The Last Fear Frontier
— an essay by Melissa Davis

As a teacher, I have been taught that we should accept all disabilities – that all students have something to offer and can be taught. I have always agreed with this assumption as have the vast majority of my colleagues. We accept, and teach, students with intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, and autism, just to name a few. But, there is that one area that many teachers still fear – the last frontier of teaching – working with students with mental illness. Teachers will refer them for special services after only a week in school, suspend them for any infraction, and send them to a multitude of counselors and school psychiatrists. Any decent teacher would never dream of calling a student with Down’s syndrome the “r” word, but a student with mental illness – call them crazy – the teacher’s lounge will agree.

I do not agree. I have a mental illness. I am not crazy, insane, or teetering on the edge of sanity. I have a severe anxiety disorder and have suffered from depression. I can become paralyzed by fear and have panic attacks. I develop hypochondria and rack up thousands in doctors’ bills. I cry uncontrollably at times and cannot get off the floor. I have sought treatment. I take three medications and am not some drugged out zombie. I have spoken to a therapist and am not some risk to myself or others. I can be helped- but only if someone is willing to help me. For me, it was a rough road to self-diagnosis and the referrals of a few good doctors. My parents both called me the “c” word of mental illness – crazy. My father even suggested that horror of horrors of mental illness – an institution. I didn’t need this, I was helped.

I am not a psychiatrist and do not claim that there are not some people who are a threat to themselves and others. We have all read about them. However, this is not the majority of people with mental illness. Mental illness should not be a stigma. It should not be a source of ridicule.

Those of us with mental illness should not be made to feel weak-minded and unstable. We should be accepted and helped – not avoid our symptoms for fear of scorn. This begins with education. We should not be pushed aside by teachers, but embraced by them. We have come a long way in accepting people with disabilities, although there is still a way to go. This is especially true where mental illness is concerned. 

Melissa Davis is a doctoral student and has research published in the American Reading Forum Yearbook. She has had poetry and fiction published in journals such as The Circle Review and Leaves of Ink. She has also been a teacher of primary students for several years.