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Why We Need to Have More Conversations About Mental Illness in High Schoolers

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Silence. Voices echo through the halls, yet all is quiet. Mindless chatter bounces around the eardrums of students as they drag themselves to class. A monster follows many students — an invisible monster. It is a monster who wraps its dark tentacles around students’ bodies and tries to squeeze the life out of them. The more the monsters are talked about, the more visible they are; however, no one speaks of them. It isn’t “cool” to talk about them. As the monster squeezes, students often try to cover it up, trying to act like nothing is wrong.

What do we do when an article of our clothing is on fire? We stop, drop and roll. That potentially life-saving strategy was drilled into our minds from the moment we started school. Now, what do we do when someone, or even ourselves, is experiencing a full-blown panic attack or having a breakdown? The answer doesn’t always just appear in people’s minds.

Mental illness is often stigmatized. There is a stigma due to lack of education, cultural beliefs and certain experiences people have had with others who are struggling with mentally illness. Our society only seems to discuss mental illness when something difficult to understand happens, like a school shooting. Instead of communicating their issues, many teenagers keep their thoughts to themselves, scared of standing out and being mocked. Thoughts build up over time, and those thoughts have the capability of ruining a person’s life.

1 in 5 young adults experience some type of mental illness in their lives. Not only does it affect the person struggling, but their family and friends can experience changes in their lives as well. According to Mental Health America, 6 out of 10 people with some type of mental illness don’t receive any treatment. But I think mental illness should be treated like a broken bone. When a person breaks their arm, no one tells them to “just get over it.” However, people struggling with mental health issues are often mistaken for being lazy, not caring or antisocial.

In school, it’s common to hear: “I’m going to kill myself, I just failed my math test,” or “Oh, you have that teacher? She’s so bipolar.” Using mental illness as figures of speech has become so common, sometimes we don’t even realize it. If 1 out of every 5 young adults has some kind of mental illness, using a psychiatric diagnosis to describe someone could easily undermine a close friend or relative’s experiences. Dismembering the stigma will lead to more people seeking help and recognizing the signs of mental illness.

My mental illness became prevalent toward the end of my freshman year of high school. My perspective shifted. Waking up in the morning became a chore. Talking to people was like trying to swim through concrete. I began to dread school. I completely shut down: I kept to myself, hid in my room, stayed in the dark, stopped eating. I was numb to the world. I kept my feelings to myself. I felt completely alone. I went through the rest of the school year receiving no professional help because I was too embarrassed to admit I had issues.

Once sophomore year rolled around, I had dug myself into a deep anxiety-filled depression. I felt like a “stupid jock.” I compared myself to others, I saw them as being perfect in my eyes. Why couldn’t I be like them? Basketball started to become an impossible task. Panic attacks plagued my practices and pre-game warmups. Numbness shot through my arms when I went up for layups. I felt like a complete failure.

My parents, noticing the change in my behavior, called the family doctor. As I sat on the doctor’s table, angry and trying not to cry, he calmly explained to my parents that he wasn’t experienced enough in the mental health field and wasn’t comfortable talking to me about what I was experiencing.

The next step was going to see a clinical psychologist. Reluctantly, I trudged behind my parents to go sort out all of my life’s problems. Every session, I sat on a couch that seemed to swallow me whole as I waited for the hour to tick by. Silently listening to my parents talk about my behavior, I mumbled yes or no when they directed a question toward me. As junior year approached, I felt like I was going nowhere. It seemed my anxiety and depression were just getting worse. My interest in living life was dwindling.

At school, I put on a cheerful facade — I cracked jokes, smiled and laughed obnoxiously to make up for the emptiness I felt inside. The pressure of keeping my feelings in the dark was suffocating. Schoolwork started piling up. After school I would collapse in my bed, exhausted after a day of pretending. Panic attacks snuck up and pounced on me before school. I pretended I was sick. I didn’t want to see or talk to anyone. I laid on the cold bathroom floor, door locked, lights off, no windows, just pitch black silence.

I wanted my life to end. I was embarrassed. Why was my brain delivering these gruesome ideas to my head? Even on medication, scary thoughts would sneak their way into my brain. I felt alone. I blamed myself for other people’s misfortunes. I couldn’t sleep and thoughts sprinted circles in my head, never leaving. I started to stutter and stumble through my words as I talked.

As my junior year ended and summer began, my anxiety pressed down on me more than ever. I couldn’t leave the house. Playing travel basketball was like trying to climb Mount Everest alone. Finally, my brain took travel basketball away from me too. I tricked myself into thinking my teammates didn’t like me anymore. When practice rolled around, I couldn’t come out from under my bed. A bag of razor blades laid in my desk drawer. The burning pain and sight of blood was just enough to distract me from the numbness within.

I was spiraling out of control, afraid to talk to anyone about this embarrassing part of my life. I came close to taking my own life twice. Realizing something needed to change, I found a psychologist that worked well with my personality, and I learned techniques to deal with my thoughts and physical symptoms. I opened up and talked about my differences. I learned to accept what was going on in my head, helping others who had the same issues. Although I still have panic attacks and depressive thoughts, I now have a safety net of select family and friends to fall back onto. There will always be bad days, weeks or even months in my life, but things get better. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

Education about mental illness is brief in school. Hardly anyone talks about the in-depth symptoms or how common of an issue it is in today’s society. Although I was part of the 20 percent of young adults experiencing these issues, I felt like no one understood. With more comprehensive education, students would be more apt to seek help and talk about their feelings. People would be less inclined to use mental illness as an adjective, and hopefully be more aware of what others might be experiencing. With deeper education, we can expose these monsters and properly treat them.

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Getty image via Diego Cervo

Originally published: May 9, 2018
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