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The Elephant in The Room

The modern teen's struggle with mental illnes

Shannon MacDonald, Staff Writer

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While high school may be remembered as “the good old days” for some adults, avoiding the mental health issues facing teenagers today can’t be an option for the adults in our world. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 75 percent of mental illnesses are at their onset by the age of 24. So in high school, many of us are struggling with our mental health, and yet it seems that it’s taboo for students to talk about what we face.

We are in a system where our success is measured by our grades and test scores, not our mental stability. Each day seems to be filled up with school, sports, clubs, then jobs and homework. Not to mention dealing with social interactions and social media, within the midst of all of these pressures. Since there’s such a stress on us to do well and such little time in-between activities, we don’t always take the time to breathe and really understand how we are doing mentally. However, all of these pressures don’t compare to the overlying pressure teenagers face to simply fit in.

In high school, as silly as it may seem to adults, we try to hide our true selves. There is a movie called “Mean Girls” for a reason. As anyone who went to high school can attest, the one thing we all strive to do is fit in. Whether we are a bully-free school or not, there are friend groups and there is labeling. This is bound to happen when you stick nearly 2,000 teenagers into one building. But, with such an urge to fit in, we aim to avoid any labeling of ourselves as that kid. Since mental illnesses is so taboo for a high schooler, letting people know what you struggle with is letting people know you’re different.

And walking through the halls of BHS, you’re reminded that not everyone takes this issue seriously. We hear phrases like “Oh my god I’m gonna kill myself” or “I’m just so depressed” — which hurts those who are feeling that way for real, making us hide our real selves even more. Using these phrases just as common language takes away from the severity of the issue. It is not fake.

Yes, we are simply teenagers. We are still young. And at the ages 13-18, we don’t always know ourselves well enough to decipher how to deal with our own mental struggles or those of others. While it’s easy to recognize whether a friend who is bleeding or has a broken arm, we don’t necessarily recognize whether or not someone is mentally hurting. We are still trying to get to know ourselves. Being a teenager, we’re not there yet.

If we don’t understand ourselves, then who is there to help us figure it all out? Many adults and friends may misinterpret depression or anxiety as a phase, dismissing mental health issues as just teenage angst. But waiting until the person learns to address their struggles on their own isn’t beneficial in the long run. When we fail to recognize a problem in the beginning it never fixes itself the way it should. If you break a bone but don’t realize until months—or years—after, then the bone won’t heal the way it’s meant to. It’s the same with mental illnesses.

Misdiagnosing can also be an issue: trying to over-address that there is something wrong, rather than figuring out what it really is. Some adults want to quick-fix their kid’s problems. Teenagers also live with a short-term mindset: immediate effects determine our decisions. But those around us like teachers and parents should be beyond this.

Instead we are in a system that doesn’t balance academics and mental health. And the excuse, if ever, seems to be that high school is simply a place for educational learning, not for other matters.

So, in grades 8, 10, and 12 there is the Signs of Suicide presentation done in English classes for one class throughout the year, which makes us think that this subject is to be hushed and kept quiet. Having such little time with this matter supports our culture that it is weak to say that you are struggling, and that high school is only for academics. After watching a quite outdated SOS video, we take a questionnaire to determine whether or not we may show signs of some depression or anxiety. If we do show signs, then we are called to our counselor.

SOS presentations are only one day every two years, only addressing what many mark as the final option in their mental health struggle: suicide. Instead of helping students along the way, adults only address our breakdowns. Most mental health issues aren’t addressed until an event happens where the signs can’t be ignored any longer—and suicide shouldn’t be this event. So many mental issues will never lead to suicide, but still need support and acceptance.

Mental illnesses are not scary—at least they don’t have to be. They are, in a scientific view, a chemical unbalance in the brain. If we simply look at it as that, perhaps they wouldn’t have this surrounding stigma. As a school and as a society, we accept that ADHD and dyslexia are just ways that brains work differently, and struggles that can be worked through. But, mental illnesses: we can’t quite grasp. Unlike physical injuries, we can’t see or touch them. But, as we know, just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. They are real, issues among all ages. Also, we shouldn’t just try to simplify them into terms we understand. Narcissistic personality disorder and arrogance aren’t the same thing. Bipolar disorder and moodiness aren’t the same thing. Depression and being sad are not the same thing. As much as we need a math class in high school to ready us for life, we really need to learn about our mental health too.

Since high school is used to prepare us for college, we are pushed to become independent. Whether it be studying for tests or our own personal health, we have an urge to solve things ourselves. The New England Journal of Medicine’s  “Uncovering an Epidemic — Screening for Mental Illness in Teens,” said, “Teenagers have a hard time asking for help.” If you ask any teacher who offers to stay after repeatedly, I’m sure they could attest to this.

Through this push to be independent, the stigma of mental illness, and the of the horror of going to the guidance counselor’s office, those faced with mental health concerns tend to not seek help. When a teacher tells you that you’re needed at your counselor’s office, if there isn’t an audible  “ooooh” that echos through the room, you know all eyes are on you. And when we are brave and say on our own that we need to go see our counselors, it’s no different. On some days, even if we do get past judgements, all we really need is space. Not someone to talk to. Sometimes we need a little air from it all, but there’s no place in BHS to go.

Instead of having a system of ignorance, we need to have a culture of acceptance. In a school with sayings like “AP for all” and pressures to do our best, there isn’t much time to put humanity over grades. Perhaps the person you see walking through the hall with headphones is wearing them because that’s what’s keeping them together that day. Maybe the person you passed is wearing that hood to hide the fact they just shed some tears. We need to put ourselves in other’s shoes. Breakdowns aren’t factored into our busy schedules.

While differing perspectives—teenanger, adult—set us apart, we seem to look at mental health in this school as an issue no one wants to really address openly. It’s tough. No one has a perfect solution, or perhaps even a solution at all. However, our current actions are not working.

The little knowledge we get from Signs of Suicide isn’t enough. We spend 5,800 hours in BHS in our five years. During that time, three of them are about suicide. That is 1/1,950th or .0005 percent of our time. When do we talk about everyday mental health? Never.

If high school is a balancing act between everything that is meant to make us into successful people in our future, mental stability needs to be a part of the equation too.

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Barnstable High School's Award-Winning Student News Site
The Elephant in The Room