Call to Action: Ending the Stigma of Mental Illness


Photo via Texas Public Radio

According to research done by the World Health Organization, “Worldwide, it is estimated that 1020% of adolescents experience mental health conditions, yet these remain underdiagnosed and undertreated” (“Adolescent Mental”). The most common disorders in high schoolers include anxiety, depression, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and eating disorders (“Common Mental Health”). These may contribute to, or result from, the workload in school, peer pressure, and the need to appear “perfect” to everyone on social media. As a sophomore at Helix Charter High School, I know the pressure of always aiming too high to get good grades while sustaining an “acceptable” social standard, which may include being the perfect daughter, student, or friend who maintains a happy social life for everyone to see. With all of these pressures surrounding me, I am urged to find ways to preserve a healthy balance to keep me sane.

Recently, I’ve come to the realization that I have developed certain coping mechanisms such as a cell phone addiction, procrastination, stress eating, and sleeping. This awareness has led to the acknowledgement of others’ coping mechanisms. I’ve seen people cope with their problems by turning to drug abuse, self-harm, and, worse, suicide attempts. Unfortunately, the World Health Organization has also researched that “Suicide is the third leading cause of death in older adolescents (1519 years)” (“Adolescent Mental”). The reason for these large amounts of deaths would be the inability to tell a trusted adult, friend, or family member about the stressors one is feeling deep within them.

Something must change. We can begin by educating family, friends, and teachers on mental health conditions, but if we’re struggling to cope with our own problems, how can we help one another? We must put down the drugs, weapons, and harsh words that we know will harm ourselves. We must pick up the music, canvas, and pencils that can further the discovery of our own beautiful minds. This is the beginning of a change.

Before one can start creating a change, however, they must first acknowledge the stigma of mental illness. Those that are mentally ill are struggling daily to survive. Dr. Jenev Caddell says that “The effects that stigma has on people with mental illness and their families are extensive. With stigma comes a lack of understanding of important others, which can be invalidating and painful… Stigma also prevents people from seeking help or getting treatment, and as a result, their symptoms become worse and more difficult to treat” (Caddell). If no one is openly talking about mental health, the person that is currently suffering may have to find a new way to release their pain. Additionally, The National Institutes of Health conducted a study that discovered “that teenagers’ depression causes them to question their normalcy, connection, and autonomy. They often view their despair as a weakness of character, and find disclosing their “real self” to health care providers a frightening, difficult experience” (Wisdom, Clarke and Green). This fear prevents them from sharing their emotions, therefore, they are unable to come forward for help.

The National Institutes of Health states that two-thirds of 10,000 adolescents “who developed alcohol or substance use disorders had experienced at least one mental health disorder” (qtd. in Miller). Adolescents are turning to drug usage to relieve stress. For example, “Kids who are anxious or depressed may feel more emotionally “even” if they drink or smoke marijuana” (Miller). When someone becomes a teenager, they start to feel many changes such as hormones, puberty, and the exploration of their sexual identity. If they are being silenced for talking about the changes that are occurring within them and around them, they will look for ways to feel emotionally and physically stable. In this case, drugs are “helping” some of them. Adults and teenagers alike need to understand that talking about one’s mental illness is more important than coping unhealthily.

I understand that some may argue that most teenagers abuse drugs to cope, but those that have mental health conditions are unable to prevent these addictions. For instance, as researched by the American Addiction Centers, “The medications that treat ADHD, if abused, can lead to addiction… let’s say a teenager with ADHD and behavioral problems skips school. By not being in school during the day, this teen may end up in a social situation that involves drugs. The poor impulse control that goes hand in hand with ADHD may lower this teen’s resistance to the drugs offered” (“ADHD and Addiction”).

Depression, on the other hand, “can arise from a blend of biological, genetic, psychological and environmental factors” (“Mental Disorders”). Teens and young adults are usually affected because “the human brain is still developing well into a person’s early 20’s… [This is when] the brain is most vulnerable to damage from drug abuse.” Without crucial parental guidance, teens can seek comfort in drugs to feel in control. Like ADHD and depression, some conditions can make teenagers more impulsive and vulnerable to drug abuse, therefore, when a problem arises, they are unable to control the urge to consume drugs instead of finding healthy alternatives.

As studied by the World Health Organization, self-harm and suicide, like drugs, are unhealthy coping alternatives that can result from “a feeling of hopelessness or loneliness” (“Adolescent Mental”). Additionally, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these emotions may come from several risk factors such as a “…history of depression, other mental health problems, or… alcohol and drug use… A nationwide survey of high school students in the United States found that 16% of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13% reported creating a plan, and 8% reporting trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey” (“Suicide Among Youth”). Teenagers are dying everyday because they feel as if there’s no more hope for them. It is important to reflect on the amount of lives that are being taken away.

Technological advancement is continuing to contribute to these rates. As researchers have discovered, “Recent teen suicides have been blamed on cyberbullying and social media posts [that are] depicting “perfect” lives” (“Rise in Teen”). This represents the pressure that is consuming teenagers. Some teenagers are quite vulnerable and the weight that they are forced to carry on their shoulders may lead to death. The youth are dying because they feel as if there’s no other alternative; there’s no other way to make the pain in their chest disappear, but there is.

The solution is simple. We must encourage ourselves and those around us to cope, in healthy ways, with a hobby, talent, or object that will not emotionally or physically harm us. It should only push us to do better. Throughout my life, I’ve struggled to find healthy ways to relieve stress. I used to believe that avoiding the problem as a whole would fix everything, but it didn’t. I only became more stressed. Once I realized that it was no longer benefiting me, I decided to turn to one intangible item that I’ve loved for most of life. I turned to music. For nearly four years, I have been playing guitar. It challenges me both physically and mentally, but just enough that I want to keep getting better at it. When the workload becomes too much, the people around me expect more than I can give, and the stress becomes overwhelming, I know that I can pick up my guitar and play some music that will relax my brain. Music heals me.

Music heals Ronald Braunstein and Caroline Whiddon too. Braunstein was an orchestrator while Whiddon was the chairwoman of the Youth Orchestra Division of the League of American Orchestras. Braunstein and Whiddon developed mental health issues brought about by stressors from trying to put forth their very best and by overachieving in their fields. After the realization that their internal battles were forcing them to stray from their goals, they decided to form the Me2/Orchestra. This orchestra allowed them to work with several musicians, who, like them, have mental health issues. It was through music that they overcame their mental health conditions (Hollow). Music became their language of expression.

That being said, I am not here to encourage you to pick up an instrument and play your problems away. I am here to educate you on the healthier coping mechanisms that can possibly make your life better. I understand that most of you are coping just fine, but those of you that believe that there is nowhere else to go with your life, I encourage you to find healthy alternatives that will resonate joy within you. Whether or not you have a mental illness, life gets tough and it’s important to understand that there are other options that can assist you on your journey back to your safe haven. I have met several people that believed drugs and self-harm are the only ways to relieve their pain; it was heartbreaking. I ask you to take a step back and appreciate the life that was given to you. Appreciate all of the hard work that you have put into it. There’s still a long ride left to go, and I hope you remain on it. Please take the time to consider your decisions thoroughly. Your coping mechanisms determine your outlook on life. I hope you change them for the better.