Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Local high school students and grads open up about mental health and suicide

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By KATE NEVERS

A teen’s life is an unsettling mix of exhilaration and reticence.

We wear our hearts on our sleeves, love easily, yearn impossibly, prize spontaneity without regard to consequences, race to make memories so that our youth really isn’t wasted on the young.

Yet we’re also prone to doubt and self-doubt. We compare ourselves to others and find ourselves wanting. We’re pushed to succeed without knowing exactly why or even what success is. We’re stressed because our parents are stressed, by politics and pandemic. And in the end, we rarely reveal much of ourselves to anyone, for fear of disappointing friends and family or losing them to our truths. What we do share, what we only feel safe sharing, is the commonplace, the unremarkable, the cliched.

So whom do we trust when we’ve lost the confidence to trust even ourselves, when our ice is thin and cracking, when the moment we’re in right now is too dark even to imagine a future beyond it?

When September, National Suicide Prevention Month, came to an end, the Chesterton Tribune asked local youth to complete an informal survey on the topic of mental health. That survey was shared on various social media platforms, and 50 Northwest Indiana high school students and grads responded. The overwhelming consensus: mental health is a conversation more people need to be having.

Among other things, the Tribune asked the following questions: Do you have any personal struggles with mental health that you’d be willing to share? Do you have any advice you’d like to share that has helped you? Have you been impacted by suicide and if so how? Has the pandemic affected your mental health?

Respondents were given the option of identifying themselves or remaining anonymous.

Before a conversation on mental health can even begin, it’s important to understand that the public face of depression is suicidal thoughts and heavy medication. But depression falls on a spectrum. It can also be misplaced priorities, sleepless nights, evenings without dinner, Tears for Fears on repeat, and good intentions that miss their mark. It’s as much about fake smiles and grueling schedules as it is about drawn blinds and unchecked to-do lists. Depression can be deepened by the apparently insignificant as much as by the life-altering. Most important, depression doesn’t discriminate: teens on both sides of the tracks can fall victim to it, from broken families and happily intact ones; it can touch high- and low-performing students alike, and the popular kids as much as the outliers.

Making the conversation on mental health even more difficult, we’ve attached a stigma to depression, namely, that it’s a sign of weakness and therapy a sign of failure, but most high school students understand all too well that depression is real and common and that therapy is a commonsense way to treat it. As one CHS senior puts it, “Therapy is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed by, ever. . . . I have gone to therapy for about nine months now, and I have felt more like myself than I have in the past three years."  A peer agrees: “I think there is an understanding that if you have mental health issues that you are always sad or always suicidal. People can feel good and be happy but still struggle. I think that needs to be normalized.”

Suicide

One consensus quickly emerged from the survey: students have very little faith in their schools as allies, see little evidence that schools would welcome a conversation about mental health, and believe in particular that schools have failed to acknowledge the problem of suicide. A CHS senior anonymously shared her own struggle as it relates to her sexuality. “It is terrifying,” she says, “especially facing the concept without support from schools, parents, therapists, or any person or program available.” Another CHS student notes, “We have lost two students in less than a year. Schools need to be more adamant about suicide prevention and having a good support system for the students.” The unwillingness of schools to confront suicide is all the more disappointing because, as one student observes, schools themselves create the conditions which push some students to the brink: “I personally think that most people that are in high school (commit) suicide due to the stress and overwhelming parts of high school. During exam week and also during the pandemic.”

During the Pandemic

COVID-19 has indeed taken its own toxic toll on people’s mental health over the last nine months. “Before masks were required in my workplace, anytime I saw someone without one, it made me very nervous,” shared Ray, a CHS graduate. “I had to go into the back while I hyperventilated.” Lizzy Lynn, also a CHS graduate and a freshman at Purdue University, notes that “depression and suicide rates have increased during this pandemic,” and that since March she herself has “felt blank and unmotivated to do better.” What’s more, Lynn says, “I can tell my friends and family have felt it too.” For those people battered and exhausted by the pandemic, CHS senior Amber Laughner has this message: “If you are going through a mental rough patch and your productivity suffers, that is okay and you are not any less worthy than before. You are not your illness.”

A number of those who responded to the survey spoke candidly about their own struggles with thoughts of suicide:

-- “I’ve attempted (suicide) three times and I’ve lost seven friends to suicide. Please, please remember that even if you have everything on your plate and you can’t finish, you can always save the rest for later.”

-- Around this time last year I was seriously considering suicide. I had it planned out and death was all I thought about. . . . But there’s so much you have to accomplish throughout your life, so why cut it short? LIfe is supposed to be tough, but wouldn’t you rather . . . that you were able to overcome it rather than let it consume you?” J, CHS.

-- “I attempted suicide. My parents had to take me to the hospital. I don’t think I realized how much I mattered to people until then. . . Progress is never a straight line. Sometimes life gets hard and your mental health gets bad again, but that never makes you a failure.” Kath, Purdue University.

-- “A family friend committed suicide and it was very hard. I wish we could have shown them how loved they were. My wish is for people to feel the love we have for them.” Phoebe, CHS.

-- “I had suicidal thoughts around third to sixth grade. I was struggling a lot . . . and I didn’t want to continue. (But you have to) keep pushing, especially when it feels like there isn’t a reason to, because there is always a reason. Even if it hasn’t come to you yet. There is something out there that will make you happy.” Haleigh, CHS.

-- “There have been people that have attempted to minimize my struggles, accuse me of over-reacting, and push me to hide my experiences. I know this is the case for so many, and it’s my hope we can encourage a society that listens rather than alienates those with mental health problems.”

Seek Help: You’re Not Alone

An incredible thing happens when even a few are willing to go against the grain and shed light on their own experience of depression: others start to realize that they aren’t alone, and need not go it alone:

-- “There have been moments in my life when I have not felt worthy or good enough at anything. It’s deeper than just turning on sad music and crying. . . . No matter how many close friends I have, I still feel a type of loneliness that is difficult to explain. . . . But struggling with your own mental health is not something you should do alone. Ever. That’s not how you win the battle.” CHS senior.

-- “Don’t look at each moment you feel your mental illness impacting you as taking a step back. When you recover from the flu, you still break out into coughing fits once in a while, or have days where you feel more tired than the rest. But you don’t lay back down and say ‘I guess I’ll just have the flu forever.’ The same goes for your mental health. Give it time. You are stronger than it. It just takes patience with yourself.” LH, CHS.

-- “I know it’s a cliche, but you’re not alone. Talk to people about how you’re feeling. One day, they’ll save you from something you can’t undo.” CHS student.

-- “It could be next week’s sports game, tomorrow’s family dinner, that video game that comes out next month. Keep yourself excited to be alive.” G, CHS

-- “Help is always available and you deserve help if you need it. There are so many people that YOU impact every day whether you know it or not. YOU are loved by so many people and no one wants you gone. No life is ever worth giving up on.” DA, CHS junior.

-- “What I would say to someone feeling suicidal is that cliche sayings people quote are all true, even though I know you don’t believe them right now. But as someone who’s been through it and got to the other side, everything people told me was right. But also getting better requires a lot of work from you, and it’s really hard work. Now I am so, so glad for that because my life has led to so many things I never dreamed of before. I’m still learning about myself every day and it’s wonderful.” Ray, CHS graduate.

The Tribune’s hope in conducting this survey was to begin a conversation that everyone needs to be participating in, because a teen who’s contemplating suicide needs to hear that what seems impossibly bleak now will look like a bump in the road 10 years from now, and that no sadness is worth missing out on a lifetime of joy and love. Sometimes all it takes is a listening ear or a token of appreciation or a word of encouragement. Because this life is hard. People can be cruel. And the worst critics are often the reflections looking back at us in the mirror.

 

Posted 12/28/2020

 
 
 
 

 

 

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