Others Have It Worse...
Everyone's Mental Health Story Is Valid - Including Mine
Teachers are trained to recognize the signs of mental health issues. We may not be able to formally diagnose them, but we can see the signs and refer them to the experts. Often, we're right. An overly fidgety child may have ADHD. A child who struggles with basic academic tasks might have a processing disorder. And there are many signs of the Autism spectrum that we are trained to notice as well.
But as I've gotten older - and learned more about mental health in general - I've learned that comparing your mental health with someone else's is a harmful path to follow.
I've not been diagnosed with any mental health issues. But myself and fellow teachers have noticed those signs in each other - and ourselves.
For example, I have trouble focusing on one thing for long periods of time; if I'm writing, my phone is probably in my hand every few minutes. I only recently became able to watch a movie without doing something else simultaneously, like crocheting or putting together a puzzle. If there is a TV in a restaurant, even if I don't care what's on, my eyes are drawn to it (sports bars are obviously my worst nightmare). Yet, I told myself, it was mild. Nothing serious, it doesn't disrupt my life. People have it worse than me.
As I got older and decided to make my mental health a priority, I started seeing a therapist. As I went through the pre-visit questionnaire, I realized that I also had social anxiety. I'd always known that I was an awkward introvert (some might blame that on homeschooling, but I'm pretty sure that it's just my personality), but I didn't realize that my reactions actually had a specific meaning from a mental health standpoint. Working with my therapist helped me to develop strategies to calm my nerves in social situations, especially at work with other adults. I'm still socially awkward sometimes, and I will absolutely email or text you before I call (I also struggle with slow processing sometimes, so thinking on my toes is often a lot for me). But I have ways to move through the world around me without completely withdrawing into myself, and learning to talk to myself in a positive way works wonders.
And again, people have it worse than me.
I have friends who've been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, friends who are bipolar, and friends who've fought with self-harm. I've heard and seen the things that they go through, and I constantly find myself marveling at their strength. They're fighting daily to keep themselves steady; the only thing that I go through is being distracted and introverted. I feel guilty telling them about my stresses of the day, knowing that they've had their own battles to deal with.
But then not one, not two, but three of my friends asked me some variation of the same question: why are you downplaying your mental health?
I had to sit on that one and ponder. Why am I like this?
Maybe it's the big sister in me. Other people's needs come before my own (let me be clear, I also struggle with being selfish when I shouldn't be - working on that too). I want to make sure that everyone else is alright before I worry about me, especially if you're someone that I'm close with. I want to make sure that you've eaten, you're getting enough sleep, you're taking care of yourself. My siblings will tell you I've asked about their plans for the future multiple times!
Maybe it's the INFJ in me. I'm always concerned with how people are feeling and always trying to put myself in their shoes. I'm overthinking everything that they say and do, worrying that I've done something to make people pull away. I want to make sure that they're okay. When one of my friends tells me they're having a rough mental health day, I've learned to ask if they want to be distracted or left alone - everyone is different, mental health issues or not. I'm constantly trying to learn more about what my friends are going through so that I can be supportive, because I know how much I value the support of my friends and family and I want others to experience the same thing.
It's probably something deeper than that. I couldn't tell you; after all, I'm just a teacher who was taught to look for the signs. But I will say, after much pondering, I've realized that downplaying my struggles doesn't help me. If I don't take the time to address my own mental health, how am I going to be there for the people I love?
It's something that I teach my students, and I need to apply to myself; everyone has their own struggles. None bigger or smaller, just different. Just like everyone has a different body that has its own unique needs.
My mental health is my own, and it's not something to compare with others. I've got to show myself grace and acknowledge that I struggle with things of my own; they may not seem as intense as what others struggle with, but for me, they are my reality.
Thank God for surrounding me with people who will remind me of that.