Mental Illness: Teens share experiences of hurt, harm, and helplessness

Chloe Wintersteen

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By Jenna Herz and Chloe Wintersteen

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It is a typical school day for students at Redwood High School―the sun trickles through a few stray clouds and hordes of kids fill the halls with laughter and noise. However, to some, the world outside appears gray, and the laughter is muffled. They walk in slow motion with their heads down, avoiding their surroundings. To others, the sounds of the school intensify and nip at their necks. The crowded hallways make it hard for them to breathe and the sun seems to turn everything to flame. The world spins.

“When I’m having a panic attack, it feels like everything’s on fire. I don’t do anything, I don’t talk, I just stare and hyperventilate. It feels like everything around me is heating up,” described “Calvin,” a junior boy who wished to remain anonymous.

Calvin, who suffers from depression and anxiety, is just one of the many students at Redwood who currently struggles with mental illness.

 

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A mental illness is a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood, and may affect his or her

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ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. These illnesses include depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorders, borderline personality disorder, and eating disorders, among others.

Psychiatrist Richard Goldwasser said that mental health issues are very prevalent among teens. At Redwood alone, 13 percent of students suffer from a mental illness and 42 percent of students know someone close to them who suffers from a mental illness, according to a recent Bark survey.

There are many reasons why mental illnesses appear or are first diagnosed during high school, according to Goldwasser.

“Just in a biologic perspective, there’s a lot of changes going on both physically and hormonally as well as emotionally [during this time],” Goldwasser said. “There’s a lot of brain development that happens from the early teens up into the mid twenties.”

Environmental factors can also greatly affect a teen’s mental health, Goldwasser said.

“It’s really a mix between what they call ‘nature’ and ‘nurture.’ Much of it is biologically what we’re predisposed to and how our biological predisposition interacts with environment,” Goldwasser said.

Goldwasser acknowledged that environmental pressures for teens can be a trigger for those who are predisposed to mental illness.   

“There’s a lot of stress academically, socially, and relationship-wise,” Goldwasser said. “[Problems] within the family, becoming more independent, having more freedom, getting into trouble, and the big picture questions like ‘what am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ all can contribute to mental health issues in teens.”

 

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“CALVIN”

Anonymous junior “Calvin,” who has suffered from depression and anxiety as well as suicidal tendencies since the fifth grade, believes binary gender roles have worsened the pressures of his mental illness.

“Our society is shaped in such a way where it is considered unmasculine to talk about your feelings. So I bottled it up,” Calvin said.

In an effort to hide his depression, Calvin presented a happy façade to his middle school classmates.

“I always made sure that nobody knew how I was feeling. I was always the talkative guy who would laugh and make jokes, but I didn’t have anyone to talk to about what was really happening, how I hated how I looked and how I didn’t have fun doing anything,” Calvin said.

Because his friends expected him to be masculine and strong, Calvin felt as though he couldn’t show any signs of weakness. According to a recent Bark survey, 20 percent of Redwood students consider men with mental illnesses to be weaker than those without.

“I’ve always been expected to be tougher than everyone else, and in many ways I am, but in other ways I just need to break down and cry. But I can’t do that with the guys,” Calvin said.

Calvin said he has since recognized the importance of discussing his emotions.

“When you talk about it, you’re able to analyze yourself and come to an understanding. When you just let yourself bottle it up, you start to over analyze yourself and get deeper and deeper into it, and that becomes the thing that dominates your life,” Calvin said. “I know now that there’s no man whose strong and perfect in a masculine sort of way. Everyone gets upset.”

Over time, Calvin learned to cope with his illnesses by talking to family, friends, and teachers, however, he dealt with his issues in unhealthy ways when he kept quiet.

“I was so ashamed of my depression that instead of cutting myself, which lots of people do, I would eat the inside of my gums so people wouldn’t see the scars. I would rip off a layer of skin over and over again, and at the end of the day my cheeks would be bleeding,” Calvin said.

Calvin considered suicide multiple times, beginning in the fifth grade.

According to Calvin, when he is severely depressed, he feels as though there are no alternatives to suicide.

“Nothing makes sense when you’re depressed. You keep questioning yourself and questioning yourself and you get to the point where you ask yourself the question ‘should I commit suicide?’ and you just say yes, because that seems like the only option, which is insane to think now,” Calvin said.

Calvin is not alone. According to the Tam Union High School District, 17 percent of ninth graders and 20 percent of 11th graders seriously considered committing suicide last year.  

Calvin says his mother, who is currently receiving chemotherapy treatments, is sometimes the only thing that keeps him from wanting to kill himself.

Because of his family situation, Calvin is the only support system for his mother. Calvin’s parents are divorced and his older siblings all live out of state.

“Everything has been falling apart. It’s hard to deal with it all, because my entire life my mom has been the person who I could lean on. But it’s basically flipped these past few months,” Calvin said.

In addition to his schoolwork, Calvin has assumed a parental role by making dinner, cleaning the house, picking up prescriptions, and caring for his mother.

“Everyone always asks me how I do it, and if I’m alright with it. But honestly, my mom is the one glowing light in my life. I know if I kill myself, I’ll hurt my mom so much,” Calvin said. “You just need to find the one thing that you’re good at, the one thing you love. Just focus on that one thing, and everything around will start to glow. And that’s what my mom is to me.”

Calvin said his teachers and the Redwood support staff have been incredibly helpful and accommodating of his situation.

“I’ve been able to talk to my teachers with the help of my counselor and the Wellness Center, which I haven’t done in the past, and explain to them [what is] going on,” Calvin said. “Last week, one of my teachers talked to me for 2 ½ hours after school just to make sure everything was going OK, and he made dinner for my mom.”

In addition, Calvin’s private therapists have been integral in helping him balance all aspects of his life.

“It’s a free space where I’m able to tell them what’s happening. They don’t tell you what to do, but they lead you to the solution,” Calvin said. “Letting someone in is the hardest part. But once they’re in, they’re in.”

Supported by his therapists as well as his friends and family, Calvin has learned to come to terms with his illness.  

“I was ashamed of my depression [for] forever, and in many ways I still am, but when you accept that you are depressed, it just gets a little bit easier. Once you accept it, you start to realize that you’re not the only one who is depressed,” Calvin said. “Depression has shaped me into the person I am today. In the end, I love that person inside of me.”

 

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GRACE

Junior Grace Garcia, a current student in Tamiscal’s TEAM program, is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety.

Garcia said signs of her mental illnesses were apparent at an early age. She was diagnosed with depression in seventh grade and was not diagnosed with bipolar disorder until her freshman year, even though it was common for her to have massive mood swings while growing up.

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“I was more happy than an average person on a given day, and then my lows were just terrible,” she said.

These tendencies persisted into her teenage years where her fits of mania and depression worsened.

According to Goldwasser, when an individual with bipolar disorder experiences a manic episode, they tend to not remember a lot of what happened during a manic period.

“It has to do with the ability of the brain to lay down memory and the chemical environment in the memory centers of the brain,” Goldwasser said.

Garcia describes manic episodes as overwhelming and says that when she is in a manic state she seems to lose control of her body and mind.

“You just have a million thoughts racing through your head, a lot of scary thoughts too, and you can’t control yourself. Multiple times my mom would try to calm me down, she’d rub my back or something and I would get aggressive and scream and hit her,” Garcia said.

Garcia has realized that not everyone can empathize and understand the severity of her condition.

“I’ve even had manic episodes at school, and I’ve had to leave multiple times and my teachers didn’t really understand that,” Garcia said.

Outside of the classroom, Garcia faces additional obstacles, such as her father’s lack of support and acceptance of her disease.

“My dad doesn’t understand it at all. He doesn’t think it’s real,” Garcia said. “He grew up in a really poor town in Mexico, and none of that was talked about, so he doesn’t think I need to be on medication. He thinks I’m making it all up. So that’s hard.”

Relationships in general are hard for Garcia to maintain. Garcia said she tends to become too invested too fast.

“When I get into relationships, I tend to want to stay with them forever. I never want to leave them,” Garcia said.

Garcia, however, has created strong connections this year with her fellow classmates in TEAM who she said have helped her overcome periods of emotional instability.

“The people I’ve met this year from team are the most understanding people I’ve ever met and I haven’t had a manic episode in months,” Garcia said. “I feel better right now.”

 

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“IVY”

Throughout the last 10 years of neuroscience research, there has been more recognition of the effect of life experiences, particularly trauma, on the brain’s chemistry, according to Goldwasser.

“Psychologically as well as ideologically we change as a result of trauma,” Goldwasser said.

Anonymous junior girl “Ivy” believes a significant traumatic moment triggered her feelings of depression.

“In fifth grade my best friend at the time killed herself in front of me,” Ivy said. “I think that triggered it.”

One day Ivy and her friend were playing at a park when it appeared to Ivy as though her friend, who to her knowledge had some untreated mental illness, began hallucinating.

“It was around twilight and she went over to the railroad tracks and started saying these weird things about the sky, like ‘look up there, do you see that?’ but there were just clouds, there was nothing. She kept saying ‘No look there’s something there’ and then, I don’t know why, but she laid down on the tracks…then there was the horn,” she said.

Despite her efforts to try to make sense of the situation, Ivy had no control. To this day, her feelings of helplessness remain.

“That experience triggered my depression at an early age. If it hadn’t happened everything would be different and maybe nothing would have triggered the depression,” Ivy said.

Ivy’s experiences with depression have not only affected her emotionally, but also socially and academically.

“I had trouble making friends for a while. I became socially awkward and tried to stay in my room. My parents didn’t really know what to do, so they just left me alone or would yell at me for things I couldn’t really help,” Ivy said.

During rough patches in her depression, Ivy said that her grades have routinely suffered due to other negative experiences.

“My second semester sophomore year my sister, who at the time was in eighth grade––she was 13––got raped,” Ivy shared. “That really affected everyone and everything. I just kept turning in everything late and I was failing all of my tests and I just didn’t even have a motivation to change that because it was just too much on top of everything going on at home.”

Despite facing lots of ups and downs in her emotional state, Ivy said that finding individuals with whom she can confide in has helped her to cope with her depression.

“Honestly everyone feels alone in this, like they’re on their own little deserted island, but they’re really not alone. There are so many people that they could go to,” Ivy said.

 

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“NATALIE”

Anonymous senior “Natalie” is diagnosed with severe depression, social anxiety,  generalized anxiety, compulsions, and trichotillomania, an impulse control disorder.

According to Natalie, each of her illnesses affect separate aspects of her psyche.

“There are times where I go into months of sadness, depending on the circumstances,” Natalie said. “My social anxiety is present in more upfront people situations. I hate crowds, I don’t like talking to people, I don’t go into the CEA, and when I do, I freak out. I also have to have people order food for me at restaurants.”

While these symptoms hinder her ability to socialize in public situations, Natalie’s compulsions also greatly affect her ability to think rationally.

“With compulsions, things have to be super straight and even, things have to have their place and if they’re moved then it’s annoying. Sometimes numbers even bother me,” Natalie said.

Although some people with trichotillomania pick hairs out of their scalp or eyebrows, she tends to pick out her eyelashes and body hair, Natalie said.

“It feels like something is on your face. You feel the hairs that are less soft than the other ones and you can’t think about anything else until they’re gone,” Natalie said.

Natalie was first driven to pick out her hair in fourth grade, when she found it alleviated her feelings of incompetency in school.

“It was hard to deal with because my mom and teachers thought it was a habit and not an actual mental disorder. I couldn’t physically stop it,” Natalie said.

According to Natalie, picking out her eyelashes can be satisfying because it gives her a sense of control.

“It gives me the sense that I have something that I can do to myself with my body that nobody else can technically make me stop. My parents have tried to make me stop by giving me puzzles to work on, but those don’t work because [the hair] is always on my mind,” Natalie said.

This tangible sense of control is especially important to Natalie because she often feels out of control due to her depression.

“I was super young compared to other people I know, who first started struggling with mental illness during their adolescence,” Natalie said.

When she was in middle school, Natalie felt insecure about her body, and coped through self harm and an eating disorder.

The inability to control her thoughts and actions led Natalie to fall further into  depression.

“My entire sophomore year I was incredibly depressed. There wasn’t a day I can say I was happy,” Natalie said. “I had terrible suicidal thoughts, and self harming got worse and worse. It was so bad that I started having severe panic attacks every day.”

Natalie knew she had to get clinical help for her mental illnesses following a traumatic experience at the Back to School Dance her junior year.

“I was pushed around and I fell and was trampled on, and that caused the worst panic attack I’ve ever had,” Natalie said. “I realized that I couldn’t live that way anymore, so I went to a psychiatrist and they put me on Lexapro, an anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication, and that helped so much.”

One of the most difficult aspects of having mental illnesses is being misrepresented or misperceived by her peers, Natalie said.

“I’m not friends with a lot of the people I used to be friends with because they thought I was too sensitive or a wuss. They don’t understand that sometimes my physical body can’t do something because I feel like I’m going to die,” Natalie said. “Sometimes I don’t want to be friends with other people because I feel like I’m just a burden to them.”

Natalie wishes that teachers understood her heightened difficulty in social situations.

“Having to work in group projects for some kids is a nightmare, or having to go in front of a class for some people is the worse thing you could do,” Natalie said. “I wish that teachers understood there are some accommodations you have to make for people who have severe mental illness, and to understand it’s not that I don’t work hard, or that I’m lazy, but that I couldn’t do homework because I was up all night trying not to break down or do anything hurtful.”

Natalie said that her drama teachers and well as the drama program itself helped to provide her with support to help her cope with her depression.

“The reason why I came to school everyday my sophomore year was because of drama,” Natalie said. “The reason I continued on with my life was drama. That was the class that I could leave it at the door, but also take it all in and put my emotional baggage into something that I loved and enjoyed.”   

Natalie urges everyone to be cautious of how they characterize people with mental illnesses.

“When people say ‘I’m feeling so depressed today,’ but it’s because their mom took their phone, it’s actually really hurtful to the people who are depressed. It makes them feel like they’re not valid anymore,” Natalie said.

 

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XENIA

Although senior Xenia Rodriguez was clinically diagnosed with social anxiety and depression the summer before freshman year, she first exhibited symptoms in fourth grade when she moved from El Salvador to the United States.

“Coming from a different country, I have thought a lot about the culture shock I went through, and that first year was just awful and completely different,” Rodriguez said.
According to Rodriguez, her inability to speak English isolated her from other kids in her class.

“It had a lot to do with my social anxiety,” Rodriguez said. “[Not being able to communicate] is probably why I’m afraid of speaking and social interaction.”

Rodriguez likened her feelings of depression to being in bed in a darkened room, something that she is admittedly very familiar with.

Rodriquez displays a tattoo of a serotonin molecule on her forearm. The dots next to the molecule spell out

Rodriquez displays a tattoo of a serotonin molecule on her forearm. The dots next to the molecule spell out “Alive” in braille.

“The summer before freshman year I just spent a lot of my time in my room and I actually have this vivid memory of me going outside and looking into the sun and the sun felt like it was burning into my eyes,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez explained that when going through tough periods of depression, she often finds herself not in control of her own emotions.

“When you’re depressed you’re not up to anything and you feel [bad] all the time. A lot of random triggers throughout the day just making me cry over and over again,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez’s depression has affected her academically as well, due to her absences from school for long periods of time, as well as her emotional instability during class, which can prevent her from concentrating.

“It affects my grades a lot; they go up and down with my emotions,” Rodriguez said. “It’s really awful and I sometimes feel like I only have myself to deal with, but I’ve learned to reach out to more people.”

Rodriguez has been able to find relief through joining Peer Resource as well as founding the club Connections International.

“One of the biggest support systems I’ve had has been being a part of Peer Resource and having 25 people around me know [what I’m going through], and randomly text me and check in or see if I need something,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez’s club, Connections International, aims to help students who are coming from countries and don’t speak English as their first language.

“We help students both academically and socially, but mostly socially, who transfer from a different country. Students that are new to the country and are just learning English,” Rodriguez said. “It’s very satisfying to just feel like I’m doing something to help people in that situation.”

At the moment, Rodriguez feels proud of herself and what she has accomplished. She even marked herself with a tattoo to remind herself that she is alive.

Her tattoo is of a serotonin molecule, a neurotransmitter that is responsible for relaying messages from one part of the brain to another.

“About six months ago I discovered that if I go off medication it really [messes with] my brain, so that means that my depression is due to chemical imbalances [in my brain],” Rodriguez said.

Next to the serotonin molecule on Rodriguez’s arm are dots that are braille for “alive.” The tattoo sits right over the spot on her right arm where Rodriguez once badly cut herself.

“I put it there because it’s on top of [the scar] and that’s a way of preventing it from happening again and if I ever have that…how do you call it in English? Impulse,” Rodriguez explained. “If I want do it again [the tattoo] is on top and I have to stare at it and think about the decision I made of getting it there forever.”

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A wide array of resources are available to provide support for those with mental illnesses, both within the Redwood community, and in our world at large.

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