Photo by Tom Rogerson. Bathroom stalls became my safe place.

Why School Workers Should Be Schooled In Mental Illnesses

Nicole Canovas
Sep 4 · 3 min read

I started school in 1993. Where I live, we go from Kindergarten up through 6th grade before moving over to middle school for 2 years, and then high school for a final 4. As someone who grew up struggling with anxiety, these formidable years were varying levels of traumatic.

My Kindergarten School Photo, 1993. This face was how I felt at school all the time.

I had an extremely rocky start to begin with.

Most kindergartners have issues the first few weeks of school; it’s most likely the first time they’ve been away from their home/family for a pretty long, scheduled period of time. For me, add in to this the fact that my 5 year old brain was trying to compute feelings an emotions that I had little to no way of expressing. I didn’t have the vernacular to say things like “Yes, I know that the structural integrity of this school building is sound and that the people here are nice and that should make me feel safe- but it doesn’t. No, I don’t feel unsafe as if a bad guy or a monster might come and get me, I just haven’t established trust with anyone yet, so I know I’m not alone in the literal sense but I feel very alone. I know Timmy over there felt better when he started playing with the Legos but that would just be a momentary distraction for me- it wouldn’t erase the underlying panic that I don’t really KNOW any of you and I don’t want to be here and I want to go home.”

So I would ask to go to the nurse. The nurse had 3 options for everything- Saltine crackers, ice pack, or lay on a cot for a bit. I didn’t know how to ask for just a little bit of time and space to breathe, that I was just mid-panic attack. I didn’t know what panic attacks were back then. Sometimes I would get so worked up that I would puke. The teachers and nurses would ask me if I was making myself do that. They would roll their eyes when I’d try to explain that something was just wrong. I always just got sent back to the classroom to sit at my desk and white-knuckle through the panic.

That was the worst of it.

Middle and high school were marginally better because I‘d learned through the reactions I got from my elementary school teachers and staff that I was better just dealing with things on my own. I was my own support system by then; I knew I could take a few minutes in the bathroom to breathe if I needed to. I just couldn’t try and explain why. There was no use. No one had the patience for it. The sad coincidence was that I had the least support and empathy from ages 5–11; arguably when I needed it most. I felt like a nuisance and a liar, even though I knew I wasn’t lying. I knew in their eyes I was a liar, which in my mind was even worse.

I didn’t tell this story for sympathy. I told this story because it makes me so sad to think that other kids could be going through what I went through. It tears my heart up to think about. I hope beyond hope that there’s more awareness around anxiety and other mental health issues for kids in school, because I can’t stand to think otherwise.

We all deserve allies, we all deserve to have our voices listened to, and we all deserve to know that even if we’re not understood, we’re believed.

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