I graduated high school seven years ago. Sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago and sometimes it feels like I graduated last week, but there are a lot of memories from those four years still fresh in my mind. But what I remember most about high school isn’t prom or sports or assemblies — it’s the anxiety disorder I dealt with the entire time without ever knowing what it was.
While the stigma around mental health has been gradually chipped away over recent years (shoutout to people like Sophie Gray and Dani DiPirro for contributing to the conversation) it’s still is something adults and teens both neglect talking about regarding younger generations.
Teenagers experience so many changes and fears and stresses every day that it’s easy to think everything they’re going through is totally normal. And to be fair, a lot of the time it is. You can be anxious about a test without actually have an anxiety disorder. You can feel depressed about breaking up with your girlfriend without having depression.
However, it is still very possible (and common) to experience these feelings in the form of a real mental illness, and the key differences can’t be brushed over because “they’re going through a phase” or “it’s normal at their age.” That’s why it is so important that teenagers can recognize symptoms of mental illnesses like anxiety and depression and they know how to get help.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2017 “an estimated 3.2 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode. This number represented 13.3% of the U.S. population aged 12 to 17.” The NIMH defines a major depressive episode as “a period of two weeks or longer during which there is either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure, and at least four other symptoms that reflect a change in functioning, such as problems with sleep, eating, energy, concentration, and self-image.”
The NIMH also reported that 31.9% of 13 to 18 year-olds suffer from an anxiety disorder, and 8.3% of 13 to 18 year-olds have a severe anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders include not only general anxiety, but post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and different phobias. Only a fraction of teens with anxiety and/or depression are being treated for it.
There are plenty of reasons to talk to high school students about anxiety and depression, but the most alarming one is that mental illness is often linked with suicide. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in youth ages 10–18, and according to The Jason Foundation, there are an average of over 3,069 suicide attempts each day in the United States by young people grades 9–12.
I know that depression and anxiety do not always lead to suicide, nor are they always connected, but no one should feel lost and alone and miserable with no end in sight, regardless of the outcome.
My anxiety disorder never led to a suicide attempt, and I am very conscious and grateful for that. But it has led me to some terribly dark places and I know if I had been more educated about my situation as a teenager I wouldn’t have found myself carving X’s into my legs at 4:00 am during a miserable semester of college.
From ages 14–19 I just assumed that the way I felt almost all the time — worried, nervous, jumpy, sweaty, and unsettled — was normal. Everyone felt like that and I needed to suck it up and deal with it. The only concept I had of mental illness was from a single health class where I was left with the impression that someone who had depression or anxiety was certainly suicidal and belonged in a health institution because they couldn’t function in society.
I really enjoyed high school, all things considered. I had a great group of friends, I was relatively popular, I was active in sports, and I did well in all my classes. Any time I began to wonder if how I was feeling wasn’t normal, I brushed my doubts away because I was clearly functioning in society and therefore could not have a mental illness. Even as every night I’d struggle to fall asleep because I was so worried about things I had done that day and things I would do tomorrow. Even with the intense, vivid nightmares I experienced at least once a week. Even though I would be haunted for weeks by a stupid comment I made in class.
Even though every day I wondered if my best friends, people I had known and loved for years, still liked me.
Class presentations would make me sweat and shake, so much that once I had to physically hold my leg down because it was shaking so badly. Every single class period I’d wonder if we were going to get into partners or groups and I would frantically figure out who I could partner with, how to ask them, and what to do if they chose someone else. I could feel my entire high school staring at me as I walked down the hallway between classes because I knew everyone was staring at me and judging how I looked or walked. In sports competitions, I worried not only about how I performed, but what people would think of me if I didn’t do well in a race, and how they would compare me to my friends who ran faster or jumped further.
Looking back it’s very clear I had an anxiety disorder. It’s almost silly to think that I had no idea what I was going through. It wasn’t until I got to college that I had even assumed anxiety was a possible way to explain how I felt. Even after I read and learned a lot about the illness, I still didn’t think it could apply to me because I didn’t realize how common it was and the different forms it could take.
Doing this research on my own took years until I finally gathered enough information that I understood what next steps to take. It was lonely and difficult. I didn’t know what to call it and I didn’t know anyone else who had anxiety so it was hard to validate what I was feeling. It would have helped so much to hear just one other person say “this is normal and it’s okay.”
Why didn’t I look it up earlier? Why didn’t I do some research in high school?
I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know where to begin or what to search for or where to look or who to talk to about it. I had no starting point. And that’s why I’m writing this. I want to make sure everyone has a starting point.
Talking to teenagers about anxiety and depression isn’t going to cure them immediately if they have it. But knowledge is so, so important. There are many outlets and options out there for people struggling with mental illness, from friends and therapists to online chat rooms and videos and everything in between.
Finally understanding what an anxiety disorder entails and how it directly applied to me was a major turning point in my life. Talking about it and working on what makes me feel better has drastically improved my mood and outlook. It’s still something I deal with every day, but it is manageable now. I feel so much better about my life, and I know I can keep finding new ways to be even happier.
It doesn’t have to be a lot. A couple of class periods in health or an assembly about anxiety and depression can significantly change someone’s life. It can even save someone’s life. Give those struggling in the dark a glimmer of light they can hold onto, and let them know things can and will get better. No one should feel like they have to work through something like this alone.