The Importance of Student Mental Health
Two years ago, my good friend Alex was placed in the hospital. As someone who has struggled with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and panic disorder, Alex knows well what it's like to combat mental illness. Yet at the time, I was shocked when I found out why my happy-go-lucky neighbor wasn't in class. I had never seen Alex upset, so it was chilling to learn she was being hospitalized for depression.
Over the past few years, mental health has been growing steadily worse, with the student body experiencing the effects of it. Teen mental illness not only compromises academic performance, but destroys their subjective well-being and sense of self-worth, even placing their lives at stake. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the second leading cause of death among youths aged 15-24 is suicide. Yet to resolve student mental illness, one must first ask the question: why are today's students depressed?
Recent studies suggest that the predominant amount of teen depression can be attributed to the influence of social media. Platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter feature the best aspects of others' lives, providing an inaccurate standard to which many teens compare themselves to. Moreover, the existence of a "like" count serving as a quantifiable measure of social endorsement has been linked to self-worth, with higher levels of dopamine release correlating to higher like counts. According to a recent study, "Viewing photos with many (compared with few) likes was associated with greater activity in neural regions implicated in reward processing, social cognition, imitation, and attention." Like counts heavily contribute to this culture of cyber social endorsement - after posting a photo that receives 1,000 likes, the poster may experience higher dopamine levels and would be encouraged to post again. On the other hand, a post that receives 12 likes might discourage the owner, whose self-esteem would likely be damaged.
Social media is not the sole contributor to a teen's mental health. Many studies have discovered a strong correlation between victims of bullying and victims of anxiety and depression. In an age of digital reliance, cyber-bullying takes precedence among student altercations. These victims have been found to carry depression into their adulthood years. Bullies themselves are also at risk for depression or anxiety, due to "externalizing behaviors or antisocial tendencies, such as overt aggressiveness, a tendency to manipulate, lack of empathy, and positive attitudes towards violence."
It is also important to consider the fact that the teenage brain is not fully developed. The prefrontal cortex, which regulates social behavior and decision making, does not fully develop until the age of 25. This means teens have less control over their actions, and may participate in risky activities that in turn degrade mental health, such as vaping or underage drinking. Reduced control over social behavior might also lead to instability in relationships between family members, friends, and acquaintances. Moreover, academic pressure can place a heavy burden on high-achieving students. With competition for college admissions growing increasingly relentless, the struggle to rise above the pack is an obstacle that students throughout the country face everyday. A higher importance is then placed upon academic achievement than mental health and self-care, contributing highly to the social stigma surrounding mental illness.
At times, these factors are not enough to cause mental illness in isolation from other variables. However, when paired with underlying conditions, rates of mental illness become much higher. Triggers are paired with anxiety and enabled through the senses. As Alex notes, "I’ve had signs of GAD all of my life, since I was really young...During that time, the major thing that triggered my anxiety to get bad was the whole thing about the kidnappers with white van...I had a similar issue with school about security, and anxiety about school shootings. My anxiety is always somewhat present." Multiple variables, therefore, may typically combine with underlying conditions to coalesce into mental illness.
The causes of student mental illness are just one side of the coin. The other is the struggle to obtain help. The pure lack of mental health resources are appalling, especially in comparison to other healthcare resources. Accessibility to mental health services is very limited in terms of finances, doctor specialty, and quality care. "In eight grade, when I needed to get into outpatient programs, there was a really long waiting list to get it," attests Alex. "That was when I really needed something to help me urgently." Still, small improvements are being made in the field of mental healthcare accessibility: school counselors and psychiatrists offer "quality" therapy to students in need, and mental health awareness is emphasized throughout communities across the country. Even so, these improvements aren't enough to treat the mass amount of students that suffer from mental illness.
Another friend of mine - we'll call her Bethany - has a reason for this. As someone who has struggled with anxiety and depression for a few years, Bethany says that "the biggest obstacle was telling people about it...it's kinda judged to have mental illnesses, and I would be called weak if I had something like that, which is why I wasn't able to tell my parents about any of it."
The biggest obstacle surrounding mental health recovery is its social stigma: 2 out of 3 students do not seek treatment for anxiety or depression. In today's culture, mental health is an unnecessarily controversial subject, which prompts many students to suppress their feelings. Mental health may be dismissed out of hand as "unimportant", so students are forced to struggle with their illnesses completely alone, which only amplifies the initial issue. The social stigma surrounding mental health means that victims suffer in silence, so chances are you know someone battling mental illness, be it your cousin Sally or Jimmy from math class. This stigma demonstrates the precise criticality of spreading mental health awareness. It isn't black and white, but rather a broad spectrum in shades of grey. A minor mental illness could fester into a major one.
Alex's depression hit its worst between eighth and ninth grade, when she became suicidal and was hospitalized twice. She was then placed in outpatient programs, completing home instruction in place of in-person schooling. Alex's initiative towards recovery has been successful thus far. " I used to have a panic attack about every five minutes, and I would stop breathing," she says. "I don’t have many panic attacks anymore."
Student mental health is a serious issue, one that cannot be avoided despite the strong social stigma associated with it. No child should have to bear the burden of anxiety, depression, or any other mental illness that so many face. "Some advice that i would say to people that are struggling with similar stuff is to get help. If you need to go to the psych hospital, then go. I honestly made so many friends at the hospital and at all the outpatient programs that I went to. It is worth getting help to get better," says Alex.
Bethany agrees,"Just by telling someone could make a difference. My life has been a lot harder because of these things, but I'm glad I went through it because it brought me out as a much better person, and I'm a lot stronger now."
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Special thanks to my friends Alex Rapp and "Bethany" (real name omitted for anonymity) for providing individual insight into the lives of mental illness victims.
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