The numbers: One in eight kids are diagnosed with anxiety. Six to eight percent of teens have serious depression. 2.8 million American adolescents had at least one major depressive episode in 2014. These are the numbers: the cold, hard facts. But these facts are made up of millions of children who, every day, deal with anxiety, depression, OCD, and other mental illnesses that have life-changing effects. And some — possibly more than we realize — of these kids are from Scarsdale.
In a survey covering all four grades, 11% of students said they had been diagnosed with depression, 19% with anxiety, and about 30% said that they had been diagnosed with OCD, bipolar disorder, or other mental disorders. And many more — 89% — of students said they knew someone with a mental illness.
But much of the time, this issue isn’t taken seriously, and more severe mental illnesses — beyond the anxiety of having multiple tests in a week or giving a presentation in front of the class — are not acknowledged nearly as much as they should be. Multiple people did not want to be interviewed for this article, as they didn’t feel comfortable telling most people about their own mental illnesses. “This is an issue closer to home than anyone is really willing to admit, which is part of why I feel so compelled to talk about it,” said Louisa Blatt ’17. Blatt, who has been vocal about her depression and social anxiety, says that one of the things she wants the most is acknowledgement of the problem, especially for the sake of those who don’t feel comfortable or safe talking about their struggles. “I talk about [my illnesses] for the people who don’t want to talk about theirs,” she explained, “and the responses have been nothing more than non-existent.”
Though the symptoms of mental illness vary dramatically from person to person, there are some that are common to most. Depression is not simply being sad, and anxiety is not just being nervous. Sadness and nervousness are normal, temporary emotions that can even be beneficial in some cases. When these emotions become more intense and long-lasting and are coupled with other symptoms, they can begin to cross the line into being classified as serious mental illnesses.
According to the Mayo Clinic, depression can be defined as prolonged symptoms that interfere with anyone’s daily life, including familial and friendship relationships, school, and other commitments, over a period of at least two weeks, These symptoms can include trouble sleeping and concentrating, change in eating habits, mood swings, frequent crying, feelings of worthlessness or restlessness, withdrawing from friends and activities, and thoughts of death or suicide. Anxiety, which is often coupled with depression, can include feelings of fear, nervousness, and shyness to the point at which one starts avoiding places and activities and cannot be rationally comforted. OCD, another common mental disorder at SHS, involves intrusive thoughts that often compel one to perform ritualistic behaviors, called compulsions, to alleviate their anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Bipolar disorder, which is less common but still important to talk, can, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, cause unusual and harmful shifts in mood, energy levels, and activity, and tend to be characterized by periods of manic and depressive episodes.
Clearly, these illnesses can have a significant impact on students’ daily lives, and since many kids at SHS struggle with them, whether we tend to acknowledge it or not, SHS should be trying to help. However, when 100 students were surveyed, many of those who said that they had been diagnosed with a mental disorder said that they do not feel SHS is a supportive place for them. “It feels as though nobody truly understands what people with various mental disabilities experience,” Alex*, a sophomore with OCD said. “To be honest, I feel like this school really doesn’t pay attention to those of us who are suffering,” Morgan*, who has anxiety and OCD, added. “I feel like you can’t get help from the school until you seek it, and by that time it’s either too late or you never get help because confiding in someone can be very hard,” they continued.
Others noted that they know the school is making an effort to help, but that it is not enough. “There are some resources, but the school adds a lot to my anxiety,” Avery* said. Others were more optimistic, saying that teachers do want to help but that the general competitive atmosphere worsens their mental health. “In general, most of SHS has been supportive of students with mental illnesses,” said Olivia Leone ’17, who has been diagnosed with severe depression. “There are a lot of things I wish my teachers knew about me and my mental illness so they’d maybe understand certain things I do and say a bit more.”
School officials are aware of the issue, and they represent a different perspective. “I think we’re doing a good job addressing [the problem] and being proactive. And I think teachers are good at identifying students who might be struggling in ways that are not normal academic struggles,” commented SHS health teacher James Tulley.
But based on the dozens of students who talked about not feeling comfortable discussing their mental illness, and those who said that SHS does not support them enough, there is more for us to do. So what can SHS students, teachers, and administrators do to help?
There were a variety of responses, many of them mentioning (unsurprisingly) the amount of work and high expectations that can be detrimental to one’s mental health. “The workload needs to decrease and students, teachers, and parents must acknowledge mental health and prioritize it,” said Riley*, a student with OCD. “The workload is absolutely excessive,” Alex agreed. This sentiment was echoed by many others. “Grading us based on participation is like getting your salary based on how many people you have a conversation with a day — it’s different for everyone and trying to base a grade off of something that varies so differently for each person isn’t right,” said Taylor*, who has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
Others focused on education. While some acknowledged that it is good that psychologists and Youth Outreach workers are available, others wished that it was easier to get help for those who may be scared or uncomfortable to take those steps themselves. “I know it’s impractical, but it would be great if at some point in the year, a student outreach worker met with each Civ Ed and freshman seminar advisory group to introduce themselves and potentially identify students who could benefit from their help,” one junior suggested. “I felt as if the 10th grade classes did not do justice to the topic of mental illness. Our lessons consisted of ‘sometimes, people get sad’ as opposed to the different types of illnesses and the places people can go for support,” they added.
There were also many students who expressed that they wished it was easier to talk to their teachers about what they could be struggling with. “[Teachers could] definitely be more open to talk about life, and not just the next paper or test,” one survey respondent said. “I think teachers and students need to communicate in better, more influential ways. For example, I think each teacher should check in with each individual student for at least five-ten minutes to ask them if they are struggling with anything in terms of their work (or even more than just schoolwork),” Riley commented.
But what about students? It’s important for students to understand, both Blatt and Leone emphasized, that it is not their friends’ jobs to be therapists. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, most teens require professional help, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or medication, to live normal lives with their mental illnesses. “If I say I cannot go ask a person a question because of my anxiety, it is not your job to be my therapist and tell me to face my fears. That trivializes the issue and makes the person feel like you don’t really understand where they’re coming from, even though they may have explicitly stated otherwise,” said Blatt. Simply being there to listen is the best thing to do, agreed Leone. “Be there to listen and not to judge, and have the person feel that he/she is not alone in this. Nothing got better for me until I fully explained my feelings to people and found people who could relate.”
And for anyone who isn’t fully comfortable talking openly about their mental illness, Blatt says this: “I get it, and you don’t have to. But if you’re fifty-fifty, I’d encourage you to lean towards openness. I know that it might feel like you’re admitting defeat, or that you’re making people uncomfortable, but so what? This is about you, and I promise you’ll benefit from just being open.”
*name used to indicate anonymity
by Maya Bharara