What I Want Parents to Know About Asking for Mental Health Help as a Teen

I am writing this for the girl sitting in the back of the classroom. The one with straight As, screaming out for attention, thinking the only thing that can make her worthy is a letter on a piece of paper at the end of the semester. I am writing this for the boy who sees his weight on the scale and uses it to gauge his potential in the world, as if weight somehow corresponds to success. I am writing this for the teenager who, despite her best efforts, could not get out of bed in the morning, could not get herself to stand up and face the day, whose panic attacks suffocated her, who hid it all behind a smile. I am that teenager, and maybe so is your child.

Anxiety has plagued me my entire life. Every day was another day of just getting through. Yet I was always able to manage it, my mother being my outlet. Telling her everything always made me feel better — until it didn’t anymore. Freshman year of high school rolled around, and suddenly, I was alone. No more of my mother holding my hand, no more of the teachers who knew all of my siblings and could remember the day I was born, no more of the comforts I had long been accustomed to. Suddenly, I had to navigate new friends, a new school, and the feeling of loneliness. I tripped over the edge. Panic attacks rolled in every day, the tears wouldn’t stop, the feeling of worthlessness hid behind every corner.

Luckily (and not so luckily), anxiety and depression run in my family, so my mom and dad had already been through this scenario and knew the signs. After talking to my mom about it, I was at a counselor the next week. She helped me cope, but it was not enough. A few months later, I was sent to a psychologist who prescribed me the lowest dosage of anxiety medication and an appointment set for the next week. For me, the hardest part of starting medication was the waiting. Four weeks. The questions roared through my head: “Why did I have to wait four weeks?” “I asked for help, and this is what I get?” “Four more weeks of dealing with this demon on my back — I don’t think I can do it.”

But I did it. I did it with the support of my family. I did it with the support of my school. I lived my life, and everything was fine for the rest of the year; therapy went well, medication was raised a bit but was stable, and I was surviving. Summer came and went, as it does, and it was suddenly back to school. I thought I would be fine, but I wasn’t. I stepped through those doors, and suddenly it was back — but worse. It wasn’t just anxiety this time. My mom saw the signs of depression before anyone else. I didn’t care about anything, and that scared me. The guilt ate me alive: How could I do this to my family again? How could I let my brain attack me in such a way? I crumpled up my poetry and threw it away, I stopped talking to my friends, I couldn’t stay after school, I could barely get through the day.

Through it all, I have to say the worst part was the fear. I had asked for help. That’s what I was supposed to do — talk to someone, ask for help — but it didn’t go away. There was no magic “cure.” Back at the psychologist, I was given a fast-acting antidepressant and more time with my therapist. Even though I am doing so much better now, I realize medication can only do so much for me. It is up to me to take the final steps, to put my coping mechanisms to work, to go see my therapist, to take my medications — and it is also up to me to know when I can’t handle things by myself.

Asking for help is the most difficult thing I have ever had to do. As a teen, it can be especially hard, because this is often the time when our independence is developing, and when we ask for help, it is likely because we truly need it.

So for any parents out there reading this, if you only take one thing from this article, let it be this. When your child comes to you from school, ballet, basketball, their bedroom, their grandparents’, a friend’s house, (insert place/event here) with tears streaming down their face, or if they shut you out suddenly, or if they determine their worth based on a number on a scale or a letter on a piece of paper — whatever you do, please do not brush them off. Hold them a little tighter, and know it may have taken everything they had to talk to you about it. Schedule them an appointment with a therapist who takes your insurance. Go with them if that’s what they want. If it comes to it, get them the medications they need. Listen to them. When they give you the cold shoulder for days at a time or withdraw from social interaction, don’t assume they are simply being antisocial. I know sometimes it can be hard, but please, please, please don’t brush it off.

Asking for help might be the hardest thing for your kid, like it was for me — so when they do, please make sure you are listening for the signs.

Image via Thinkstock.

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