Okay, my title is a little broader than what this post entails because it's too long to say "We Need to Talk to High School Students About Mental Health, Specifically Anxiety and Depression," but that's what I'm focusing on here. Of course I think everyone could stand to be a little more educated about all type of mental illnesses, but I don't know enough about them to fairly discuss them. FYI, I also don't know very much about depression because it's not something I deal with, but I will mention it in this post because it is just as common as anxiety and should definitely be talked about.
(Also, I was planning on putting like one or two photos of me from high school in here for context, but then I took a trip down memory lane and had way too much fun reminiscing, so you get to see a lot more of me than you planned. #sorrynotsorry)
It's has only been a few years since I left high school, so I remember being a teenager and how it is a really hard time for a lot of reasons. Mental health can be something adults and teens both neglect because as a teenager, you are experiencing so many changes and fears and stresses that it's easy to think everything you're going through is totally normal. And a lot of the time, it is. You can be anxious about a test without actually have an anxiety disorder. You can be depressed about breaking up with your girlfriend without having depression. But it is still very possible to have one of these in the form of a real mental illness, so it is so important that teenagers know what symptoms to look for and how to get help.
To start off, here are some stats for you: According to the National Institute of Mental Health, "in 2015, an estimated 3 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. This number represented 12.5% of the U.S. population aged 12 to 17." The NIMH defines a major depressive episode as "a period of two weeks or longer during which there is either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure, and at least four other symptoms that reflect a change in functioning, such as problems with sleep, eating, energy, concentration, and self-image."
The NIMH also reported that 25.1% of 13 to 18 year-olds suffer from an anxiety disorder, and 5.9% of 13 to 18 year-olds have a severe anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders include not only general anxiety, but post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and different phobias. Only a fraction of teens with anxiety and/or depression are being treated for it.
There are a lot of reasons to talk to high school students about anxiety and depression, but first off a huge one is that mental illness (usually depression) is often linked with suicide. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in youth ages 10-18, and each year there are over 5,000 suicide attempts by young people in grades 7-12.
That was really hard for me to write. How sad is that? I know not every suicide attempt is because of anxiety or depression, and not every teen with anxiety or depression thinks about suicide, but it is definitely a factor, and I firmly believe if teens knew more about resources and help they could get, that rate would go down.
As I've gotten older and have gone through this sort of "journey" of realizing I have anxiety and learning how to deal with it, I've thought a many times about how much easier this would have been if I had simply known more about anxiety when I was younger and started experiencing symptoms.
It wasn't until I got to college that I had even assumed anxiety was a possible way to explain how I felt. I thought anxiety, and mental illness in general, was narrowed to severe cases that only a doctor could prescribe. Even after I read and learned a lot more about the illness, I still didn't think it could apply to me because I didn't realize how common it was and the different forms it could take. Doing this research on my own was a) pretty lonely, and b) harder because I didn't have a confident confirmation that my anxiety was valid. It would have helped so much to hear just one other person say "this is normal and it's okay."
I'm not going to go over all the different types and symptoms of anxiety and depression here because it would take way too long, but we NEED to talk to teens about them, along with solutions and resources that are available.
This is me in high school. I had a big group of friends, most of whom I had known since elementary school, and I was actively involved in many clubs and sports with them. I did student government, was on the cross-country and track team, was a member of National Honor Society, helped start a club, and I was a member of WDFY (drug-free youth). I did well in my classes and had good relationships with my teachers, and I was actively involved in my church and youth group. I was really happy.
What you can't see is the sometimes crippling anxiety I dealt with on a daily basis. Every night I would struggle to fall asleep because I was so worried about things I had done that day and things I would do tomorrow. I had intense, vivid nightmares at least once a week. Every day I stressed out over what I wore, how I looked, and what people thought about me. What I considered to be a stupid comment or action would haunt me for days. Every day I wondered if my best friends, people I had known and loved for years, still liked me.
Class presentations would make me sweat and shake, so much that once I had to physically hold me leg because it was shaking so badly. Every single class period I would wonder if we were going to get into partners or groups, and I would frantically figure out who I could partner with and what to do if they chose someone else. Walking down the hallway I felt like everyone was staring at me and judging how I looked or how I walked. In sports, I worried not only about how I performed, but what people would think of me if I didn't do well in a race, and how they would compare me to my friends who did better then me.
I could go on and on since anxiety really affected all aspects of my life. But all throughout high school, I didn't know it was anxiety. I thought either this was how everyone felt all the time, or that I legitimately was a loser. Neither reason made me feel any better. I wasn't able to start healing until I learned about what I had.
Talking to teenagers about anxiety and depression isn't going to cure them immediately if they have it. But knowledge is so, so important. There are so many outlets and options out there for people struggling with mental illness, from friends and therapists to online chat rooms and videos and everything in between. I was at my lowest point with my anxiety less than a year ago, and since accepting I have it and trying to figure out what makes me feel better, I have seen so much improvement in my life. It's still something I deal with every day, but it is manageable now. I feel so much better about my life, and I know I can keep finding new ways to be even happier.
It doesn't have to be a lot. A couple of class periods in health or an assembly about anxiety and depression can significantly change someone's life. It can even save someone's life. Give those struggling in the dark a glimmer of light they can hold onto, and let them know things can and will get better. No one should feel like they have to work through something like this alone.
(And okay, okay, here are a few more high school pictures of me because I know you're dying to see them.)
(This photo isn't necessary, I just really liked my letterman's jacket.)
You're welcome. Also thank you for humoring me. But I'm dead serious about the article--talk to teens about mental health!