Listening to the Silence: Addressing Anxiety Disorders in Our Schools

Abby Rosen

As teachers, we ask a lot of our students. We demand not only respect for our authority, but curiosity, effort, and perseverance in the face of failure and humiliation. They also ask a lot of us: content mastery, understanding, and the ability to constantly adapt to new challenges. Usually, students rise to our expectations with ease, as we do to theirs. But others struggle with grades, motivation, and self-esteem, while teachers face student disengagement, isolation, and—too often—burnout. Some students receive Individualized Education Programs to accommodate their learning challenges. Others who fail to meet our expectations are deemed lazy or unwilling, but a quieter but equally vicious cause is often at the root: anxiety disorders. Anxiety in teens is increasing (Schrobsdorff), and our schools have a responsibility to pay as much attention to these silent struggles as they do to the louder, more disruptive ones. Without proper training and ongoing support from mental health professionals, too many students and staff will continue to suffer and slink away from our schools in silence. Just like I did, until now.

Everyone has experienced anxiety—butterflies in the stomach or nervous excitement—but it also manifests as intense fear and behavioral paralysis leading to avoidance or social isolation. In other words, for those with clinical anxiety disorders, the butterflies never go away. They flutter from the moment you wake up until the second you fall asleep, coloring every thought you have and decision you make, sometimes making it impossible to act or ask for help. These disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder, and panic disorder. One in eight children have an anxiety disorder, but according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, eighty percent of youth with a diagnosable anxiety disorder are not receiving treatment (“Children and Teens”). These illnesses exist just under the surface and are compensated for or hidden, so others don’t know until it dramatically impacts that person’s life. Oftentimes, people like myself don’t even realize they have an anxiety disorder for years. They just think that they were made to overthink, worry, obsess or panic. People with anxiety disorders look at others being happy, taking risks, meeting deadlines, and achieving their goals with wistful envy. They also watch as others receive attention and care for their outward issues while they continue to quietly deteriorate. I’ve seen it in my own eyes and the eyes of my students in every classroom I’ve ever entered.

As far back as my memories go, so does my anxiety disorder. Most flashbacks play out like TV reruns because, like a studio audience, I sat still while my peers moved around me. I always wanted to know the rules of the game before I started to play, and I insisted everyone else adhere to the letter. In a lot of ways, I was lucky. My anxiety manifested itself as perfectionism, which served me well in school. I got good grades and was well-respected by teachers. No one noticed me struggling because why would they? Lots of my friends battled openly and viciously with self-injury, eating disorders, depression and suicidal ideation. Like many mentally ill teens, they did not want to tell their parents, so we spent hours online talking about their issues without any real progress being made. It brought us closer together, but this secret keeping harmed everyone involved. Over time, their behavior alerted concerned parents and school staff, leading to offers of therapy and school accommodations. This did not cure them of their mental illnesses, but it did allow them to deal with these issues in tandem with the social and academic problems their illnesses caused. I, on the other hand, told myself that my problems weren’t “bad enough,” and I stayed quiet. This allowed my anxiety to fester, and I graduated high school more anxious than ever.

Once I started college, I received my generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis, and I decided to pursue teaching to spread my own love of reading, the one thing that always quieted my mind. My teaching classes were full of people like me: INFJ’s bursting at the seams to help others, spread a love of learning and support each other through the next few years of teacher training. Again, I excelled in the academic aspects of my program, but I was wracked with constant worry. While others asked questions about “best practices for advanced students,” I stopped myself from asking things like, “What do you do once your students realize you’re incompetent?” The closer we got to student teaching, the more I realized that we were all about to be handed real classrooms full of real students who we really had to teach. While this concept terrified me, it excited my classmates and I felt the familiar divide of mentally healthy and mentally ill pushing me away from the otherwise like-minded people I once related to. The more stressed I became, the more I retreated into myself despite all the people around me reaching out to help. I saw this same retreat in a number of students during student teaching, but I didn’t know how to teach them and help them at the same time. I could have turned to my cooperating teacher for help, but I wanted to be seen as competent no matter what. Instead of committing my energy to becoming a better teacher, I gave in to the feelings of helplessness that came from being unable to help everyone and myself at the same time. Once student teaching ended and I got my degree, I told myself I’d done my due diligence, but teaching just wasn’t for me.

After only a year working in retail, I had enough distance to see what happened to me and to my students. School stress can compound feelings of anxiety and depression, as does isolation and self-doubt. School is a minefield for an anxious person, whether they are teaching or learning: lots of people in narrow hallways and cramped classrooms; unpredictability; forced social interaction and class participation; pressures to achieve, befriend, perform, and behave according to ever-changing rules out of your own control. I always expected to look around and see my colleagues fighting the same losing battle against these forces, but they weren’t. No one talked out loud about struggling mentally. The closest anyone got was joking about being Jekyll and Hyde before and after their morning caffeine. A mentor of mine once told me that I would “suck as a teacher for three years.” If I could just accept that, she said, I would be fine. Though she knew me well, I don’t think she knew just how hard it was to know I sucked for three minutes. I imagined my struggling students felt the same way. They saw themselves falling behind while others excelled without any signs of distress. This learned helplessness was enough to almost knock me out of the profession entirely, so it is no surprise that it claims so many students as well.

During our college courses, teacher stress was discussed but typically met with generic advice like “focus on your hobbies” or “find a healthy balance between work and home life.” For teachers not struggling with anxiety or depression, these things are still difficult to implement. While those platitudes are enough for some, others who struggle with boundary setting and emotional management are left with no real advice or strategies to deal with the onslaught of new stressors. Most of the long-term teachers I knew weren’t cold and jaded from the work they did; they just drew clear boundaries are stayed within them, insisting that others did the same. For others, like myself, the ability to define the line between my job performance and my self-worth would eventually prove to be too much. Before I even got my own classroom, I imagined myself failing over and over and over again if anyone ever gave me the chance to ruin my own classroom someday. All the while, I typed sincere cover letters and perfected my resume to trick some poor school into believing in me more than I believed in myself. It worked: I found my first job. It was a high school focusing on credit recovery. These students, I thought, knew what it’s like to struggle. Maybe, I thought, we could learn how to overcome our demons together. I reminded myself that my desire to help others was stronger than my inability to help myself. I told myself that my experience with anxiety gave me an advantage.

When I got hired, I shared a room with a math teacher. The two of us, both young white women, handled upwards of 70 “at-risk” students, managing their credit recovery, classroom engagement, and access to school and government resources. All teachers on our school’s small staff ran advisories, but our motley crew was a little different. We got the more “delicate” students, as one administrator put it, who struggled with mental health, addiction, identity, personal and social issues. At first, I held my roster of “fragile” students like a mother hen. I talked with them when I should have been differentiating my lesson plans, but the connections I made were more valuable than my planning time. Unlike my lessons, which often felt ineffective at best, I knew that these talks were significant to my students and to myself. Then, the world outside of my room started to seep in. I couldn’t keep an eye on all of my students at once. I had to teach. After parent calls, chasing down transcripts and missing credits, taking attendance and making sure they got to (and stayed in) class, I spent the rest of my time lesson planning in what little silence I could steal. More days that not, my carefully planned lessons dissolved within the first five minutes. When I wasn’t teaching or planning, there were always students waiting for help or to talk about today’s crisis. Every twenty, ten, or even five minutes I spent talking to one student meant another chunk of time I couldn’t give to the other thirty or to myself. I felt myself getting overwhelmed, but I had support, momentum, and I could feel myself making a difference. I was open with my students about my own struggles, and they trusted me and respected my honesty. They confided in me about their addictions, pregnancies, financial hardships, sexual assaults, self-harm, and gender identity issues. Some talks required mandatory reporting, and others only required me to listen and let them know they were heard. Those moments are what I think of after more than a year away from the classroom. Those are the things I worry I may have given up too soon.

But those moments were often shattered by thrown chairs and slammed doors. The sound a fist makes when it hits a wall. Or a window. Or someone’s face. The noise a human head makes when it hits the ground. Noises I never knew growing up. Those are the things I remember when I question why I left—why I can tell the difference between happy-loud and angry-loud from a mile away. Why multiple loud voices at once now trigger panic attacks. Why I look around a room sometimes and identify all the things that could be used as a weapon. This violence, anger, and chaos I witnessed for the first time at 24 was nothing new to my fellow staff members. When I, still shaking, told my co-workers about the fight I got caught in the middle of on my first day, they listened but were not impressed or appalled. They told me about students wielding weapons, ripping each other’s hair out and the full-scale riot that broke out the year before I started. I was horrified by how casual this all seemed to them, but this is not unique to our school. 11.5 percent of Minnesota teachers were threatened with physical violence by a student and over 6 percent were physically attacked (Zhang, Anlan, et al.). One year in my district, a student choked a teacher unconscious, resulting in permanent brain damage. I knew teaching was going to be stressful, but these were more than occupational hazards. These incidents would be reasonable grounds for leaving any “normal” job, but instead, they were elements of a normal Tuesday. After only my first week at school, I had already faced a reality that felt harsher than I could handle, but once again, my inner turmoil was deprioritized by constant crisis.

One day, during a PTSD-induced altercation, one of my students, “Mark,” threatened his girlfriend and two staff members who tried to intervene. As a result, he was not allowed back in the building without a restorative justice meeting. Mark was an otherwise quiet and respectful student who rarely participated in class despite performing well on most assignments. At 9:45 the next morning, I got a call Mark’s mother. He drove forty-five minutes with no heat in his car to pick up some work and have his meeting, but he was not being allowed in the building on his own. Sitting in his car in single-digit temperatures, he called his mom to let her know that he was done. He was at his limit. He was threatening suicide. His mother told me this was my fault. I was his advisor, and I was responsible. I was reviewing a chapter in a book with a student who could only make it to school one day a week, but I had to put my phone down, run outside without my coat and try to calm this student down. Our social worker was meeting with another student with others waiting outside to speak to her. In this moment, I’d never been more aware of the fact that I chose teaching over psychology. All I could do was throw promises at his brick wall and hope something got through. I begged and pleaded with school security and our intervention staff to let him in. This was, after all, life or death. After he was allowed back in the building, I returned to that student patiently waiting at my desk. I wiped my tears on the way up the stairs, and we all tried to pretend we didn’t know what just happened. Mark was admitted to the hospital on an involuntary psychiatric hold later that day. Only two hours later, a student I was very close to joined him in the same psychiatric ward after confiding in another staff member about her suicidal ideations. She’d tried to come see me earlier that day, but I was too busy. There was only one of me, after all. Despite all this, I still had five class periods full of students waiting for me. I felt, perhaps for the first time, what my students felt every day: overwhelming emotional stress coupled with the pressure to perform perfectly in front of a room full of people. I don’t remember the lessons I taught that day, but I will never forget the look of despair on Mark’s face or the pain in his mother’s voice telling me it was all my fault.

Before I started teaching, I thought PTSD only happened to war veterans and refugees. Though we covered it in my college classes, it was only one on a long list of disorders whose percentages seemed too low to worry about in mainstream schools. Yet a fifth to a half of all children will experience a significant trauma during childhood. Three to fifteen percent of girls and one to six percent of boys who experience trauma develop PTSD as a result (“PTSD in Children and Teens”). The rate where I worked was significantly higher than that, and studies have shown incidence of PTSD in as high as half of students exposed to interpersonal violence (Kletter, Hilit, et al.). Those students who had a PTSD diagnosis were very open about it because it clearly explained their issues with anger, impulse control, trust, and low tolerance for chaotic environments. At their most violent and disruptive, many students were in the throes of a PTSD-induced blackout. However, my quieter students also struggled with PTSD every day. During class, students would often get up and leave the room without explanation. In a more typical school environment, this would be frowned upon, but, as a school filled with students fighting any number of mental battles, we understood the need for self-regulation. Most students would eventually rejoin the class, and when I asked them afterwards why they left, they would tell me that they just needed a minute away from the distractions, the topic of discussion, or the other students. These students were punished at previous schools for exercising a coping skill that some adults never master. After living for years without any professional mental health help, these students learned how to navigate a world that fundamentally misunderstands and reprimands them for the very things they can’t control. I found myself frantically googling “PTSD in teens” on my lunch break and crying. By creating lesson plans including loud noises, close quarters between students, and even topics directly related to past trauma, I was unwittingly re-traumatizing my students. At the very least, by not having all of the information about this serious mental health issue, I could not create curriculum specifically to combat it.

I tried over and over to see how we, with our limited resources, could have prevented this crisis and others like it, but everyone was doing above and beyond what they could. We, like many schools across the country, just didn’t have the bodies to attend to everyone’s needs at once. In a school of hundreds of students, many with at least one significant mental illness, it felt impossible to approach every situation without doing harm to someone. No matter how much training I’d received, I often had nowhere to turn with new questions as my understanding of these and other anxiety disorders evolved. That said, I was privileged to work at a school so hyper-focused on students who struggle with mental illness. Though we only had one social worker and one rotating psychologist for 400 students, they did all they could. A large number of our staff worked exclusively on conflict resolution, security, student retention, job placement, and skills training. I’m fortunate to never have experienced the threats or the actual violence that others in my position did, but that didn’t stop the fear. I still feared for my safety on the off chance that one of my students turned on me. In desperation, I turned to our social worker for advice, adding another body to the already heavy weight on her shoulders. I felt guilty but was desperate for professional advice. My direct supervisor, a fellow teacher familiar with mental illness, emphasized the importance of self-care. We were given ample paid time off because our administrators knew the burdens we shouldered could not and should not be compensated for with sick or vacation time. When I needed to leave after a particularly rough day, as long as my work was done and my obligations covered, I didn’t have to explain myself. I still lied and told my colleagues I had migraines to avoid telling them that I was just overwhelmed. For overworked and overstretched staff, there is still pressure to handle it all with quiet grace. I told myself that our students were the ones with real problems, and I didn’t want to become another liability.

Unfortunately, the people most likely to help others are the most harmed by doing so. Many of my students with their own mental illnesses spent hours and hours supporting other friends in crisis because they knew what it felt like to be helpless. Like us teachers, they diverted attention away from learning to stand with their peers in corner of hallways, talking them down or talking them up. Taking on this emotional weight without any outside support can be overwhelming and compound existing mental health issues. When it comes to mental illness, the desire to help is constantly met with the reality that the impact you can make is limited by the amount of energy you can contribute. There is always more to do and only so much time in the day to do it. I found myself talking to students on my school-sanctioned Facebook page late at night, just like my students did for their friends. No matter the day I had, there was always someone who needed me more than I needed myself. This constant giving of self is seen as dedicated, compassionate and admirable, but the true impact of overextension is not talked about enough. Students in crisis and teachers aren’t the only one being hurt by this. Because of limited time and resources, the students who weren’t “needy” didn’t get any attention. Students who were excelling were left to fend for themselves on independent projects with little supervision. I didn’t have the time or energy left to make sure that they were getting extra resources because I was too busy playing therapist instead of using my position in the classroom to support my students in other ways.

Eventually, the reality set in that I was not a professional. I was not qualified to give advice. Without proper mental health training, warning signs go unnoticed. We are expected to be mandatory reporters, but we are unable to provide real, in-the-moment advice or guidance. Though teacher-student relationships are valuable, they are not a replacement for qualified mental health professionals. This is why providing mental health support at school is so critical. We have the opportunity to embody the community ideals so many schools are based on. By providing in-school therapy, opportunities for restorative justice, and avenues for safe self-expression, we can lift up our students in ways they may never experience outside our walls. We need to encourage students and teachers to speak up about their experiences, or let them whisper them to someone safe until they are ready to speak aloud. And when they do, when our students speak up and make the brave choice to let their mental illness see the light of day, we need to embrace them. Give them English credit for reflection on their experiences. Let them write about the history and treatment of the mentally ill in this country. Teach them what neurotransmitters are and how they affect mood and behavior. Because those struggling with anxiety disorders are often ashamed, they are unlikely to bring up the topic themselves. It is our responsibility as educators to shine light on the darker parts of our students’ lives and do what we can to help. Our students want strategies to deal with anxiety and depression. We constantly restrict and criticize cell phone use, but what is the first thing most people do when we get uncomfortable in a social situation? People lose interest or feign apathy when they do not understand something or feel up to the challenge in front of them. These aren’t “deviant” behaviors that need to be punished out of our students. These are clear indicators that the current climate is not working for them, and they are looking for a way to cope.

Though it is far from a comprehensive solution, I had great success implementing a teaching unit specifically focusing on mental health. It was by far my best-attended and most-engaged-with unit during my two years in the classroom. Students made posters about specific mental illnesses, highlighting statistics and little-known facts about these common but unspoken ailments affecting them and their peers. Many of them chose to research a mental illness that personally affected them. Each poster included information about the illness and a call to action. “Talk to someone!” “It’s okay to be sad!” and “See your advisor for more information” peppered the walls and prompted productive discussions. I don’t believe that making students make posters will change the face of mental illness in our schools, but I know it raised awareness. Students opened up to me, other teachers, and their advisors about struggles they faced or saw people they loved facing. Teachers came to talk to me because they knew I understood how significant mental health issues are today. Even though we, as a staff, saw countless powerpoints on the high prevalence of PTSD, emotional behavior disorder, anxiety, depression, antisocial personality disorder and more, our students didn’t. I don’t think they knew just how many of their peers shared their hidden burdens.

Often, mental health issues are only addressed after they boil over. Students receive counseling, diagnoses and support only after they’ve disrupted a class or come to blows with another student. It is possible, however, to stop these mental health issues from becoming crises. Mental health education should be a mandatory part of the curriculum for students and the subject of continued staff development for teachers. When something is stigmatized, it only stays that way because people feel more comfortable leaving it unsaid. Only after I named my anxiety and depression was I able to start fighting back. Only after we acknowledge the existence of mental illness in our schools can we join hands with our students silently fighting alone. But acknowledgment isn’t enough. In the battle against mental illness in schools, numbers matter. We need to know which of our students are struggling, and we need mental health professionals proportionate to that number. Without awareness, mental illness will remain a silent killer. Without continued support from professionals, staffs with good intentions will still fall short of students’ needs. By removing boundaries to mental health access, making necessary accommodations for students, and destigmatizing mental illness, we stand a much better chance of keeping struggling but passionate students and teachers in our schools where they belong.

Works Cited

“Children and Teens.” Learn From Us, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/children.

Kletter, Hilit, et al. “Helping Children Exposed to War and Violence: Perspectives from an International Work Group on Interventions for Youth and Families.” Child Youth Care Forum, med.stanford.edu/content/dam/sm/elspap/documents/A48.pdf.

“PTSD in Children and Teens.” PTSD: National Center for PTSD, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 1 Jan. 2007, www.ptsd.va.gov/public/family/ptsd-children-adolescents.asp.

Schrobsdorff, Susanna. “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright.” Time, Time, 27 Oct. 2016, time.com/magazine/us/4547305/november-7th-2016-vol-188-no-19-u-s/.

Zhang, Anlan, et al. Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2015. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, 2016. Web. 31 Dec. 2017.