The Teen Epidemic No One is Talking About
Updated: Mar 19, 2018
My daughter is sick - yet no one wants to talk about it. How can we remove the stigma of mental illness?
I am exhausted – completely, totally and utterly exhausted. I am physically tired, mentally drained and emotionally numb. My bones hurt and my heart is heavy.
For almost the last two years, I have been dealing with a sick child. I have ridden in ambulances, sat in hospitals, visited doctors, filled prescriptions and laid awake at night worrying about my daughter.
I have talked to school counselors and nurses, worked on 504 plans and arranged for home bound tutoring. I have flown on planes and taken long car rides to visit my daughter for an hour at a time, only to hug and kiss her good-bye and then return home without her. I have slept restlessly in bed with her at night to comfort her and protect her, only to wake up the next morning and fear for what the day would bring.
My daughter does not have cancer. She does not suffer from an auto-immune disease. From the outside she appears to be a perfectly healthy teenage girl. But on the inside, she suffers daily from the overwhelming symptoms of her sickness.
You see, my teenage daughter is mentally ill.
There – I’ve said it. The cat is out of the bag. While we have all known the truth for quite some time, I have never really said it out loud. “Why?” you might ask. But, you already know why. You already know that nobody wants to talk about mental illness.
If my daughter was suffering from cancer or any one of a million other chronic illnesses, it would be different. When she first got sick, there were phone calls, texts and visits. Flowers, cards and balloons. Everyone wanted to help, to support, to be there. But as time has gone on, the phone calls and texts have dwindled. There are no flowers or cards. Let’s face it, no one really wants to be around their perception of a depressed and anxious teenager and who can really blame them. To quote my daughter,
“When you are physically sick everyone runs towards you. When you are mentally sick, everyone runs away from you.”
My child suffers from a laundry list of mental inflictions – generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, dysthymia (prolonged depression), among other things – and has suffered from acute symptoms since the moment she started puberty. She does not smoke, drink or take drugs. She is not promiscuous. She does not steal or run away from home. She gets good grades and participates in extracurricular activities when her anxiety does not prevent her from doing so. She WANTS to get better and we are trying our best to help her.
The truth is that 20% of teens (age 13-18) live with a mental health condition and suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people ages 10-24. (1) Fifty percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness start by age 14, 75% by age 24 and depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. (1)
In a 2015 CDC Youth Risk Behaviors Survey, 8.6% of youth in grades 9-12 stated that they had made at least one suicide attempt in the last 12 months. That’s 172 young adults in our high school alone. Are you positively sure that your child is not one of them?
And those are the statistics for teens attempting suicide. What about those who have just contemplated suicide? Those numbers must be much larger...
What can we, as parents and a community, do to help with this “epidemic”? Well, there are several things:
1. Acknowledge that teen mental illness exists. We cannot keep turning a blind eye to the fact that our children are suffering on the inside while putting up a brave front on the outside.
With approximately 1,000 7th & 8th graders in our middle school and approximately 2,000 children in our high school, that corresponds to approximately 600 teens in our community who suffer from a mental health condition. That number is staggering, yet we hear nothing about it. If there were 600 children in our school district suffering from cancer or the flu, there would be a public outcry. Yet we sit here in silence and looking the other way while many of our teenage population are suffering. We need to acknowledge that this is an issue before we can begin to help these teens.
2. Remove the stigma of mental illness. Mental illness is a diagnoseable, treatable disease, yet we force these young adults to suffer in silence rather than seek help. Why is this? Because teens are particularly sensitive to the opinions of their peers and do not want to be looked upon as crazy, insane, deranged or demented. When my daughter returned to school after 8 weeks of intensive treatment (where she worked very hard to get better), she was tortured by an online bully who posted a video stating that she needed to take another “mental vacation”. What message does this send to other teens who are suffering in silence?
Having a mental health condition has always been seen as something negative and embarrassing. What if we start to treat it as what it really is – a disease that can be managed with the proper care?
3. Listen to our teenagers. And I mean really listen. Maybe it is not the words they are saying but what they are not saying. I always thought my daughter and I were extremely close, yet there are so many dark things that I did not know until they became so unbearable that she could no longer hold them inside. If I had really listened and read between the lines, I may have been able to coax her to tell me these things much sooner.
4. Create a safe environment. Although our teenagers are growing into young adults, we sometimes forget that they are not adults yet. They are still children who need to feel safety and unconditional love - whether that be at home, at school or in the community. They need to feel safe to express who they are, how they feel and to truly be themselves without fear of ridicule or exclusion.
As an important step, creating a safe environment means a zero tolerance for bullying and harassment in our schools and in our homes. Our children need to know that it is not okay to ridicule or demean anyone for any reason and they need to hear it from us. Because bullies prey on the fragile, we need to emphasize to all our children that it is the duty of the strong to protect the weak and to stand up when we know that bullying is occurring. “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”
5. Cut out social media. I am not the first and I won’t be the last to state this – “Social media is hurting our children.” It creates unrealistic expectations in a world where physical beauty and SAT scores mean more than being a good person. Remove the Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter from their phones or at the very least set a curfew and take the phone away overnight. Staying up until 2am on social media cannot be good for anyone. End of rant.
6. Be kind. And teach your children kindness. During a week where many teens have taken a stance to “Walk Out” or “Walk Up” to protest gun violence in our schools, remember that kindness can go a long way. It may be a very small act on our part, but it can mean everything to another student who is standing on the edge of the cliff getting ready to jump. It just may be enough to pull them back and get the help they really need.
(1) This document cites statistics provided by the National Institute of Mental Health. www.nimh.nih.gov