Katja Pavlovna portrait

Written by Katja Pavlovna

MFL Teacher and founder of Sorry My Mental Illness Isn’t Sexy Enough For You

If I told you I had a serious health condition that kills one in ten of its sufferers, how would you feel? Sad? Sympathetic? Curious? 

How would you behave towards me? Kindly? Compassionately? 

If I told you my condition was a personality disorder, would you still feel the same? Or would you become fearful? Avoid me? Spread rumours about me? Tell everyone I’m clearly unstable/ an attention seeker/ making it up/ a danger to others because of my diagnosis? 

I have experienced all of the above reactions, and let me tell you the fact that 10% of people with Borderline Personality Disorder commit suicide, and up to 75% will attempt it at least once in their lifetime, does not gain you much sympathy. 

I decided to speak out about being a teacher with BPD (also known as EUPD/ Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder) after years of battling with the NHS to obtain a diagnosis. 

BPD is characterised by nine main criteria. However to qualify for a diagnosis, a patient only needs to demonstrate five of the nine characteristics. This often leads to misdiagnosis, most frequently with bipolar disorder and CPTSD. In BPD the main features are fear of abandonment, unstable relationships which flit between idealisation and devaluation (splitting), unclear or shifting self image, impulsive and self-destructive behaviours, self harm, extreme mood swings and emotional dysregulation, feelings of emptiness and outbursts of uncontrollable anger. I don’t have all of the symptoms, but the ones I do have can severely affect my life.

Symptoms tend to lessen with age and I am no exception. My late teens and early twenties were chaotic and self-destructive. Training as a teacher was singularly the best thing I did to gain control over my illness. 

Teaching gave me purpose, distraction and structure, and I found rapport with teenagers came easily. My impulsive tendencies can be a real asset in the classroom when I need to be flexible with my approach, and my sensitivity to others makes me extremely perceptive to the needs of young people. It also means I am able to negotiate sensitive conversations well due to my high levels of empathy and hyper-awareness of non-verbal cues. My tendency towards black and white thinking means students know my boundaries are consistent, and the very nature of BPD means that my practice is automatically trauma-informed. The idea that people with BPD are a threat to children is totally unfounded. 

I decided to ‘out’ myself during a staff CPD session on mental health. So much of the mental health discussion is centred around anxiety and depression due to the stigma and misinformation around more serious conditions. I felt people needed to realise there are many people who have no voice in the discussion about mental illness. 

Colleagues were shocked at my disclosure- I am very high functioning and there is little to give away that I live with one of the most serious and stigmatised mental illnesses there is.  After I spoke out about my diagnosis, I was surprised to find I wasn’t the only teacher in my school with BPD. For some reason, people in general seem to think mentally ill people are all rounded up and hidden away on reserves somewhere. They find it quite shocking that we’re living in the community with largely normal lives.

Alongside BPD I also experience psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations (mostly olfactory, tactile and gustatory, but also occasionally auditory and visual) delusions and paranoia. It’s unknown whether my psychosis is a part of the BPD or if it’s a hangover from my family history of schizophrenia. 

Over the years I’ve learned to use my environment and context to help me work out what is and isn’t real, but it can make life difficult and it isn’t always 100% foolproof. I have been signed off work for brief periods of time, I do struggle with suicidal ideation, I take mood stabilisers and antipsychotics, I have to engage in therapy and I can be difficult to work with when I’m not on form. But I am determined to be the best teacher I can be. 

It’s important to give our young people diverse role models. But whereas LGBTQ+ and BAME teachers can speak freely about their experiences, if I were to do the same it would likely end my career. My school are supportive, but insist that any media work I undertake has to be anonymous. I cannot show my face and my true identity must be kept secret.  Society isn’t ready for people like me just yet. The stigma of a personality disorder is simply too large. 

The greatest irony is that I am fairly confident that few- if any- of my students would care that I have a personality disorder. Their parents? That’s likely a different story. But I’ve found young people are surprisingly tolerant. They value openness. And in all honesty they have already worked out I don’t conform to the stereotype of a teacher. The green hair, nose ring, loud 80s jumpsuits and tattoos gave that away early on. 

I’ve found schools generally want to be supportive. There are still some things they aren’t getting quite right. I was somewhat bemused at one school that, upon disclosing my diagnosis, immediately began discussing reduced timetables and responsibilities. For some people with mental illnesses, myself included, this isn’t always the right approach. At the time of writing I am teaching full time, studying for a Master’s and also a school leadership qualification. If ever there was a mental illness that the phrase ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’ could be applied to, BPD is probably it. Staying busy is key to keeping me on track. 

If you work with someone with a personality disorder, it’s also important to think about how you frame their behaviour. Borderlines are known for having problems with managing their emotions and it’s something we have to work really, really hard to stay functional and maintain relationships. It’s probably the biggest battle we have. 

So when we give an opinion, stand up for ourselves or raise an issue, don’t roll your eyes and dismiss/trivialise it as ‘over-exaggeration’ or ‘over-dramatic’ and chalk it up to us having BPD. We are people with thoughts, feelings and personalities outside of BPD, and this kind of attitude is invalidating and belittling. Sometimes our label is a convenient excuse to sideline us, especially in a professional context, and we are very aware of it. The same goes for difficult conversations and confrontation with colleagues. If these situations are mismanaged, they can be catastrophic.

One of the main areas that schools need to work on is the language used around mental health. Too many times in schools I hear students using mental health as an insult: “Psycho”, “Schizo”, “She’s mental,” “He’s crazy,”, “You’re triggering me so bad right now.” I’ve also heard, “He’s such a narc,” (short for someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder) and there was a trend a few months back for students declaring any drama to be “so borderline.” I always challenge this, but I suspect I’m in the minority. 

The simple fact is that mental health doesn’t have the same status as race and gender when it comes to tackling stigmatising language. This extends to HR too. Nothing is more frustrating than the fact I’ve spent time delivering training on BPD in schools only to repeatedly see my condition referred to as ‘Bipolar Personality Disorder’ in emails (it doesn’t exist) and Occupational Health forms. It’s not hard to use the correct terminology and avoid mis-labelling.

This isn’t the only area where some schools are lacking. Whilst jobhunting last year, I decided to declare my BPD as a disability on application forms. The reason for this was twofold- I need reasonable adjustments in place to enable me to do my job properly, and also many schools subscribe to the government’s Disability Confident scheme which guarantees interviews to disabled candidates who meet the minimum criteria. 

I applied for dozens of jobs where I met all of the job requirements and  wasn’t offered a single interview, even for schools that boasted they were part of the Disability Confident programme. I emailed two schools asking for feedback on my application in an effort to find out why I wasn’t getting interviews. Neither responded directly to my questions. Many schools boasted on their websites about their commitment to diversity and equality. Apparently this didn’t extend to disability equality. 

I was curious as to whether my decision to declare BPD had played a part in my rejections and so removed it from job applications. In the following weeks, I was shortlisted for interview six times. Of course I can’t prove this to be discrimination in any concrete way. Fortunately, as the saying goes, one person’s trash is another’s treasure, and I am due to take up a post in the senior leadership team of an alternative provision school where my lived experience of mental health is considered a strength rather than a failing. 

As a result of my experiences, I decided to set up a mental health project called Sorry My Mental Illness Isn’t Sexy Enough For you, which focuses open sharing the lived experiences of those with mental health conditions, especially the ones that aren’t ‘sexy’ such as personality disorders, dissociative conditions and psychosis. 

There is a separate section on the website for teachers to share their stories of mental health and many of these show how little progress has been made in schools. For this reason I set up a campaign for all schools to become Disability Confident in an effort to remove barriers for teachers with mental illnesses. I have also written in the media and spoken on podcasts.

This has attracted opposition and negativity. I have received messages telling me I am a terrible role model, that I am damaging children, I bring the reputation of the profession into disrepute and that I shouldn’t be a teacher. They don’t affect me. When you have a mental illness, you develop the skin of a rhino. For every person sending abuse, there are twenty more telling you how speaking out has helped them.

My hope in writing this is that it helps leaders realise that teachers with mental illnesses are a valuable resource and we quite often can make our conditions work in our favour to enable us to be good, or even outstanding, teachers. Yes we may need support, to varying degrees, but we aren’t the burden that we’re made out to be if you handle us properly. I also hope that it encourages teachers to be open about their own mental health and possibly, one day, could even mean that we don’t have to hide who we are from our students. 

Links:

Sorry My Mental Illness Isn’t Sexy Enough For You website:  www.livesnotlabels.co.uk

Sorry My Mental Illness Isn’t Sexy Enough For You Instagram:  @livesnotlabels

Disability Confident Campaign: https://bit.ly/3JSVRZE

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