I was inspired to make this blog, believe it or not, by the National Walkout movement in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
I attended a school for students with special needs: academically capable, but emotionally disabled. Most of us suffered from generalized anxiety and depression, as well as a smattering of other illnesses like bipolar, PTSD, borderline personality, OCD, schizophrenia, and many more. We shared our converted office building with our sister school for cognitively disabled students. We were the demographic that was getting blamed for shootings, rather than the guns themselves. I watched the news roll in, day after day, seemingly unendingly, portraying the epidemic of school shootings as one that really was just about mental illness. Parents, keep a closer watch over your crazy kids!
It was maddeningly familiar. The national attention was appreciated, but it wasn’t genuine. Mentally ill students were mostly in the news to be used as a timely distraction from the weapons used to slaughter hundreds. When the news cycle ended and gun sales had risen satisfactorily, the national fascination with the mentally ill melted away. Children who lived with mental illness every day and somehow found it within themselves not to shoot up a school were left in the dust, and the shame, stigma, isolation and under-funding of their predicaments became the narrative again.
I organized a Walk Out for our school. Featuring a population of only around forty students, there was no anticipation that this would be a visible event of any sort. I sent an email out to all students and staff a few days before the date. I wanted to empower my classmates to a semblance of a position of control over their story. You’re a part of this, too! I insisted. They’d all been reading and hearing adults refer to them derogatorily for weeks. Lost in the stampede of coverage was the acknowledgement that they, too, had to attend a school day amidst the fear it could be their last, and that they were much more likely to be victims of gun violence than perpetrators of it. Lost was their persistent need for care, attention, and funding for their illnesses, a need that existed long before Nikolas Cruz stormed Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, before Adam Lanza stormed Sandy Hook Elementary School. Whatever your interpretation of gun violence and appropriate preventative measures, mentally ill people needed (and need!) much more help than they were getting. While I couldn’t march into Paul Ryan’s office and hand him a mental health reform bill draft, I could help the kids around me feel a little more powerful and participatory as we held hands in a circle in our parking lot and observed seventeen minutes of silence.
I’ve learned a lot throughout my six year journey with mental illness. The most striking thing I’ve learned is that so little is generally known. Down the chain of command from the most researched and educated doctors in the nation, you’ll find a stream of information so sparse by the time it reaches the public that not even those who suffer from mental illness are terribly well informed. I find this to be particularly true in the student population. My peers who managed to make it to our school, specifically designed for us, were lucky. Many students in public school suffered alone, awash in stigma and pressure to perform and at a loss as to what to do about their struggles.
I saw this during my time spent in public school, both before and after my time at my special needs school. I saw this at the special needs school, as shell shocked former-public-school students rolled in throughout the year, struggling to adapt to the “world of mental illness,” as those embroiled in it (mostly) fondly refer to it. I saw this in multiple mental health hospitals I spent time at, as overwhelmed parents engaged exhaustively with doctors while their children wanted nothing more but to get back to school, back to class, not miss work, not prompt too many rumors, all while not knowing what any of their prescribed meds even did.
Mental illness is messy, complicated, and scary. It is especially these things for those who experience it. A combination of medication, therapy, and self direction can bring anyone back into the light, as any trained professional will be the first to say. But the dark, so to speak, needn’t be so dark at all. The journey to recovery and mental health is one many children and their adult selves will brave, and the shroud of secrecy and stigma that surrounds it is unnecessary. As with any struggle humans experience, our camaraderie in the face of it can be particularly empowering. The more information and connection is shared between those who are struggling with mental illness (in a helpful, therapeutic spirit), the closer we come to bringing this struggle back into the light, too. This is an especially powerful imperative for students, who struggle in a period of their life in which socialization is crucially formative.
Put simply, if you have twenty students in your English class, a chunk of around five of them are likely currently struggling with at least one mental illness. You certainly have friends and/or family who are currently struggling, whether in solitude and silence or in treatment. You want to be the best friend, classmate, brother, sister, cousin, etcetera, that you can be to those people.
More than anything, though, you deserve readily available resources to deal with your own emotional journey. It doesn’t have to be so intense as to require hospitalization in order to be worthy of help. Lots of us have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, or get too anxious to make phone calls. More of us than you’d likely suspect ponder what it’d be like if we never got out of bed again. Those thoughts and experiences are okay and valid, but they can get better, and they don’t have to solely with older doctors, or completely alone.
The first step, of course, is to seek assistance from a doctor, therapist, or similar figure. I’ll talk about how to take that first step, and much more. But there’s a fair amount to the journey that is harder to pick up from your doctors. What’s it really like to suffer from things the other kids don’t understand? How scary is a mental hospital, really? How can you balance social media with your mental health? How do you actually talk meaningfully to a classmate or friend who’s depressed, or has survived trauma? Why are so many kids self harming, and what can you really do to support those kids? What do you really need to know about what an IEP is? What resources are available in your community?
Oftentimes, these questions are answered late in life via a combination of age and experience. I don’t pretend to have the former, but at just 20 years old I have the latter in abundance, and feel passionately about sharing my story and what I’ve gleaned from it with anyone who cares to read it. I’ve been all over the mental health spectrum, suffer from a wide range of things, have engaged in many therapies and, crucially, am well along my recovery path. But at the beginning of my journey, all I had was Google and my middle school guidance counselor until I got in touch with a solid treatment team. Even then, however, they were all at least triple my age. Hopefully I, a millennial myself, can provide more nuanced insight into what it’s like to grow up, today, with mental illnesses. I’ve done it for a long time, and continue to do it every day.
Browse around, check out all of the pages and resources, and attend your next appointment!
“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” — David Foster Wallace