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Stop Putting Air Quotes Around "Anxiety and Depression"

Mental health problems need to be taken as seriously as physical ones. And yet, they aren't.

Written by Elisa May

01 Elisa May is a British teacher. While at school the other week, she overheard an upsetting conversation between two coworkers.

02 Elisa compared her coworker's thoughts on mental health, to the way people talk about physical health. Despite recent strides, many people continue to disregard mental health issues as "not real problems."

03 No one should feel ashamed of their struggle. No one should feel silenced by other's doubts about what they're going through.

Overheard in the ‘Senior Leadership’ room in my school today:

"Another TA has been signed-off long term with..." (cue disparaging tone) "...anxiety and depression."

I don’t turn around, so I can’t be 100% sure, but the assumed air quotes around those three words — anxiety and depression — hangs in the air. I take a deep breath and continue with my work. This isn’t unusual.

"That’s four staff off with ‘mental health problems’, isn’t it?" (assumed air quotes again). I uncomfortably shift in my seat.

"It’s ridiculous!"

"Yeah and you have to be really careful because mental health is really big at the moment."

I choke on my croissant. Yeah, it’s a pretty popular at the moment – lol – like emojis and Pokemon Go. I’m sure it’s just a phase.

"Well, last week, a member of staff came into school and asked if she could go home because her daughter has anxiety and depression. I asked how old she was and she said, can you believe this, 20!?" The deputy head laughs. It sounds evil but that’s probably just me.

"I said she could keep her phone on but that she needed to be at work." The support staff leader nods approvingly.

"Too right. She’s had way too much time off for that sort of thing." 

My heckles are rising. I wonder if they can see my shoulders tense. My eyes are burning a hole in my computer screen. I can’t turn around.

I know it’s a classic – and we’re all a bit bored of this analogy, but in my head, I replace "anxiety and depression" with a physical problem, say "heart problems."

"Another TA has been signed-off long term with..." (cue disparaging tone) "...heart problems." 

I don’t turn around, so I can’t be 100% sure, but the assumed air quotes around those three words — anxiety and depression — hangs in the air. I take a deep breath and continue with my work. This isn’t unusual.

"That’s four staff off with ‘organ disease’, isn’t it?" (assumed air quotes again). I uncomfortably shift in my seat.

"It’s ridiculous!"

"Yeah and you have to be really careful because physical illness is really big at the moment."

I choke on my croissant. Yeah, it’s a pretty popular at the moment – lol – like emojis and Pokemon Go. I’m sure it’s just a phase.

"Well, last week, a member of staff came into school and asked if she could go home because her daughter has heart problems. I asked how old she was and she said, can you believe this, 20?!" The deputy head laughs. It sounds evil but that’s probably just me.

"I said she could keep her phone on but that she needed to be at work." The support staff leader nods approvingly.

"Too right. She’s had way too much time off for that sort of thing." 

Obviously, this little exercise does nothing to assuage my rage. I am reeling.

This time last year, I had an OCD crisis. I have them every decade or so, but the rest of the time I’m fine. In those 8 weeks of complete and utter misery, I had 4 days off. In those 4 days, my mother (retired thank goodness) stayed with me to help me survive. Every other day, I dragged myself into school and cried in toilets all through break and lunch. Oh, and I’m 33.

One of the offenders picks up the phone.

"Hi there, I hear someone is off with ‘anxiety and depression’ again?"

The word "again" sits heavily on my chest. I’m finding it hard to breathe – and it’s not anxiety.

"Well, I know, but we have to be so careful with these mental health problems." 

I leave the room. And write this.

In my experience, people with mental heath problems (are they all the same??) have them because they feel. They feel too much. This is actually a good quality most of the time and I would rather have them teach my child than someone who's unfeeling, closed-minded and discriminative. But unfortunately, stigma allows those people get to the top.

Should I have said something? Probably. Did I? No. After all, no one at work knows I have mental health problems. I’m too ashamed to tell them. Wonder why.

For more from Elisa May, follow her on Twitter here.

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