Illness Is Not Angst: The Adolescent Mental Health Stigma

(TW: depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, suicidal ideation)

When I was seventeen, my neighbor shot himself in the head with his parent’s gun. All of his friends thought he was happy: he was popular and loved. When he died, people commented on his last Instagram post saying: “RIP buddy.”

When I was sixteen, my friend took five sleeping pills the night before because she didn’t want to wake up in the morning. No one thought anything of it…she was just being dramatic. One month later she wrote posts on social media about how she was going to kill herself before school the next day. I told a trusted adult about this, and action was finally taken.

I would have to report two more of my friends for suicidal ideation in that same month.

Two years ago, my friend stopped wanting to get out of bed. She stopped brushing her teeth or showering. She started failing her classes. She was getting sent home after having these panic attacks. Her school, hormones, and technology use were some of the many things blamed for this. She was eventually taken to a psychiatrist and got diagnosed. She finally got on the medication that she needed for so long when no trace of her old, happy self was present.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults in the United States. About 20 percent of adolescents in the United States have a diagnosable mental illness, yet 70 percent of these adolescents don’t get the treatment that they need. So why is that?

Well, there are several reasons. Resources for mental illness treatment are often expensive and hard to access: waiting lists are long and insurance doesn’t always cover therapy and antidepressants. According to Mental Health America, 7.7 percent of youth do not have access to mental health services through their private insurance, and in states with the lowest workforces, there are six individuals to every one mental health professional.

“Most therapists that are really experienced aren’t on insurance panels anymore because insurance doesn’t reimburse [rates for therapists] fairly, so parents don’t want to pay off panel,” adolescent and family therapist, Heidi Sonntag, said.

Sonntag has also noticed a definite upward trend in the number of teens she has seen experiencing issues with anxiety.

“I see a huge trend in way more anxious kids, overachievers, anxious kids, kids who think they have to be perfect, which twenty years ago I would have never seen,” Sonntag said.

 I have panic attacks that literally suck the life out of me and make feel like I’m dying; that seems like an exaggeration to someone who’s never had one before, but it’s true. It’s like your body is being overtaken by a force you can’t control, you are being strangled and drowned simultaneously. My flashbacks always come out of nowhere and are triggered completely unexpectedly, often from situations that may seem minor to everyone else, and they give me no autonomy over my own thoughts, and all I can think about are the horrible things that have happened to me and nothing else. My depression makes me feel like I am worth nothing, and it is so hard to just go about my day and do normal things like shower and brush my teeth. The anxiety that most people feel right before taking a huge test is how I feel most of the time multiplied by ten.

But I got help, so now I am thriving. My illnesses will never be cured, but I can now manage them and live a full, happy life, that is difficult but also wonderful. I cope with these things, because I know that they are not curable, but also not the end all be all. I exercise, take medication and go to therapy once a week, and have done targeted therapy for PTSD called EMDR. But honestly, the hardest part about having these illnesses is the way that other people treat them. I am scared to tell adults about my illnesses because they are scared of what I have. All they do is minimize my pain and tell me that it is so much worse for other people. I am high functioning, meaning that I can still maintain my grades and, for the most part, keep it to myself when I’m having an episode, so oftentimes, because I don’t necessarily fit the textbook visual that people often have of my illnesses, they brush it off and expect me to deal with it myself.

Now, I know it could be so much worse. It is for a lot of people. But does it really need to get worse in order for someone to care? Do I need to have a knife to my throat before somebody believes me? It is really disturbing that that seems to be the standard for adequate suffering.

I am extremely lucky to have the help and support that I do with my illnesses; I have had adults in my life who have stepped up and helped me. I am so fortunate to have had excellent medical help and the financial ability to afford this treatment, as, unfortunately, it is not readily available to everyone. But ultimately, I got the help that I needed because I had really confrontational, difficult conversations, essentially fighting for a diagnosis.

Mental illness is taboo, and it is much easier to blame teen mental health issues on teenagers themselves due to societal stereotypes about the way that we behave. But blame does not make the problem go away.

“[It’s] not to say that technology and hormones don’t play a part and can be a factor in mental illness, sometimes they can make it worse, but it’s not going to be the root cause, and so I think that knee jerk reaction [of blame] is maybe just kind of like a defense mechanism,” prevention specialist Sarah Tisdon said.

“Sometimes teens just have so much pressure put on them to perform at school and to perform in sports but they’re not necessarily taught the skills of how to deal with that pressure and how to deal with that stress, and it all comes down to the life skills not being taught as much as they should be,” Tisdon said.

Mental illness does not have to be an ominous mystery that is ignored instead of addressed. With support and treatment, one can very easily live with their mental illness. It only becomes dangerous when it is shrouded by shame and ignorance. So, I ask all of the adults reading this piece to please listen to us when we need help.It could save a life.

How can we help teens cope with anxiety and depression, and how do we prevent the next generation from falling into such an epidemic? Reduced technology use can be part of the solution, but it is not the solution. We need to vote for political leaders who prioritize affordable and accessible healthcare for all, who will work to make insurance companies cover mental health services. But teens also need to be able to talk about how they are feeling without the stigma that surrounds mental health. Not only do teens need to have a voice in their own treatment, they need the active support of the adults in their life to help them cope.

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