Mental health: A subject worth talking about

By Molly Gannon | May | June 2020
Hello, educators of California. My name is Molly Gannon; I am a freshman at Pacific Collegiate School, and I have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting about 18.1 percent of the population. The fact that I have anxiety is something that I should not be, and am not, ashamed to admit. However, for a very long time, I did not have the courage to admit even to my parents that I was suffering from a mental illness and needed help.  During that time, I could have been recovering and improving my mental condition. Instead, my mental health got worse and worse, even to the point where I was contemplating suicide. I thought that the only way to stop my suffering was to end my life. However, at one point I decided that enough was enough, and I told my mom that I was severely depressed. Once I did this, I did not immediately recover from my depression, but my parents were completely supportive, and I got the help I needed. I saw a therapist who diagnosed me with major depressive disorder and general anxiety disorder. I started taking a daily dose of Zoloft, which has immensely improved my mental condition and has made me much calmer in the face of anxiety-inducing situations. Even though I will cope with anxiety for the rest of my life, deciding to speak up about my mental health has forever changed my life, and is a decision I will never regret. Looking back to when I thought there was nothing I could do to get better, I now realize the importance of ending the silence about mental health. The shame that comes with having a mental illness is something that plagues many people living across the U.S., especially teens. Mental illnesses are incredibly stigmatized, even though so many of us cope with these illnesses. The stigma stifles any changes we can make as a country to improve the health of our people. Of course, change starts with a simple conversation, but getting the ball rolling on conversations about mental illness is extremely difficult. In fact, only about 54 percent of adolescents with mental illnesses from ages 6 to 17 receive the help they need within a given year. Half of young people don’t do anything about their own well-being because of the shame they have been taught to feel about their suffering. Accordingly, the second leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34 is suicide. This vicious cycle of mental illness and stigma makes perfect sense. We perpetuate the message that it is not OK to be mentally unhealthy, therefore most people feel obligated to keep their mental issues to themselves. Countless people are dying simply because they feel they will become a burden if they speak up and are embarrassed to ask for help. This is a sad truth, but it is our reality.  So we come to the question: How do we fix this? Educators play a huge role in a student’s life, and adolescents spend a large amount of time at school, so certainly there are changes that schools across the state can do to break down the negativity around mental illness, and better the health of their students. The solution starts with becoming knowledgeable about the huge diversity of mental illnesses that exist. In order to act, students and staff members need to be educated on the importance of being mentally healthy, and that having a mental illness is not something to be ashamed about, and does not make a person any less valuable. Secondly, knowing how to spot red flags and deal with a mental health crisis, either on the part of yourself or another, is crucial to helping someone get the help they need in a time of crisis. For instance, if someone is feeling suicidal, all students and teachers need to know how to approach the person, start a conversation, and give them the resources they need to stay safe. Lastly, we need to break down the shroud of stigma and discomfort in which mental illnesses have been buried. If teens were as comfortable talking to friends and adults about their mental health as they were about physical health, such as a stomachache, then worsening symptoms and many suicides could be easily prevented.  Of course, educating everyone in the California school system on mental health and breaking down strongly rooted stigma is no easy task, but it can be achieved with time and effort. My school recently held a schoolwide seminar on mental health, and used information from the organization NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) to raise mental health awareness and inform students on how to deal with different mental health situations. The school used specific, hypothetical examples of different people with mental illnesses, and my fellow students and I used the information we had learned to determine the best way to handle the situation. The school also asked for feedback on how confident we were handling these kinds of situations before and after the seminar. Before, I had already had experience with mental illness, but was not fully knowledgeable on how to respond in a crisis. After the seminar, I felt that I could properly deal with myself or another during an emergency. I also felt a drive to reduce the stigma around mental health. Learning that mental illnesses are common and nothing to be ashamed about encouraged me to speak up about my struggles with mental health, and to encourage my peers to be open about their mental health as well. However, while I did learn valuable information from this seminar, I recognize that not every student is as open about this topic or as willing to participate in activities concerning mental health as I am. Nevertheless, even if a 90-minute presentation is not going to be taken seriously by all students, this is the least we can do to raise mental health awareness. Schools need to start taking bigger steps to make students more comfortable talking about their mental health. Additionally, seminars such as the one that happened at my school are not difficult to put together. The teachers went through a three-hour training in order to put on a 90-minute presentation. In my opinion, mental health is worth even more than this amount of time. Surely schools can carve out at least 90 minutes to ensure the safety and well-being of their students.  Another aspect of this seminar which I found very effective was that, instead of the whole school assembling in one spot for the presentation, all teachers held the same seminar in different classrooms. This saved time, space, and facilitated a more intimate, open environment in which students took the issue more seriously, and felt more comfortable expressing their opinions on mental health. It was truly moving to see that every person at the school, students and staff, was willing to take time out of their day to work on destigmatizing mental illness.  I firmly believe that presentations and seminars like this are not just nice to have, but are necessary to the health of today’s youth, and should be a requirement set by the state government. As I said, it is not difficult for schools to take part of their day to help better their students’ mental health and prevent suicides. Additionally, schools must train their teachers on mental illness going into the job and must work to create a less judgmental environment by encouraging students to talk to school counselors, teachers, peers and trusted adults about their mental health. It is time the California education system starts recognizing that mental health is a major issue with our current youth, and schools need to prioritize students’ health and general happiness over academic grades. There have been way too many cases where students lost their lives because they could not speak up about their mental health and did not know about resources they could use to get help. Mental illness is a real, common, and incredibly important issue to talk about. Join me in normalizing mental illnesses and taking steps to end the silence.
Molly Gannon is a student at Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz

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Association of California School Administrators