"The Unseen Battle of Mental Health Disorders in Teens"
by Olivia Perkins, class of 2023
When we are young, we are told that we can do anything in the world; that we should reach for the stars. As kids, we take that statement literally and let our curiosity run wild. We do not let everyday challenges and obstacles stop us from imagining and believing that anything and everything is possible. For a lot of people, however, that imagination and the belief that anything is possible begin to fade as they get older. As adults and even teenagers, we start to lose that sense of curiosity and imagination and we begin to feel the pressure of the challenges and obstacles we face. Though our imagination and curiosity might not be the same as it was when we were children, that does not mean we have to give up our imaginations completely when we become adults. Some of the most significant accomplishments in human history started off as challenges and dreams, but with curiosity and imagination, those challenges were overcome, and those dreams became realities.
Anxiety and depression have begun to take over the minds of our society. They have caused us to lose track of our goals in life and have made us feel alone or as if we must pull away from those around us. As a result of this, we set aside our childhood dreams because we no longer believe in ourselves that we are able and worthy of those dreams. We become like robots where we follow the rules and adhere to the standards that social media has created. We feel the need to be perfect and push ourselves to achieve perfection no matter the cost. When we do this, we eventually become burnt out and are left dealing with mental health issues like anxiety and depression. This lifestyle has become normal for so many people that it no longer feels uncommon or strange. It is the new standard.
Those who struggle with mental health disorders are often in pain that cannot always be erased with a simple trip to the doctor. They find themselves constantly trying to keep up with the fast pace of life and feel as if the pressures of the world are all on their shoulders. From a visual perspective, it is as if they are in a dark tunnel searching for a way out but having a hard time finding the light at the end. The way out is not easy, but it is also not impossible. The first step is accepting that it will take time, that people cannot do it alone, and that they have to dig deep within themselves to remind themselves that they are able to get to the light at the end of the tunnel.
Mental health disorders, specifically anxiety and depression, have become common and at times considered to be normal, especially in teens. Anxiety is practically common among teens due to the pressure felt from teachers, coaches, and parents. In a scientific journal, Brandon Hidaka wrote, “Anxiety in children and college students has increased almost one standard deviation from the 1950’s to the 1990’s” (Hidaka). Today our society is driven by social media and technology. Students of all ages are experiencing constant changes on a day-to-day basis. Hidaka goes on in his journal to discuss how evidence shows that modernization could be linked with depression (Hidaka). Studies show that those who live in more urban areas are more likely to have an increased risk of mental health issues than those who live in more rural areas. This does not mean that everyone should move to more rural areas but rather that we should be helping those in the urban areas, especially students, fight against anxiety and depression. As a society we should be coming together to help the next generation, encouraging and inspiring them to accomplish great things in life, rather than discouraging them and leaving them to fend for themselves.
For several years anxiety was the leading mental health disorder, and while anxiety is still prevalent and a major mental health issue that many people of all ages struggle with daily, it is no longer at the forefront. Since the 1950s and 1960s, depression, which was “considered a rare disease in the post–World War II period—has become the focus of mental health concern” (Horwitz 2). Studies have shown that there has been an increased risk of younger people developing depression. This increased risk for depression in younger people could be due to a number of reasons such as technology and media, body image, or even lack of physical activity (Hidaka).
Depression at younger ages can affect a person’s thinking and behavior and even cause them to feel emotional and isolated from the world around them (Teen Depression). People who struggle with mental health disorders, whether it is anxiety, depression, or something else, will all have a different experience. For some, it may just be a phase that they will overcome, but for others, it is a lifelong battle. We live in a time where younger ages are experiencing life through the lens of their mental health disorder and not through a lens that allows them to enjoy fully every aspect of life. We are forced to witness and live through a time when mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression are becoming normal among younger people and are becoming an epidemic.
One of the issues that needs to be addressed is that there is not enough help or mental health services available to those who struggle with mental health disorders. Mental health disorders often go unnoticed and end up going untreated, leaving younger people to deal with it on their own. In schools, there are not nearly enough counselors to help those students who need and ask for help. “The national average is 491 students per counselor. Only three states in the nation meet the overall recommended ratio of 250-to-1 for students-to-school-counselor” (Flannery). Another issue with mental health services is that therapy sessions are expensive, running from $100-$200 per session. Many people can afford to pay that much out of pocket on a regular basis. There is a clear need for change when it comes to the accessibility to mental health services both in and out of schools. This is not necessarily an easy fix as it will take time, but that does not mean that in a couple of years from now, we will not have found a solution to this problem. Until then we can take steps to get closer to making sure that everyone has access to the mental health services they need.
When discussing mental health, one cannot ignore what the Bible has to say. Though the Bible was written centuries ago, the verses within it and their meanings can still be applied today. Within the Bible are multiple verses that encourage and provide comfort to those who struggle with mental health. With depression especially, people can often feel as if they are alone, but as Isaiah 41:10 says, “...fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (ESV). This reminds us that we are not alone and that God will always be with us even in our darkest and most challenging moments.
It can be hard to remember that God is there for us when we feel as if He has left us alone to deal with the loneliness of anxiety and depression. We tend to want to blame someone when something goes wrong in our lives. Sometimes we blame our parents, siblings, friends, co-workers, or teachers, but there is also a part of us that sometimes blames God. You might ask God, “Why does this have to happen to me? Why did you make my life feel so miserable?” This thinking and these questions can apply to just about anyone, even those who are not Christian. It is a sad reality that so many young people are living in; when things go wrong, we blame God or turn away from Him and try to find healing in things other than Him and His word.
Students today are constantly dealing with stress and pressure from the expectations of schools that one must reach a certain goal to be considered successful. Every student has different gifts, abilities, and limits. It is important, however, especially for adolescents, to be encouraged to use their gifts and abilities and not to discourage them from using them in order to meet a goal or standard. Standardized tests are a perfect example of how expectations and goals created by schools, states, and the government are not always fair in that they do not represent or include the various types of students that are in schools and our society as a whole. In an NEA News article, Kathy Reamy, a school counselor said,
“[Students] have start[ed] taking the SATs in eighth grade. It’s so hard for the kids who are already maybe perfectionists, and they’re getting the first B in their lives and they’re fearful it’s going to prevent them going to college, any college, never mind their dream college. And they don’t want to disappoint their parents” (Flannery).
Tests can be a good way of seeing if students are understanding the material taught to them, but they do not need to be made into something that causes students unnecessary anxiety. Surveys indicate that “61 percent say they face a lot of pressure to get good grades. By comparison, 29 percent say they feel pressure to look good; 28 percent to fit in socially; and just 6 percent to drink alcohol” (Flannery). We cannot let tests be the only thing that defines a student’s knowledge or ability to learn because not every student is going to learn in the same way, and tests will not fairly show every student’s full potential.
The world that the younger generation is growing up in is a world that is broken, and the younger generation is feeling the pressure to correct the brokenness in the world. They are trying to juggle keeping up with school, sports, jobs, friends, and family while trying to look to the future and how they may make an impact on the world. Kathy Reamy, a school counselor at La Plata High School in southern Maryland, says, “There’s just so much going on in this day and age, the pressures to fit in, the pressure to achieve, the pressure of social media” (Flannery). Now there are different forms of anxiety; general anxiety disorder where one feels anxious and overwhelmed about daily tasks to social anxiety where one tends to withdraw from attending events or activities where there are a lot of people and the person may be afraid of interacting with others for fear of being judged (Mayo Clinic).
As mental health disorders continue to be on the rise, more and more research is done to discover not only the causes of mental illness but also to understand and make connections between things that at first glance we would not think would be related to mental illness. While some people who battle with mental health disorders turn away from curiosity and imagination, some use their curiosity and imagination as a way of escaping the daily battle of anxiety and depression, among other mental health disorders. Studies have shown that curiosity and imagination can have a strong correlation with mental illnesses, and this can be seen in many well-known artists and leaders. Vincent Van Gogh, for example, is said to have had depression for most of his life. Edvard Munch, who painted The Scream, also struggled with mental health, specifically anxiety. Though these artists struggled with mental health disorders, they were able to channel “their nervous energy into artwork” (ParentCo). Another example is Princess Diana, who suffered from an eating disorder. She did not, however, let her eating disorder or her unhappy marriage get in the way of her curiosity about the world or her serving the people. Van Gogh, Munch, Princess Diana, and so many others found a way to use their curiosity and imagination to create beautiful pieces of artwork or help those in need.
Imagination and curiosity have the ability to help those who are struggling with disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Mental health disorders make individuals believe that they should just give up and put away their imagination and curiosity because there is no hope. This is not true, and the younger generation, who is struggling, needs to be reminded that they should continue to use their imagination and curiosity despite the lies that they keep on telling themselves.
Tao de Haas discusses the importance of imagination in an article and says that “Imagination is the key to innovation” (Haas). He goes on to say people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates used their imagination to figure out how the personal computer could change everything, from where and how we work to how we entertain ourselves (Haas). People often misunderstand imagination and think that it is only for children of a certain age, but the reality is that imagination is for everyone, including adults and those who struggle with mental health. When younger people find themselves dealing with depression or anxiety and they put their imagination and curiosity about the world on the back burner, they enter a mindset that they are not good enough to do great things in life. They think that using their imagination and being curious means that they are weak, because that is the lie their mind is telling them. They should not listen to those lies but they need help to learn to block out the lies and listen to the truth. This is where schools, clubs, mental health services, and parents should come alongside the younger generation and help them.
There are two primary ways to look at life. One is through the lens of a yes-brain, meaning that one tends to be more imaginative and curious and less worried about making mistakes in life. The other way one may look at life is through the lens of a no-brain, which is when one is more likely to feel shut down and often struggle with anxiety and depression (Siegel). Through the lens of a yes-brain, one can learn to put forth what matters most in life and not worry as much about the things in life that do not matter and only cause a decline in one’s mental health. As a society it is important that we encourage everyone, especially the younger generation, to live life through the perspective of a yes-brain, especially since we live in a world where it may seem as though the perspective of the no-brain is encouraged. We need to encourage a more positive mindset and outlook on life rather than a negative one, which social media can sometimes unintentionally push.
In January 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, and since then it has had a significant impact on both physical and mental health for many people, including students. With the spread of the virus, almost everything was shut down in order to prevent the virus from spreading. This meant then that everyone had to stay home or at least had to take extra precautions such as social distancing, wearing masks, and constantly washing hands in order to avoid getting the virus or giving it to someone else.
People began to work from home, and students attended school online. By working from home and attending school online for the majority of the time, people did not get to move around as much as they had before the pandemic. This lack of physical activity led to an increase in poor physical health, which in turn affected one’s mental health. A research journal written about physical and mental health during the first year of the pandemic talks about how there was a “decrease in well-being, negative changes in depressive symptoms, and negative changes in anxiety and stress symptoms” (Marconcin). Those who did, however, get outside and move about were reported to have “lower depression and anxiety and higher life satisfaction” (Marconcin). Not being able to go to work or school and interact with people led to feelings of isolation and loneliness. In a time like this, physical activity and simply keeping in touch with others were crucial to keeping up a healthy lifestyle.
The pandemic also had a major impact on the collegiate level. In a research journal, Yusen Zhai and Xue Du state, "Before the pandemic started, one in five college students have experienced one or more diagnosable mental disorders worldwide, and the psychological effects of COVID-19 can increase this number and exacerbate collegiate mental health issues" (Zhai). During the pandemic there was so much uncertainty, and many had thought that the shut down would only last a few weeks. Instead it turned into months, and this caused mental health issues to rise across all ages. College students lost on-campus jobs, and some were worried about whether or not they would be able to go home. Students across all ages had different responses to the pandemic and the lockdown. Some thrived because of the lockdown, but others were affected negatively by the pandemic. Responses ranged from developing “anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, to behavioral changes such as difficulty sleeping and stress eating” (Zhai).
The pandemic disrupted people’s daily routines, and for many students, this affected them on a large scale, as they found it challenging to adapt to the new changes and new realities. Eventually, things started to go back to normal, or so everyone thought, but the truth was that nothing truly felt normal after being on lockdown for months. Some students had gone back to school after losing loved ones, and others had to deal with living at home, an environment that did not always seem safe. In some ways, people forgot what it was like to be around people and interact with peers and teachers after months of having to be online. “Our students looked the same – or at least we presumed they did behind the masks – but some seemed troubled and distant” (Lemov). It was not truly until places started to open up and people went back to work and school that we saw the effect that COVID-19 had on mental health.
COVID-19 along with the lockdown took a toll on the mental health of students. Anxiety and depression among teens increased as many felt broken, isolated, and deprived of support systems such as teammates, peers, and mental health professionals. Though the months spent in lockdown affected many people in negative ways, COVID-19 caused schools, workplaces, and society as a whole to begin to realize the importance of maintaining one’s physical and mental health and allowed everyone to take a leap forward in the right direction to help those struggling with physical and mental health issues.
Many people would say that education is one of the most important aspects of a child’s life, and they would be right. George Washington Carver once said, “Education is the key to unlocking the golden door of freedom.” One of the most crucial parts of education that several modern-day schools miss is the element of curiosity and growth of oneself. Schools today want their students to become doctors and lawyers and to get good grades, and while all of that is great, that should not be the true purpose of education. Education is about learning and growing and being encouraged to do so. People wonder why students these days are always on their phones or acting as if they do not care about what is around them. What those people do not realize is that those students are paying attention, and they are not just on their phones because they do not care. They often choose to be on their phones as a way of distracting themselves from the harsh realities of the world around them.
There is a song written by Tate McRae called “Dear Parents”. It is about a sixteen-year-old girl and all the things she has to go through as a teen. It talks about how parents do not always understand their teens because they will often just assume things based on what they have seen from a parent’s perspective and the stereotypes society has put on teenagers. The last part of the song goes “We know more than what we tell you / but can’t always put into words / and we don’t cry because we want to / but you’ll assume it’s because she’s another sixteen-year-old girl.” These words represent what so many teenagers feel because, for a lot of teens, it is hard to put into words what they are going through and feeling. In life we all are just doing our best. Sometimes life does not always go our way, and when that happens, it is not always our fault.
It is vital that schools be a place where students are encouraged and supported because they may not be getting that encouragement or support anywhere else in their life. We can no longer view schools as factories from the early industrialized age where we send our children to school for six plus hours every day for twelve years and expect them to have learned what they need to learn. We should be sending our children to school to learn about the world around them and discover what they are good at and what they enjoy doing so that after they graduate high school, they may decide to further their education and learn the art of whatever industry they choose to go into. We do not need thousands of students to be treated the same as if they do not have individual personalities and interests. We need people in this world who are unique and are able to bring forth their creativity, curiosity, and imagination into the everyday world. All it takes is a little bit of encouragement.
We live in a world that is constantly changing and looking toward the future. This is great when it comes to innovations, technology, and discoveries, but it can also have a negative side. With everything being new and modern and always evolving, one can feel unstable or get too caught up in everything around them. This can have a negative impact on one’s mental health and can increase the likelihood of one having to deal with anxiety and depression daily. We see and hear every day how society is always trying to find better ways to improve mental health, but when you take a step back, you realize that we, as a society, are not improving. In fact, we are making the problem worse. We can look to the future and continue to discover new things, but we cannot in the process of all of that forget to take a step back to ensure that our mental health does not decrease.
We all have to do our part to ensure that everyone, especially younger generations who battle with mental illness, has access to the resources and support that they need. With the society that we live in, where people tend to have mixed feelings and beliefs toward mental health, we need to take a step forward to promoting mental health wellness in a way that is not cliché and will actually strive to help improve one’s mental health. We can take this step by starting in our schools and educational facilities. We should strive to create an environment where people no longer feel ashamed for struggling with mental health issues and where mental health resources are more readily available for those who need them.
Mental health problems, specifically anxiety and depression, in teens often stem from the pressures to perform well in all aspects of their lives such as academics, sports, and work. Though everyone wants to do well in each aspect of their life, some can feel overwhelmed by trying to be perfect and excel in all things. Everyone deals with pressure differently; some may not be affected by it that much or at all. Others, however, are greatly affected, and this is usually seen through signs of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. Even if one is dealing with mental health disorders, they may or may not show symptoms (Mayo Clinic). We cannot, however, ignore those who may be struggling even if they do not necessarily show any signs or symptoms. As a society, we need to find more ways to get better at recognizing those who are struggling and also finding more ways to help them.
When we are young, we are encouraged to be creative, and to find ways to express our imagination; but as we get older, we drift away from using our imagination and focus on things that we think are more important. We forget, however, that imagination does not have to be associated with being a kid; people like Steve Jobs used his imagination to create Apple, which is one of the most successful technology businesses (Haas). Imagination and creativity are critical parts of not only being successful but also living life. People who struggle with mental health disorders often use their creativity as a way of processing all that they are feeling and going through. Several artists such as Van Gogh and Munch have taken inspiration from their struggles with mental illness to create beautiful pieces of work. They, among others, showed how through creativity and imagination one is able to take what is seen to be dark and make something beautiful out of it.
Today’s educational system has not always helped when it comes to encouraging curiosity and helping those who have mental health issues to use their creativity as a coping mechanism to help with what they are going through. In an article written by Katauna Jayde Loeuy, Loeuy talks about how art can be a way of self-care for those who struggle with mental health. She says, “Studies have shown that expression through art can help people with depression, anxiety, and stress” (Loeuy). Education should not be about suppressing students’ critical thinking and creative minds. Instead, education is there to enhance those things. Having to sit for hours a day in school and then come home only then to sit even longer to complete homework can have a negative effect on a lot of students. While this industrialized education system may seem to work, as there are many students who still do succeed in schooling, in the long run, it is not truly effective and or healthy. Mental health should become more of a priority in schools and should not be something that people are ashamed of talking about. Everyone has their ups and downs; no one should feel as if they are alone in their struggles.
For those who live out each day battling against the trials, challenges, and obstacles that mental health issues force them to go through, it can be hard to realize that there is a light at the end of this dark tunnel. Aristotle once said, “It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.” He could not be more right. When we find ourselves in dark moments where we feel as if the world is against us, we have to keep our heads held high and look forward to where there is hope. Though it can sometimes seem like we are alone, the truth is that we are never alone. The Bible tells us this in Joshua 1:9, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (ESV). God is with us no matter where we are or what stage of life we are in. Even if one is not a believer, Scripture can still provide encouragement to those who struggle with mental illness daily and feel isolated from the rest of the world.
With the world constantly changing and evolving each day, there are bound to be various struggles. Some of the struggles are in the form of mental health disorders, which many teenagers face each day. Teens today are facing new challenges that their parents and teachers never had to face. Some students face the everyday battle that mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, anorexia, and many others, create. Our society must learn to grow and evolve with the ever-changing and moving waves that life and time bring us. Schools should take the opportunity in front of them to help the students who feel overshadowed and feel as if they are alone fighting against their minds.
No matter what type of society and time we find ourselves in, there is always an opportunity to make a difference, to help others around us, and to make sure they do not feel alone. To help those who battle with mental health disorders, we must realize that there is a bigger picture; no one has to struggle alone.
Now more than ever we find ourselves in a time when the importance of letting go, living freely, and using imagination and curiosity are not encouraged as much as they were even just a few years ago. Now social media and modernization, while both can have positive impacts on society, often more than not have negative impacts by being a factor in the increase of mental health disorders. We need to go back to simpler times and remember what truly matters in life. We need to encourage students to do their best but not pressure them or try to make them fit into a standard that does not apply to everyone. We need to remember to not let anxiety and depression take over. We must remember what we were told when we were younger: be curious, use your imagination, and reach for the stars. We must apply that to our schools, our work, and our way of life. Lastly, we must remember not to listen to the lies that our minds tell us when we find ourselves fighting the unseen battle of mental health disorders.
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