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The Struggles of Being a Student With Mental Illness

I’m currently working towards my second Master’s degree and I think all of my success in my studies has led some people to think I’m not that sick. However, I’ve experienced several struggles that come with the territory of being a mentally ill student.

Participation. The “P” word is probably the most terrifying word for any student with the disorder of or symptoms of social anxiety. If I knew my teacher was the type to call on students at random, I would dread coming to class to the point of sometimes faking sick so I could stay with the nurse until the end of the period. Other times, I actually became sick from the overwhelming anxiety. A mistake many well-meaning teachers make is not understanding the difference between shyness and social anxiety and/or disinterest with fear. My report card always said “Needs more participation” but none of the teachers who inserted this comment ever pulled me aside to ask what would make me feel more comfortable sharing my thoughts with the class. It was assumed that I either didn’t care or was just shy and needed to be forced to open up.

Getting called on at random as a way of forcing me to open up only made matters for me. The reason why I was afraid of speaking in front of the class was my fear of public embarrassment. As someone with social anxiety, I was already constantly paranoid about what others thought of me. If I felt like I spoke too fast or said something wrong, I would fixate on it for months and make myself believe other people were thinking about it and judging me too. If a teacher called on me when I didn’t raise my hand, I would become so panicked that I wouldn’t be able to think straight. Fumbling with my words in front of everyone caused embarrassment which further fueled my fear of speaking in front of others.

If you are in a similar situation, I recommend talking to your teacher if they’re not approaching you. I wish I had done this. The difference between shyness and anxiety isn’t always taught to educators so their ignorance is almost always unintentional. A good teacher will want you to succeed. During your conversation with your teacher suggest coming up with a plan together to help you feel more comfortable participating. After all, it is true that being able to speak in front of others will come in handy at some point. I went from a paralyzing fear of having all eyes on me to reading a piece of my memoir in front of a room full of strangers at the end of my MFA program. I would have been held back from some amazing learning experiences if I allowed my fear of public speaking to consume me. Maybe your teacher will agree to let you prepare a response that you can rehearse so that when the time comes to speak in front of the class, you’ll probably be nervous but will be prepared and have a script. There are many different ways to work with your teacher depending on their individual teaching style and class format. Your teacher will appreciate that you care enough about your success in their class to reach out to them for help and they will likely appreciate learning from you. Your conversation with them may even help them with future students struggling with the same issues. If your teacher is not willing to cooperate, don’t give up. Reach out to another teacher you feel safe with, the principal, the school psychologist, your guidance counselor, parents, etc.

Another struggle I’ve had throughout my schooling has been my time management. Again, this can come across as laziness to teachers or classmates who don’t understand mental illnesses like depression and PTSD. Sometimes I’m so paralyzed by self-doubt that I can’t bring myself to do my work. Other times, I’m so anxious that I want to do everything at once but then become overwhelmed and shut down. My depression and anxiety makes me become easily fatigued so it can also be hard for me to find the time and energy to stick with a study schedule. Last year was one of the most difficult years of my life. I was having severe panic attacks on a daily basis and how emotionally and physically exhausted I was made it difficult for me to focus on school. Unfortunately, many nights of staying up late so I could have my work submitted on time only made my anxiety and fatigue worse.

My time management mistakes have taught me how to find the study schedule that works best for me. I personally have found that doing a little bit at a time works better for me. For example, my discussion posts for my classes are due on Thursdays so I’ll do the reading on Monday, formulate my thoughts on Tuesday, and write my responses on Wednesday. Breaking up one assignment into smaller parts makes it feel more manageable and less daunting and it’s easier for me to dedicate a shorter block of time to studying instead of expecting myself to do homework for hours.

I’ve discovered some other ways of making life as a mentally ill student a little easier. As I was initially experiencing PTSD symptoms when I first decided to go to graduate school for the first time, I decided to look into online graduate programs. In my online programs I’ve been able to freely share my thoughts in a way I couldn’t previously. The positive feedback I’ve received from my instructors has boosted my confidence. Though I’m still in online school, I’ve noticed I now talk to people with greater ease because of my online school experience. I didn’t have to worry about the face-to-face judgment and this made me feel more open and free. I then received positive feedback for my thoughts and felt good about myself when I realized people were interested in what I had to say. Receiving this reassurance and validation made it easier for me to open up in real life. Thanks to online school, I’m also able to focus on my studies without being distracted by my social anxiety.

Dealing with school as a mentally ill student can be challenging and full of anxiety-inducing moments. I hope you can now see that this reality doesn’t have to limit your abilities or future. There are ways of coping with the challenges and professional help is always out there if you feel like you can’t help yourself. Many of you are in your last semester of the school year and may be feeling burnt out and defeated so the Spreading the Love team is here to remind you that you are loved. You are capable. You are intelligent. You’ve got this.

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