Inside the Teenage Mind: It’s Not All in Your Head

By Sarah Nguyen '19 and Laetitia Haddad '20

Controversial 2018/2019 Issue

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    “Study and make sure you're ready for the test next week.” Some people might hear these words and roll their eyes. Great, another thing to worry about. For others, their feelings may extend well beyond mere annoyance and build to distress. A variety of mental health issues are prevalent in the SSSAS community, though not many are comfortable speaking about them.

     For this article, The Voice investigates the stigma around mental health, why stigma exists, and analyzes the effects of stress, anxiety, and depression on students.

     While mental health issues affect people of all ages, a large number of teenagers are affected by depression and anxiety. In fact, many mental health issues become apparent in the late teenage years and early 20s. Health professionals accredit this increase to the shift in work pace and environment students experience throughout their high school and college years. It seems that vast opportunities and piling commitments work in tandem to harbor anxiety in young adults.

     According to the American Psychiatric Association, depression is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, think, and act. It causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function in their daily life.

     Anxiety disorder is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes, such as increased blood pressure. People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. Furthermore, they may avoid certain situations out of worry, and may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat.

    Johns Hopkins Health Review states that between 2005 and 2014, adolescents became 37% more likely to suffer from clinical depression. As a result, The Voice sent out a survey with a focus on delving into how anxiety and depression manifest themselves within our community. Based on the data collected by our survey, 85% of the 105 respondents believe that there is a stigma associated with mental illnesses.

    Nick Griepentrog, a junior, spoke about the stigma of mental health. He explained, “I feel like there is sort of a negative stigma and a bad association with going to the school counselor. When getting up and leaving the room, I just felt the sort of stares of people burning in my back.”

    Our survey sought to identify the members of our school community who are diagnosed with anxiety and/or depression. Of the 99 students who responded to the question, “Have you been diagnosed with depression by a mental health professional?,” nine replied “Yes.” When asked "Have you been diagnosed with anxiety by a mental health professional?" Out of the 85 respondents, 16 answered “Yes.”

   These responses are not unique to our community. According to a March 2018 Time Magazine article, on college campuses across America, the number of students visiting counseling professionals has increased by 30% between 2009 and 2015.

In fact, approximately 25% of all teenagers aged 13 to 18 have a diagnosed anxiety disorder and about 20% of all teens experience depression before they reach adulthood.

   Part of this large increase in anxiety and depression can be accredited to students feeling as though they are spreading themselves too thin. Some of our students have stated that they feel they are set up to fail in school. Nick Griepentrog expressed a similar sentiment, remarking that, “many people have a fear of failure, like bad grades.”

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   Stress plays an enormous role in depression and anxiety. Most experts agree that there is more stress apparent today than in previous generations.

   “What I’ve seen is that the anxiety is the, ‘I want to be this great thing’, but I don’t have a lot of tools in my pocket right now,” observed Dr. Holder, a clinical psychotherapist working in the Alexandria area and specializing in anxiety, “and so they stress over what they think they could be.”

    Nick, who spoke about his experiences battling depression and anxiety, remarked that these illnesses “affect not just your emotions, but how you interact with other people in your day-to-day life.

You can wake up in the morning feeling refreshed one day, but the next morning you can wake up and feel like the world is caving in around you.”

Bette Vajda, a senior who has battled depression, conveyed that depression involves an

 

“abnormally low emotional state…  I think that when you have sad as your default, then that’s when you’re depressed.”

The toll that this takes on teenagers is evident in all aspects of school life and is especially apparent in motivation to do work.

    Although anxiety disorders are easily treatable, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, only 43.2% of people diagnosed with anxiety are receiving treatment. This is partially due to brushing away the importance of getting help and shying away due to fear of judgement from others.

   “I would get home, sit down with my computer, open my homework, and stare at my computer screen,” Bette recounts.

 

“I wouldn’t start work for maybe an hour, because I couldn’t find the energy to think about why it even mattered.”

 

The cycle of procrastination begins with students who are already stressed about work now even more stressed out about catching up.

   With the student body, “the anxiety, it varies. Sometimes it can lead to depression as well,” explained Dr. Holder. “So, depending on the factors, depending on where the student is in his or her own self, determines how high the anxiety or stressor is in their life.”

   School has a direct effect on the emotional and mental states of its students. Dr. Sidle, an English teacher, admitted that, “we [the teachers] ask quite a bit of our students. There are not only several courses to tackle every day, but there’s also the homework from those courses. And we like it when you guys are interested in extracurricular activities like sports.”

   He added, “We ask a lot of you and that contributes to stress, lack of sleep, maybe not eating well; it all compounds… it leaves you guys in a place from which it is difficult to manage.” However, he also noted that our school does work to effectively accommodate everyone’s needs. “I think society as a whole is getting better about mental illness.”

   Bette noted that despite the aid provided for students struggling with mental illness, school does have many adverse effects. “Just by being in a high-pressure environment, it automatically poorly treats those with depression and anxiety, just by virtue of a competitive college-prep high school being what it is.”

   Students often associate weakness or embarrassment with seeking out help for mental health issues. For instance, Time magazine observed that students attending the University of Richmond note that the campus counseling center is located in an obvious area, and that they sense some stigma associated with being seen getting help.

   An unnerving fact is that most counseling centers on college campuses are operating with limited resources and funding. Universities will often donate to develop their bigger departments and institutions that will help them with national and regional rankings. However, it seems that mental health is unquantifiable in this sense, so less attention is paid toward student health programs. Within public schools around the country, NPR reported in 2016 that there is an average of 500 students to a school counselor, and 1,400 students to a school psychologist. All of this results in a decrease in the effectiveness with which cases of mental health can be treated.

   Ms. Peckham, a History teacher, spoke about her experiences with anxiety, saying, “if I could go back in time and tell myself some advice, I would tell myself that things can change, and that things can get better, and that you’re going to find better coping strategies.”

   It seems that the first step of seeking help is often times the most difficult.

   “If you do reach out for help, you are pretty likely to get it,” said Bette.
    “Honestly,” Nick observed,“if I’d never gone to the counselor that first time to say, ‘Hey I’m struggling right now, I need help,’ then I don’t think I would be as happy and as changed of a person as I am now.”  

   Time Magazine observes that UCLA has taken steps to better support students with mental illness by offering free online screening to all incoming freshmen. Based on the results of this screening, counselors would follow up with those who displayed manic or depressive symptoms. This method makes the first step toward recovery, diagnosis, more accessible to everyone.

   In an effort to use technology for good, Ohio State University has created a counseling app which is accessible by phone. Although it does not take the place of medication or therapy, this app included hotlines to clinics, breathing exercises, and playlists as tools to aid with anxiety and depression.

   As schools adapt to better support the mental health of its community, our culture is also changing. Ms. Peckham believes that “in general, I think that we’re on an upswing, I think that there is more information and more acceptance than there was” surrounding mental illness.

   She states that,“within our community, and within a larger cultural context, there is a stigma. I think it’s really heartening that at chapel talks lately I’ve heard a lot of people mention their anxiety and depression.”

Dr. Holder also notices a shift towards a more accepting world as people begin to understand the complexities and abundance of mental illness. “Now you have different programs out there that want to help with students or people who have anxiety and depression, because it’s a real thing.”

If you believe you or a friend are experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, or any other mental health issue, please know that it isn’t something that can be overcome easily. It isn’t a weakness, and you aren’t alone; moreover, it shouldn’t keep you from seeking treatment such as psychological counseling. Share your concerns with a parent, a close friend, a relative, or someone else you trust.

 

Reach out to our Upper School counselor: sharrison@sssas.org, or call 1-800-273-8255.