When I pictured my teaching career throughout college, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that my first real world job experience would be in a psychiatric hospital. I mean who does really? I had heard horror stories from my Mom and her friends fifteen plus years of working at a state hospital, and wondered what I was getting myself into. But, I got a job within my first two months out of college and really wanted to help students, so what better place to do that than a hospital? However, what I wasn’t yet aware of was what I would actually learn from my students.
The first few weeks on the job weren’t bad. I didn’t have many students (which is probably a good thing), and felt confident about my role there. However, a few weeks into the school year I got about ten new students in the inpatient unit of the hospital. This means they’re in a locked facility, and cannot go home until the doctor says they’re safe enough. What I walked into was ten or so depressed, angry, anxious, suicidal kids staring back at me.
They hated school. When I say hate, I don’t mean they hated waking up early to get there. I mean they hated the teachers, their fellow students, the curriculum, the peer pressure. About 95% of the students I saw loathed everything and anything that had to do with going to school, so why when they were in a psych hospital would they want to come to class to learn? That is one question I still can’t answer, and probably never will. However, most of them came.
I taught them lessons every day or helped them with their own school work so that they would not fall behind. But how do you explain to a fourteen year old that her math quiz is so important, when the school environment is what put her over the edge and in the hospital? How do explain that a student’s science experiment means everything when they can’t even see a reason to live past today?
Cutting, depression, and anxiety were things that I had seen others dealing with when I was in school, but it wasn’t something anyone really talked about. I could not believe the amount of boys and girls I was teaching that had cuts all over them, and felt that they could not possibly live another day. It was hard to come to terms with that this was what I was going to see on a daily basis. No one prepared me for the heartache I would feel each time a new student would come into the hospital. Some of the sweetest and brightest students didn’t see the point in living because they were being bullied at school, or their anxiety or bipolar was going on untreated.
So many of my students just wanted to be loved, to have a stable home, or to feel that they were worthy enough. Mental illness is not something that is talked about in our schools. That was made crystal clear to me right away. My students would feel stupid for having to take medication to control their bipolar because their friends didn’t have to, and it spirals on from there.
Although working with these students was emotionally the most challenging thing I have ever done, I learned more from them then I ever could have in a public school setting.
My students taught me patience, they gave me inner strength that I didn’t even know I was capable of having, and they showed me that I should never stop chasing my goals no matter what hurdles I come across. Any stigma I had about mental illness has vanished since working in the psychiatric hospital. These students are coming to the hospital from your regular every day public school classrooms. The kids could range from the out of control student you’re forced to kick out of class to the straight A student who is in class every day.
It may take my students months or even years to realize all of the amazing qualities they have, but I am grateful to them for showing me the ones I have in only a few short months. I hope that others can realize that mental illness is not something to be cast aside, and that these kids aren’t just there to learn from us-but for us to learn from them as well.