Students open up about mental illness

A year ago, senior Kayla Clark felt inexplicably sad. Every day something seemed wrong, but she thought she was simply overreacting. Her situation progressed to the point of suicidal thoughts and self-harm, and she knew she needed help.

Clark, like many students, suffered from depression and anxiety.

Mental illness can be difficult to discuss, particularly for adolescents already concerned with maintaining a specific image. When one is expected to be healthy, independent and flawlessly social, any kind of imperfection can be extremely disconcerting.

The secrecy surrounding mental health problems often serves to exacerbate the issue because people neglect their illnesses. Even if people try to avoid these problems, they often boil over in a catastrophic way.

“There’s nothing else to describe it besides just being very dark the whole time and feeling like you deserve it,” Clark said.

Mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder have a huge impact on students’ day-to-day functions, and these afflictions can completely derail a person’s goals.

Having also struggled with mental illness, senior Olivia Embry attests to its pervasive nature.

“(Mental illness) really affects every part of your life,” Embry said. “Going to school, going home, being with your family, being with your friends. Everything you do is affected by mental illness and needs to be looked at.”

In the past, professionals often dismissed potential signs of illness in adolescents as temporary moodiness. This neglect is partially due to the stigma attributed to mental illness and an unwillingness to give kids a label that might put them at a disadvantage. However, many undiagnosed cases can be linked to lacking information.

Psychological research has improved since then, and experts now know 11 percent of teenagers have had a major depressive disorder by the time they turn 18, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Other mental illnesses are prevalent within the halls besides depression however. Bipolar disorder, for example, is common among young people. According to NIMH, at least half of all bipolar cases start before age 25.

Bipolar disorder is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and one’s ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.These shifts in mood are much more extreme than those typically felt, and they are categorized as two separate phases, the manic phase and the depressive phase.

The manic phase is characterized by feelings of excitement and happiness. During the manic phase, a person is more likely to partake in risky behavior. This period of happiness can foster a false sense of security, and the recklessness and sudden ambition can have consequences. Often people will have an unrealistic sense of their abilities, and they will take on new tasks and engagements which overwhelm them during a depressive episode.

The depressive phase is the opposite of the manic phase. Intense feelings of sadness and despair take over, and negative contemplation can dominate a person’s life. Those with bipolar disorder have difficulty concentrating and making decisions in the depressive phase, and they tend to lose interest in activities and people in their lives.

Both of these periods can be extremely destructive, and they can make it challenging for sufferers to connect with peers and family. If someone with bipolar disorder is undiagnosed or if his or her peers do not know about the diagnosis, it can be difficult to make sense of the sudden, diametric shifts in moods, attitudes and behaviors.

Teens often struggle to find ways to handle their disorders, and teachers sometimes act as confidants for students. However, teachers are required to report any kind of self-harm or threats to the safety of others, and while this may be beneficial in the long term, it can cause students to find other outlets or completely avoid discussing feelings.

Other than teachers, students may feel that there are not many opportunities for students to talk about their struggles in a learning environment.

“I feel like (mental illness issues) are not really handled in school, as far as big groups that offer support,” senior Sophia Coen said. “I feel like it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, call this hotline,’ but there’s not a real community for it.”

However, Free State does have multiple social workers employed to help any student in need.

“There is a team here called the health resource team,” social worker Cindy Trarbach said. “It’s their job to be the point for kids who are exhibiting some kind of health issue—that includes mental health—and provide in-school supports.”

Outside of school, friends can help to alleviate or aggravate the effects of mental illness, and social media may have a unique effect compared to prior methods of interaction. Social media can play various roles for students with mental illness. Websites such as Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook can be both beneficial and detrimental to a person with mental illness.

Social media is often used for awareness, and is a way for people to connect with each other, which can facilitate the recovery process. Social media can also be used for bullying, however, and that can be harmful to a person’s mental health.

“Social media can be a really awesome thing,” junior Olivia Boldridge said. “It can be good for helping get the word out there about positive things, and it’s just good to connect yourself with other people. But it can also be a really bad thing when it’s taken to a different level that it really shouldn’t be used for.”

Cyber-bullying can be incredibly destructive, and the combination of cyber-bullying and preexisting mental illness can have devastating effects, including self-harm and suicide.

For some, interacting with peers is the biggest source of stress, but for others, the workload from school and other activities can lead to self-destructive behaviors. The resulting pressure can cause mental breakdowns and increase the likeliness of a person developing a mental disorder.

“In moderate doses, stress for most of us is just a part of life we can handle,” said Stephen Ilardi, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Kansas. “For people to undergo extreme levels of high stress for a long period of time (is) a recipe for psychological disaster.”

Stress can cause major anxiety for students, sometimes resulting in self harm or depression. Certain mental illnesses can develop from pressure and stress. For example, anxiety, eating disorders and depression are linked to high stress environments.

“I think school and the pressure put on students to be perfect and do everything that they possibly can and be involved and get straight A’s—it strains people,” Boldridge said.

Experts believe these issues, especially when self-harm comes into play, should always be dealt with via professional help, and many advocate use of medication to expedite recovery. Regardless of the method by which they are addressed, feelings of depression and instability should always be taken seriously. Prolonged stress of any kind can lead to more serious consequences.

Getting help can be difficult for teenagers, especially when they do not want to discuss the possibility of therapy with their parents. Talking to parents or guardians should be the first choice, but Ilardi does offer advice if that option is not possible.

“Another option would be to see if they could make an appointment directly with their family practice doctor or pediatrician,” Ilardi said. “Very often it’s possible for a teenager to schedule that sort of appointment directly, and then their family practice doctor or pediatrician very often can make an appropriate referral.”

Clark found this kind of professional help, and she eventually recovered using medication and therapy. It was a difficult process for her, however, and professional help was part of her long-term recovery, not an immediate solution.

“It takes a lot of convincing to be like, ‘No, I can be happy. I can do this. I can do this,’” Clark said.

People who suffer from depression often struggle intermittently for most of their lives, but many find methods of managing their illness so that they can live regular, productive lives.

The stigma around mental illness is especially powerful for teenagers attempting to contend with insecurities that already exist.

“It’s such a taboo thing that a lot of people are very scared to talk about it in the first place, so …  a lot of the time, it’s hard,” Clark said.

Often people who are “emo” or “goth” are stereotyped as the ones who are expected to struggle with mental illness, but mental illness is never that cleanly delineated. People of all backgrounds, classes, ethnic groups and social groups experience mental illness, and the way someone dresses or behaves, at least at a superficial level, is never enough to make that judgment.

People often struggle to determine whether their negative feelings are just a slump or something more serious, and that leads to neglect of potential mental illness. While Ilardi believes that talking to a professional is the best option, he thinks that using online resources may help one recognize the severity of an issue.

“I’m not the biggest fan in the world of people going online and trying to make a self diagnosis, but there are some things that are really straight forward and intuitive,” Ilardi said. “You can just go online and look at the criteria. They’re laid out in a document called DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which is kind of the fields diagnostic bible (in which) you can look up the formula for major depressive disorder.”

Ilardi was clear that this method is not adequate to make a legitimate diagnosis; however, one can use the DSM as a tool to find out if you should seek professional help. Using these references, one may have a better idea of what is afflicting them, and he or she may find therapy to be a more productive process by providing a starting point for the therapist.

As a whole, fixing issues with mental illness comes down to transparency. All people need to be informed about the signs of mental illness, and providing comfortable spaces for discussion about these issues can help to make problems visible and accessible so that they can be solved. People are beginning to understand the need to get rid of the stigma surrounding mental illness, and Embry expresses this sentiment well.

“I think we need to tell students that their feelings are valid; their emotions are valid,” Embry said. “No matter your class or your social standing or anything like that, your race, your gender, your sexuality, your problems are valid.”