Shining a Light On Migraines in School

Stuyvesant needs to take care of its lights to take care of its students.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

On Stuyvesant High School’s fourth floor, a light flickers unceasingly. You’ve likely walked under it before—that stupid one right next to the escalators that makes you curse under your breath and shield your vision. The light flickers like static—walking under it is ruthless. Of course, it’s been flickering for months now, with no effort made to fix it. Every day when I walk by that light, I shut my eyes and hope the light won’t flicker tomorrow, but it still does.

Up to 28% of teens have migraines. Of these, 85-90% experience photophobia, a sensitivity to light. In schools, flickering lights and hanging fluorescents accompanied by their high-pitched buzzing trigger migraines and stop our students from learning. Stuyvesant needs to take care of its lights to take care of its students.

Often, migraines are understood through experience. However, there are many facts that people can learn about them too. Migraines are headaches that can last for hours or days. It is normally a severe throbbing or pulsing sensation. It can also affect more than your head, with symptoms like neck stiffness or nausea, as well as sensitivity to light and sound. Migraines often interfere with people’s daily activities due to their intensity, and students are no exception. 

I’ve struggled with migraines in school for many years—particularly ones amplified by fluorescents. In elementary school, I spent quite a lot of time waiting outside the nurse’s office for this exact reason. I spent time fiddling and gazing around the nurse’s waiting room. I spent time memorizing the floor and the walls to avoid the little flickers of the fluorescent ceilings. Inside that office sat a children’s Ibuprofen with “RIYA” written in fading Sharpie on the cap that my parents brought in just for me, right next to the thermometer and the sign to rate your pain. Two schools later, I remember that waiting room and office, and I still get upset whenever I remember or think about how much time I’ve wasted complaining about school lights. 

Headaches in Stuyvesant are no different. Walking through the hallways can feel like a minefield, avoiding those constantly blinking lights. A 40-minute gym period on the sixth floor, where the lights emit sounds like cicadas, can feel like a life sentence. Though I now see a neurologist and take medicine twice a day to prevent migraines, when I first entered Stuyvesant, I had headaches every day. They were so frequent that I began to think it was abnormal not to have them. Mainly, they were predictable—a dull throbbing I got used to. But I still recall sitting in my freshman French class during one of the first months of my first semester, halfway through my quiz, glancing up in thought and wincing. I felt the droning of the fluorescent lights amplify and the pain in my head sharpening. My quiz faded from importance, as did the rest of the day. It was one of the first times I realized that my life shouldn’t have to have migraines in it, especially not ones that school was causing. 

I’m not the only one getting migraines at school. Often, I hear my friends comment about their headaches, telling stories about their struggles to get through the school day. Junior Ushoshi Das experienced her worst headaches at Stuyvesant while recovering from a concussion. She recalls how the school lights affected her condition for the worse. Today, she finds that her migraines still suffer most from the blinking lights in the hallways. Junior Imene Zarouri also gets migraines and comments that light has often given her trouble at Stuyvesant. She recalled that when teachers turn them off to watch documentaries, her headaches fade, but when they switch on the lights without warning, her eyes flash with pain, making her migraine worse. These are the stories of everyday students, and that needs to change. 

Understanding of migraines is improving in schools. If you get migraines, you can apply for a Section 504 Accommodation Plan (504 Plan) or an Individualized Education Program (IEP), both of which aim to support your learning beyond the classroom. However, since these accommodations only apply to students with chronic health conditions, they do not benefit students who have yet to be diagnosed. Also, they are difficult to obtain if you don’t have migraines all the time. Though I used to get them frequently, I’ve now started taking medication, which would make justifying one of these plans difficult. The medications are good for helping students make up for the time they lose from migraines, but they do not make up for schools contributing to causing their students’ migraines. 

There are also organizations dedicated to spreading awareness about migraines, and helping students struggling with them succeed in school, like Migraine At School. These services provide resources for students trying to educate themselves on migraines or trying to find ways to work through migraines at school. There are also resources for parents and teachers trying to learn more or help students. The information provided by these organizations is important to help make schools more safe for students with migraines, but it still isn’t enough. 

To find out what Stuyvesant should do, we need to go back to the students who experience migraines. When interviewed, Zarouri also mentioned that chewing gum helps her migraines, a treatment many teachers would tell her to spit out. Personally, I’ve also found that wearing headphones without listening to music can help my migraines. However, wearing headphones in Stuyvesant halls can get them confiscated. Many students have found their own small ways to fight migraines at school, and schools need to try to stay out of the way. Though I don’t suggest that teachers allow students to listen to music rather than pay attention to their class, perhaps we could let go of silly rules like no gum in class or not being able to wear headphones in hallways.

These are merely solutions that students created that schools could adapt to. Stuyvesant also needs to go out of its way to make sure that kids with migraines are safe at school. Junior Ayla Irshad says that when she gets her migraines, she often feels faint and drained of energy. This has led to her passing out before, which leads to a safety hazard when she’s taking the escalators with a migraine. She wishes Stuyvesant would consider giving students with migraines elevator passes. A solution like this would show Stuyvesant’s commitment to helping students through their migraines. 

There are so many things Stuyvesant has to change to become a safe-place for students with migraines. It has to start simple, with the basics. A light on one hallway of the fourth floor may feel like it affects no one, but many students walk under it every day. The buzzing from the breaking fluorescents around the school may seem like a minor annoyance to most, but it can cause larger issues for those suffering from migraines. If Stuyvesant replaced its light bulbs and maintained its lights, the school environment would be better for anyone experiencing migraines.