When Life Gives You Anxiety… Start a Debate Team?

student with anxiety
Melissa's anxiety disorder used to keep her from school and activities she enjoyed — like debate team. Would switching schools be the answer? Read her story to find out!

The panic attacks could hit at any time — on the way to school, in class, hanging out with friends. One moment, Melissa was an ordinary schoolgirl. The next, she was gasping for breath, suffocating on the sidewalk.

What made it extra baffling was that Melissa wasn’t a shy kid. She was outgoing, friendly and determined. And yet, these panic attacks were slowly taking over her life.

As Melissa started the 11th grade, she wondered how she would make it through the year. And soon, she would lose grip of everything.

Too Anxious for School

Melissa’s school was well-organized, with a dependable schedule. But it was so large, it was hard to get to know people. And it was hard to feel safe.

Melissa’s anxiety started when she was 12. By the 11th grade, she struggled to make it through the school day — if she got to school at all.

“I would actually go to school, and then I wouldn’t make it to school,” Melissa says. “I would have to go home because I’d get panic attacks.”

Surprisingly, Melissa’s solace at school was the debate team.

Most people — anxiety disorder or not — get nervous at just the idea of public speaking. But when Melissa took to the debate stage, all her anxiety disappeared. She forgot panic attacks even existed.

“I think about getting my message across, helping other people learn something new about the topic,” Melissa says. “So, it never crosses my mind that I’m nervous or that I have anxiety when I’m debating.”

But eventually, even debate team wasn’t enough to keep Melissa going. The struggle was so great, she couldn’t finish her 11th-grade year. And while her peers looked toward their futures, Melissa watched the walls of her life close in.

Searching for a Safe Haven

It took over a month before Melissa felt strong enough to return to school. But when she did, her parents knew they couldn’t send her back to the same place.

That’s when they discovered Faith Academy — an international school in Manila, Philippines, that originally started for missionary kids.

“Their primary goal is to provide … good education for the children of missionaries so that their families can stay on the field and do a wide variety of missions work,” says TEAM missionary and Faith Academy teacher Seth O’Day.

But over the years, the school has opened its doors to local students as well. And that created a crucial opportunity for Melissa.

Faith Academy was smaller than Melissa’s old school. There were fewer opportunities and no debate team. But when Melissa came on campus, she felt safe.

“Basically, everybody knows each other, so everybody has friends here,” Melissa says. “It’s not possible for you to be alone because there’s so many people who care about you here.”

Melissa’s physics teacher, Seth, opened his classroom at lunch to give students a quiet place to refresh themselves. Melissa was a regular.

And as Melissa’s sense of security grew, she started to open up. And Melissa’s teachers opened up to her.

Finding Strength in Her Struggles

student with anxiety

The teachers and students at Faith Academy lived out their faith in a way Melissa had never seen before. Could she really trust God like they did?

Melissa had always seen Christianity as a list of rules to please God. But the teachers at Faith were different.

“When people pray here, it’s like a conversation with God. It’s not a memorized prayer,” Melissa says.

Melissa was shocked by how personal their faith was, but she wanted to experience it for herself. She started seeking God as a friend, and her heart began to change.

One day, Melissa was asked to share a five-minute testimony in chapel. She felt vulnerable standing in front of 200 people, sharing about her struggles with anxiety. But after chapel, something amazing happened: her classmates started to thank her.

“That was actually kind of weird to me because I just talked about my story. What is there to thank me for?” Melissa says. “But then I realized that some people go through it, too. Maybe they don’t have an anxiety disorder like I do, but maybe … they’ve had panic attacks before or they’ve been sad, and they just really relate.

For the first time, Melissa realized her personal struggles had the power to bring healing to others.

Soon, she started looking for a bigger way to help her classmates thrive.

New Debate Club Helps Classmates Grow

Melissa knew a debate team could be an exciting thing for her classmates at Faith Academy. Not only had it helped her through her anxiety, but it also led her to new places and gave her new friends. She wanted her classmates to experience that, too.

So, she turned to Seth for help. She needed a faculty advisor, and she knew her fun-loving, hands-on science teacher would be perfect.

They started out small. Four students gathered to watch YouTube videos of debates, while Seth helped them analyze arguments. Melissa asked a friend from another debate team to lead a coaching session for interested students.

By Melissa’s senior year, the team had grown to eight members — and they were getting to compete.

“They hold themselves up so well in front of a crowd now, and they can speak for seven minutes straight without stopping. It’s really fulfilling to see that,” Melissa says.

A Teacher in the Making

Today, Melissa hopes to have the same kind of influence the faculty at Faith Academy had on her. After graduation, she enrolled at the University of the Philippines to study language and literature. She hopes to become a teacher.

“It’s teachers like them who really help me and who really inspire me to do that,” Melissa says. “Because I feel like being a teacher has such a great influence on students. … They help them grow.”

Thank you for supporting teachers at Faith Academy. Because of you, Melissa is pursuing her dream to teach others what you taught her!

You can empower and equip students to do amazing things! Explore teaching opportunities around the world to find your perfect role today.

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About the author

Bethany DuVal

Bethany DuVal served as TEAM's marketing manager and editor. She is passionate about helping others tell their stories, whether they're missionaries on the field, new believers or part of a missionary support team. When she's not writing, she enjoys reading books and hiking in the Smoky Mountains.

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