Living with a mental illness is driving down the road blindfolded at 90 knowing you’re going to crash but not being able to anticipate it before it happens. It is the feeling of going through a streak of good days and falling into a valley of bad ones. The hardest thing about bad days is that the feeling of being absolutely alone creeps in on top of everything else and suddenly you find yourself back in the hole that you worked so hard to escape. In spite of that, things eventually do level out. I have had to grow to learn this, but I couldn’t have gotten this far without the help that I received.
My first two years of high school were incredibly difficult, between transitioning, bullying, and the pressure of doing well. I was stuck inside this world that I had formed in my head, shutting myself out from my friends and people I loved. I wasn’t aware of what I was going through. I wasn’t diagnosed with clinical depression until years later. It was just “chin up” and “think more positively and you’ll be fine.” Or “you’re too young to know any better” or “you’re too young to understand what it’s like to suffer.” I just kept pushing through the mud, not knowing what was really wrong with me and feeling so alone through all of it, even though so many people suffer from mental illness.
One out of every five teens experiences symptoms of depression. Our society needs to be able to talk about these things. If I had been able to get help early on, things would have gone a little smoother. Eventually, I did have the chance to get help. Earlier this year, one of my classmates referred me to the school intervention specialist. As upset as I was at the time, I could not be more thankful now. The intervention specialist allowed me to get the help I needed and established a safe space for me. The opportunity to sit down and talk to an adult who understood my experiences was life changing.
Some aren’t as lucky as I was. Some don’t have the same resources available or are afraid to speak up because of the shame generated around the conversation of mental illness. Despite this, if we look at the people around us and reach out, we can make a difference and impact their lives. Being reached out to is easily the best thing that has happened to me. Through the intervention specialist, I was matched with a therapist who specializes in working with teens through a program in my high school. That has been absolutely monumental in getting me to where I am today. I am incredibly grateful to be attending a high school that offers these types of programs.
Getting help isn’t easy. It isn’t ever easy to look at yourself and realize the things you’re going through are too much to handle alone. Regardless, help should be accessible, especially in high school, where mental illness is a growing epidemic. Getting help should be accessible at a young age because of how early so many cases develop. When someone is struggling with mental illness, there is no “too young to understand.” Of the 20 percent of teens suffering from symptoms of depression, only 30 percent are getting the help and treatment that they need. In addition to depression, there is a whole range of mood disorders, behavioral disorders, and anxiety disorders that people struggle with. Why aren’t people getting help? Shame. Stigma. Stigma is the killer. Regardless of race, age, or gender, if you are struggling, there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. There is no shame in struggling.
I know this feeling of shame all too well. I come from a family that is culturally non-American, as do millions of others in this country. Because of that, I had to confront many cultural barriers. It takes a certain level of awareness and education to break down these barriers. I’m lucky to be born in the family that I was, but before I could even remotely open up to my parents, I was terrified. I know from experience that in Vietnamese culture and many other cultures mental illness is not something that is talked about. We put on a strong face for those around us because we think struggling isn’t strong.
As a society, as a community, we need to spread awareness and education to erase the stigma and misconceptions surrounding mental illness and people who are living with a mental illness. We can start by reaching out to those closest to us, and from there we can build. Reach out, even if you think you don’t know how. Reach out and let them know that they are loved. I guarantee you, as someone who has been through it, knowing you are loved makes all the difference. From there, we can use our compassion to empower those around us. We can create a space where help is accessible and a culture where living with a mental illness doesn’t mean suffering from one. We can create a culture where anyone who lives with a mental illness can thrive in spite of it. We are more than our illnesses. We are more than our depression, anxiety, OCD, or anything else that we are battling. I am more than my illness.