Ramblings: School System Fails to Acknowledge Invisible Illnesses, Resulting in Students Feeling Distressed and Accused of Falsifying an Illness Solely for Attracting More Attention

Illustration by Sara Cha -- Contributing Artist

Illustration by Sara Cha — Contributing Artist

“But you don’t look sick.”
Ask anyone affected by an invisible chronic illness (one that lasts for life and cannot be observed just by looking at someone) and they will probably say they have heard these five words over and over and do not want to hear them ever again.
Telling a sick person that they “don’t look sick” invalidates their pain, medical scares and struggle to pull through every day without their symptoms disrupting too many important activities. It is essentially telling somebody that they are “faking” their illness. People rarely actually lie about being sick, so insinuating that a friend, acquaintance or even a stranger is doing so damages them emotionally and prevents them from getting the help they need.
The time has come for increased awareness of invisible illnesses and the way they affect those who have them, particularly in a school setting. Physical invisible illnesses are not, for one, in anybody’s head, and mental illnesses should not be tossed aside either just because they rarely cause literal pain.
“[Students with chronic illnesses] do have challenges and they are trying their best,” junior Joelle Miller said. Miller has Amplified Musculoskeletal Pain Syndrome, a condition that causes regular episodes of severe pain. She struggles daily with keeping up with friends and schoolwork, and often encounters people who minimize her problems and accuse her of fabricating her illness for attention.
Miller recalls having a long battle with administration over her right to have an elevator key, which helps her get around the school building with less pain, though her teachers have thankfully been understanding of her need to eat in class to maintain a reasonable energy level and take breaks to change her position.
“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy a�� [If you are chronically ill] you work with the hand that you’re dealt and hope everyone is accepting … that they don’t ridicule you for having this disability,” Miller said.
Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find somebody who enjoys having to wear an ostomy bag, constantly inject themselves with insulin or experience persistent, debilitating pain. Chronic illness is not “fun” or “glamorous” or “imagined.” It is real. It makes life difficult. It needs to be taken seriously.
Invisible Illness Awareness Week took place Sept. 28 to Oct. 4. While it was too late to conduct a timely awareness event at RHS this year, it could easily happen next year, and we can still do a great deal to raise awareness of invisible illnesses outside of the official week. Miller suggests a spirit week, saying that “A lot of people would feel understood [and] supported a�� and just that is half the battle.”
Another thing that could be done is to put up posters around the school resembling those used on the Metro to maintain access to disability seating. They could feature facts and statistics about different chronic illnesses, as well as suggestions on how to be a better friend or teacher to those with invisible disabilities.
I have battled an undiagnosed digestive disorder and anxiety for years. I have seen firsthand the emotionally devastating impact of the words “nothing’s really wrong with you,” “you’re too young to have these problems” and “you just need more exercise.” I have felt the sting of doctors and other professionals passing my symptoms off as by-products of my anxiety.
I also know that behind all of the stigma and ableism and embarrassment lies an incredibly strong community of individuals who just happen to have chronic illnesses and are frequently willing to educate the public about what they go through and how people can help to end the stigma.