“Can I answer my phone? It’s my mom,” a high school student once asked me when I was substitute teaching. We were in the middle of a lesson; I said no. A few minutes later, she got up and left the classroom without a word. My automatic initial reaction was to reassert my authority by calling her back and disciplining her, but I noticed she looked more anxious than defiant, so I decided if it was that important to her then I’d be “the good guy” and allow her to leave, presumably to call her mother back. I continued teaching. Twenty minutes later, the physically distressed and hyperventilating girl rode by the classroom on a stretcher, on her way to the hospital.
Panic attacks are no joke! Disclaimer – I am not a mental health professional. As a public school teacher, though, I am a typical authority figure that could realistically play an initial role in (hopefully) preventing or mitigating a panic attack. Unfortunately, my first actual role was to help trigger one. Could this particular incident have been prevented or addressed in a better way? I have since asked myself that many times.
Panic disorder is one of several varieties of anxiety disorder, a mental illness that can often be effectively treated, or at least managed, in ways to reduce or eliminate symptoms. Those suffering from this terrifying condition hopefully already know the most common forms of treatment. They all start with an accurate and thorough diagnosis, and often include some combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication, as well as lifestyle adjustments such as avoiding caffeine, being extremely wary of over the counter medications and herbal remedies, and reducing or avoiding stressful conditions known to trigger anxiety. Another method that can be effective is called Emotional Freedom Techniques, or EFT.
One of the most important aspects of treatment is to accept help!
[su_pullquote align=”right”]The more friends, colleagues, and supervisors who know about an anxiety condition, particularly a panic-disorder, the safer a person is![/su_pullquote]Personally, I hate to admit to anything representing less than full health and strength as much as the next guy, especially to a doctor, so I cannot imagine the difficulty of telling others that you have panic disorder, especially as an already-sensitive teenager. The sad fact is, though, that many people don’t report and seek treatment for an initial panic attack, which just leads to more attacks and development of full-blown panic disorder. Early identification and treatment can stop that path in its tracks. The other unfortunate truth is that the first person (besides the victim) to notice an event occurring outside the home will most often be a friend, colleague, classmate, or teacher – i.e. not a medical professional or family member in the know. It was automatic for me, a person without personal experience of panic attacks, to mindlessly enforce the standard “no cell phone during class rule.” Had I known about her condition, though, I would happily have made an exception. Would this have prevented her panic attack? Maybe not, but it probably would have at least reduced its severity, and most importantly, not left her completely alone in a hallway when she suffered the attack.
Medical conditions are, and rightfully should be, very private concerns of the person involved. Unfortunately, complete privacy is sometimes incompatible with personal safety, and that delicate balance has to be addressed by all parties. I tried to make a habit of reviewing each student’s medical files when I was subbing, but I often didn’t have time, and even when I did I’m not sure how well I actually did in memorizing 5-10 new (to me) students’ medical issues every single day, while also reviewing a new lesson plan and familiarizing myself with the classroom procedures and layout. I don’t know how many other substitute teachers even attempt it, let alone club advisors, recess monitors, coaches, bus drivers, etc . . . And what about children’s and other students’ non-supervised time? What about the workplace, and entertainment/recreational locations? The more friends, colleagues, and supervisors who know about an anxiety condition, particularly a panic-disorder, the safer a person is! Of course, there are most likely still people at places of business who inappropriately believe that a panic-disorder condition makes an employee less capable at their job, so again the privacy vs. safety balance must be struck. But telling at least one trusted friend or colleague at each place a person regularly spends time at should be the bare minimum. In the case I related, if that student’s friend in the same class hadn’t noticed how upset she was and went to check on her, who knows how long she would have suffered by herself, and what the consequences might have been. But if she had told one or two other students in her class about her condition, they could have gone with her right away, or told me immediately why she was so anxious. Now imagine that same student just a couple years later, attempting to find a safe place in her employer’s building to ride out an impending panic attack, with well-meaning but uninformed colleagues breaking out the nearest AED and trying to treat her for cardiac arrest or doing the Heimlich on her.