’s house and come home when it started to get dark and we didn’t speak about things that were unpleasant. But, we don’t live in that world anymore. We live in a world where students come to school and beat up their teachers and shoot their teachers and classmates. Where young and old are taking their own lives because they feel like not living is preferable to how they live. If there was ever a time to start talking about mental health issues, this is it (actually, it was probably about 10 years ago).
When I wrote Destigmatizing the Depressed Educator, I was both glad so many people connected with it and heartbroken that so many did. I received private messages from people with stories of suicide attempts, shock therapies (yes, that’s a thing), and feelings of hopelessness so deeply profound that it made me cry. I was humbled that so many were willing to share their stories with me. I was also angry that they all said that they didn’t feel comfortable telling anyone because they didn’t want to be seen as weak, pathetic, incompetent or unstable. How awful is it that someone struggling should have to then worry about what other’s think, even though the people around them are what they need for support to make it through their most difficult times.
My latest lesson is that getting help is not easy. Although I have had depression for a long time, I haven’t gone in for assistance for years. I’ve been handling it on my own, which probably hasn’t been my smartest move. But, like with many educators, when it comes down to time and what needs to be taken out to accommodate everything from our work to our own families, what is specific to us is the first thing to go. It was no different for me. For 20 years I was married, raised four kids, and went for my undergrad and grad school degrees every semester without fail while working. I was focused on getting through my days, and while there were times that I did go in for counseling, it was not something that I did on a regular basis. But, this last December, I honestly had a very close call with being unable to control my depression. A few of my friends convinced me to get help, and when the logical side of my brain finally kicked in, I knew they were right. So, I began my search for help feeling hopeful that I would be able to get in and be seen quickly to ward off any slipping back into the dark abyss of where I was.
I have discovered that it is not only nearly impossible, but it’s time-consuming. The medical field and community partnerships make it sound like help is available all the time. All you do is call the Suicide Hotline or a counselor and you’ll be on your way to recovery. While I’ve never called that number, and I would certainly hope that they would be quick to help, my experience was a far cry from how I imagined it would be. First, I spent hours on the insurance company’s website looking for a counselor that might fit my needs. Did I need a psychiatrist? Psychologist? A counselor? I had no idea. I knew I had PTSD and was desperately looking for someone who specialized in that. Finally, I found what seemed like was “the one” and called the number only to find out that the insurance company’s database wasn’t updated and when it said the counselor was accepting new patients, that wasn’t necessarily right. I was told by one office that my particular insurance company’s database is never right and not to trust it, but as a receptionist, she also couldn’t tell me who in the area WAS accepting new patients. So, I ended up ignoring their specialty areas and calling down the page just looking for someone, anyone, taking new patients. In the list of “accepting new patients” on the insurance company’s website, I had to call 12 places to find a doctor that was, indeed, taking on new clients.
When I finally found a clinic with multiple counselors taking new patients, they told me it would be 4-6 weeks for an appointment from the time that I received their paperwork, filled it out, and sent it back. They would not even schedule my appointment until I filled out the paperwork. While speaking to the receptionist, I admitted to having suicidal thoughts, and the person on the other line said, “Are you having them today?” It was such a strange question, and I had to take a second. I didn’t know…was I? I scanned my brain and decided that no, I wasn’t.
Not THAT day.
The next day I couldn’t guarantee, but not that day. Plus, I was petrified of what they would do to me. I had a brief flash of being put into a 24- or 48-hour hold in a mental hospital, or whatever they do, followed by rumors at work starting the next day perpetually being made worse by whispers in the teacher’s lounge. The feeling of having to return and people looking at me like I was crazy…no thanks. I was NOT suicidal that day. I spent the next few weeks waiting for paperwork, spending copious amounts of time on the phone with the insurance company getting questions answered, sending back the paperwork, and even though I began this particular journey the beginning of December to talk to a counselor about the desire to take my life, I have my first appointment the last week in February.
So, what have I taken away from this?
Our first response to discovering that someone needs more assistance than what we can offer is “Go get help” not understanding that it’s not that easy. If we can get past the stigma attached to seeking out medical assistance for our issues, we are still dealing with the people around us who can’t. I have been a part of the type of discussions that start out with “Did you hear…” and end with “so when she had her nervous breakdown, they put her in the mental ward at the hospital.” Those conversations make me uncomfortable, and if I had been suicidal the day the receptionist asked, I still think I would have said no. Not only would I never have wanted to be the subject of that type of convo, but I would never want students to overhear that information and feel like they couldn’t work with me because of it. Or other adults for that matter. I wouldn’t want them to feel like the stigma of what I would have faced would “rub off on them” by working with me. When I say things like that, people say it’s ridiculous and that nobody would think that way, but realistically, we ALL KNOW people that do. That’s the problem. What should be and what is are sometimes two completely different things.
Second, I was fortunate, as usual, to have people who love and care for me backing me up all the way. I even had a friend ask me to send a photo of my insurance card and they would find help FOR me when I didn’t feel like I could do it myself. But, I can’t imagine not having that kind of support and still moving through all the steps that needed to be done just to make the appointment. As with many mental illnesses, your brain makes you feel like you need to feel that way, and there’s even a certain level of anxiety in the idea of changing. If you’re struggling with getting help, you have little to no support, and then there are all these roadblocks in getting assistance, what percentage of people are really going to go all the way through? Do teachers have time to call all these places in the 25 minute prep period they might get a day? Do parents, who may have undiagnosed or unassisted mental health issues themselves, have the knowledge, support, and damn near relentlessness it takes to make their child an appointment? Make themselves one?
When I finally made my appointment, my initial appointment was 90 minutes and the doctor would only see new patients at 10:30am on Wednesdays. For a teacher, this means an entire day off from work as there would be no half day to accommodate that time. Is the medical profession really doing all they can to help people with these issues? I recently learned of a school district that tried to bring in counseling services for students, but the local hospital wouldn’t accommodate their request because even though they’d be getting paid for their services, they would make more money by seeing students on their own site, therefore, making it more difficult for families, especially those who may not have transportation.
I just wrote a really long blog post on what seems to be things that we have little control over (insurance, doctors, other people) and that’s probably true. But, we do have control over the way we react to someone who has mental health issues and who needs or is trying to get help. For those people, we need your support. We need you to call and ask us how we are and if there is anything you can do. We don’t necessarily need you to tell us to be happier (Depression) or stop being nervous (Anxiety). We need you to say, “What can I do to help?” and then just listen. If someone is going through what I went through with seeking a medical professional to speak with, maybe helping the person to make a list and then sitting next to them as they check through everything that needs to be done until they have what they need. Keep them going when they may not be able to do it for themselves.
If you’re the educator trying to get help, honestly, I’m so proud of you. Surround yourself with the people who can help you through. And there may be times when you feel like you just can’t do one more thing, and I get it. That’s where your support comes in. You’re not bothering anyone, and there will always be someone willing to help you through that process because there will always be someone who understands. The more we bring these issues to light, the more likely we are to defeat that darkness.
Keep the conversation going.
(Quick note: I always get an outpouring of amazing support and kind words when I do posts like this. I am doing better by getting help and leaning on my support system. Thank you!)