Surviving Stigma: How My Battle as a Teacher with Mental Illness Nearly Cost My Career and Life

*The author’s name has been changed to protect his identity. His wish to remain anonymous re-flects the need for individuals facing mental health challenges to remain cautious when sharing their stories due to potential repercussions. This story highlights the consequences of stigma and underscores the importance of fostering a more compassionate society for people living with mental illness.

When I wake up in the morning, I am immediately faced with the battle of overcoming my mental health challenges. I also fear that this daily fight includes the ignorance of others.

My health situation has evolved over time. In my younger years, I was a model of healthy choices and productivity. I carried a positive attitude toward all things. I was able to maintain consistency when it came to fitness and athleticism, which included the avoidance of injury despite my aging. I could exercise intensely without suffering from soreness and pain. In my youth, I competed at a high level in the sport of boxing, until I decided to pursue academics. I went on to earn a couple of degrees, one being in Education.

My teaching career began in 2006. As an educator, I excelled at all levels. I began as an elemen-tary teacher and later moved to a junior high school. I am an English teacher, but have taught many option courses, my favourite being Psychology.

The year 2015 marked the ninth of my teaching career, and my first bout with mental illness. I had a major breakdown at the school where I taught and was placed on a three-month medical leave of absence.

In my motivation to get healthy and continue teaching, I began working out intensely. The re-lease of endorphins from vigorous exercise significantly improved my well-being, and I was able to return to the classroom. Unfortunately, that did not last long. Soon, I felt like I was under great scrutiny by all who worked at the school. I felt like anything I said, did, or wanted to do was doomed by someone questioning it because I had been off work after a breakdown. As this tension mounted, I felt like I was being watched. If I hinted at not being able to do something, I would be called into an administrator’s office to have my work performance critiqued.

I created a successful theatre program at the school where I taught in 2015, after being trans-ferred there from an elementary school. I remember sitting in a theatre production meeting when my mind began slipping into the depths of mental compromise. I sat there as the director no less, worrying that at any moment someone would say something derogatory about my abilities as the director and creator of a celebrated program. I also remember the feeling that no one would come to my aid if someone scrutinized me. It was horrible.

I ended up having to take another medical leave of absence shortly thereafter as my mental capacity to rationalize began to collapse, and I was in fear of making any mistake that would cost me my career. I was off for the rest of that school year. My days at that particular junior high school ended too – I would never be able to feel confident there again. It felt as though there were people at that school who wanted me out. They at first appeared concerned about my well-being, but hinted that my presence at the school made them feel uneasy about the safety of students I taught. I have come across many people in my career who claim to under-stand the conditions of mental health disorders, but are unaware of how badly they cripple those who suffer from them, at any age, and why time is needed when mental illness becomes problematic. They see it as no more than nervousness; and everyone gets nervous.

I was then placed back into the same elementary school where I started my career years earlier. The first three years of my career were extraordinarily successful. I had great kids to teach and extremely supportive parents. I was gaining a reputation as a solid elementary teacher, and I was proud of the work I was doing.

Unfortunately, coming back to a familiar place after struggling with mental health issues is a whole different world of problems. Just one day before the school year began, I was in my classroom prepping the room for students to arrive the next morning when an administrator came in and cautioned me. She said that a group of parents had approached her who were un-der the impression that I had been suspended. They were concerned that a teacher coming off a suspension was going to be teaching their children. Suspended? No! I was battling and coping with health issues that required time away to support my recovery.

I never recovered from that blow. Every day, every minute, I would look out over the classroom of kids and wonder whose parents started that untrue and damaging rumor.

My energy level was the first thing that was affected. Less than a month after the year began, I was taking days off due to excruciating exhaustion. Next came multiple doctor appointments in an endless search for a prescription that could help me make it through the day. I didn’t have the energy to workout. I would miss entire weeks because I was at home sleeping.

Months went by, and the struggle continued. All I could think about was the idea that I was la-beled a danger to children. I was conceived as a terrible example of a teacher and an awful per-son. With so much negativity locked into my psyche, and with no effective medicine or strate-gies to battle it, the darkness came.

A suicide attempt was made, but the sequence stopped when I hesitated with the image of all those who cared about me suddenly appearing in my thoughts. I was rescued by a suicide hot-line number, along with my girlfriend taking me to emergency at the hospital.

My life at the hospital was one that shifted my thought process from chaotic to calm as I was in a relaxing, caring facility. I read four novels in just over the week that I spent there. I got into adult colouring so deeply that I created three works, which I eventually gave as gifts to my girl-friend, her youngest daughter, and my daughter. I slept well and found the quiet of the place to be extraordinary. Just over a week after I was admitted, medical suggested a discharge.

A few weeks after I was discharged from the hospital, school administration attempted to have a meeting with me. I was not going to meet with school administration who, in my mind, were there to suggest that I was a bad teacher and tell me that I should quit the teaching profession outright. My medical supports concurred that a meeting concerning my career was not a good idea at that time and listening to criticism would not help me in any way.
You would think that administration would give me some time to focus on recovery, but that was not the case. I cannot stress enough the frustration of suffering from an illness that seems so alien to those lucky enough not to have it.

Transition now to 2023. The more things change, the more they stay the same. I am on another medical leave as a result of my continuing health issues and my battle to heal. I now call it a disability. 

I am under the care of a psychiatrist and psychologist, who I see on a regular basis. The meds that I am prescribed take the edge off a lot of the time, but the side-effects are not pleasant. Physical activity, which was at one time a major part of my lifestyle, is non-existent now. I have no motivation to be physically active. Thankfully, I find that journaling has relaxing effects.

A year ago, I attended a school district meeting where I was yelled at by administration for hav-ing an illness that demands leaves of absences from the classroom. Being shamed for having an illness is not only in shockingly bad taste, but extremely disappointing as well. There are days where I wish I had some form of cancer instead. At least it would eliminate the ignorance to-wards the illness itself.

Still, I continue to press on despite the challenges handed me. I am looking at a career change as I still have a lot to offer professionally. With that comes hope, and when hope exists, the path is easier to follow. I care for and respect people, especially those with medical challenges. I just wish everyone felt that way.

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