Education breaks—something so many people take yet are so infrequently discussed. The ‘traditional’ path dictates that you leave high school, immediately start college, exactly 4 years later graduate with a degree and start a career. This is not an inherently a bad path, and for many people it works out well, however it does not take into account illness, injury, disability, financial, personal or familial issues. Lately I have witnessed more people taking a break in education, something there is still a lot of stigma around.
In the past 3 years I’ve had 2 breaks in my education and no part of this journey has been what I expected. My goal since I was in elementary school was to attend a prestigious 4 year school and graduate in 3 years by taking as many college classes as possible in high school. In my senior year of high school I was unable to physically attend the first half of the year as a result of multiple severe anxiety disorders and instead utilized a homebound learning program. I was assigned work and my teachers came to my house each week for tutoring in lieu of classes.
After this time of homebound learning I was unable to attend any of the colleges I had applied to as I was not mentally in a place where I could leave home; so instead I attended the local community college. After a tumultuous year working towards my associates degree I graduated and took the next year off to train Huxley as my service dog. I knew there was no way I was going to be able to attend college without a service dog. Yet even then I felt like I needed more of an explanation than “I’m training my service dog, so I can actually attend college,” to justify the break in education. I convinced myself and everyone else that I was just taking the year off to figure out what I was interested in doing in the future, oh and you know, just training my service dog on the side. I didn’t give people the opportunity to accept my choices as those that were right for me and my own health.
Looking back I realize that I withheld this information out of fear that people would underestimate or judge me based off of the fact that I wasn’t in college. Having truly defined myself by my academic success throughout most of my schooling years, not being in college at a time when I was “supposed” to be I felt like people would look down upon me or view me as not as intelligent.
Even though I took a year off I was still going to graduate 4 years after high school due to the opportunities I had to take college level courses throughout high school, but once I started back at college this year I quickly realized going to school full time was not going to be possible for me. This means that I honestly don’t know exactly when I will graduate but I know it is going to take me longer that my peers. Not knowing exactly when I will graduate has been the most difficult aspect of this experience for me to accept.
I have finally come to believe the fact that even though the people in my intro to therapeutic recreation class would more than likely be graduating before me, that is not a reflection of my intelligence level. I simply have a different situation than my peers, it’s difficult for me to have a busy schedule and be on campus for extended periods of time. The most frustrating part for me is that I can handle the work load of being full time, but my disabilities currently prevent that schedule.
At this point in my life I can confidently say that I took off a year of school to take care of my health and train my service dog, without feeling like it’s something I need to hide. The stigma around mental health has greatly improved even over the past 5 years, but once it is at the point of disability the majority of the population begins to no longer being able to relate. Therefore the stigma around psychiatric disabilities is still strong, making it so people who are already fighting mental illnesses feel as though their illness is not enough to justify a break in their learning. However there are benefits for anyone who is considering taking a semester off of school, from saving up money to pay for school, gaining real world experience in your career field, to traveling and gaining a greater perspective on different cultures and growing in your personal life. For someone dealing with disabling mental illness the time can be spent doing the things listed above but just as and even more importantly it gives a person the time to rest and recharge. As well as stabilize on medication if need be, learn new skills to help better manage mental illness and how to balance taking care of your mental heath, school and possibly work. Taking time off is not a sign a weakness, no one should ever be penalized for making the mature decision to put their health first and knowing what is best for them.
I have to continually remind myself of what I tell people all the time, that the traditional path is not for everyone and diverging from it is not a sign of lack of intelligence, weakness or defeat. Instead it is the opposite, you are paving your own path. Rather than giving up and giving into this societal timeline you are fighting and finding what works for you right now, and that may change in a semester or a year or two and that’s okay! When friends graduate ahead of you, it’s okay to feel sad or even frustrated but never feel disappointed in yourself. You are still here fighting—you haven’t given up, your circumstances are different than so many others, and you will reach your goals. So if you are frustrated or wondering if you should take time off remember that you can push yourself, but it’s always okay to take a break and breathe.