Yesterday I spoke to high school students about mental health, mental illness, and stigma as a volunteer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). I gave NAMI’s their “Ending the Silence” Presentation. I was speaking during last period, and since I have given this presentation before, I was prepared – I had candy with me to keep the students engaged.
I was pleasantly surprised by this group – they paid attention, they listened. Not a single student was on their phones or sleeping. They were with me the entire time. When I asked a question – they answered. Correctly. I know they really just answered because they wanted the candy I was offering – but these kids were smart. They knew the warning signs for depression, they knew how to take care of their own mental health, and they knew what to do if they saw one of their friends struggling.
I couldn’t help but wonder, though: Even though they knew the answers – were they listening? I mean, yes, technically they were listening to me. Like I said, they wanted the candy. In fact, the presentation took longer than it usually does because they were so responsive. They all raised their hands to tell me what to do to keep themselves mentally healthy (eat well, exercise and get enough sleep). They all wanted to tell me what the warning signs of depression or mental illness were:
- Not being interested in the things one used to like
- Grades slipping in school
- Abusing drugs or alcohol
- Talking about or harming oneself
- Isolating oneself
- Having thoughts of suicide
And they all were eager to answer when I asked if they knew what to do if they needed help or how to help a friend. They knew to find a trusted adult or reach out to the Crisis Text Line or the Suicide Hotline. They knew they could help a friend by including them in plans, checking in on them, or writing them a positive note. They knew to take their friends seriously. And of course, they stated that if they saw a troubling post on social media, they would reach out to the friend or alert an adult or teacher.
If high school students of today know how to be mentally healthy, know how to help themselves and their friends, then why are the following statements true?
- High school students today are much more likely to experience anxiety than they were a generation ago.
- Suicide rates have risen in nearly every state in the United States (according to the CDC).
Students are facing higher levels of anxiety for a number of reasons. Studies show a main reason is social media, but it is deeper than that. It is the pressure to fit in, to succeed, to be “perfect.” Suicide rates are on the rise for similar reasons, along with the ease of access to suicide methods. None of this is acceptable and it needs to change. As a society, we are trying – we are ending the stigma of mental illness, but at the same time our rates of mental illness are rising.
We must make sure that even if everyone knows how to stay mentally healthy, knows the warning signs, and knows that it is ok to have a mental illness, that they also agree that it is OKAY to do something about it.
We must continue to teach our kids coping skills and what to do when they are struggling and what to do when they see a friend struggling. We must ensure that when our kids are anxious or hurting or see someone this way, that they ARE reaching out to a trusted adult, texting the Crisis Text Line, calling the Suicide Hotline, or including their friends in their plans.
We need to reiterate over and over again, that it IS OKAY to not be okay, that there is help out there, that being perfect is not the standard. We need to encourage people to use their coping skills, to keep reach out for support, and to know that people want to help them.
It is not easy to ask for help – even for adults. It is not easy to get help for a friend, especially when your friend is telling you, asking you not to tell anyone. But that is what we are asking our young people to do.
I do the Ending the Silence Presentation, and then I leave the school. We must continue to do more. Ending the Silence takes away the Stigma and it is a start. We must continue to teach our children that we are there for them. We must continue to teach them what to do, what they can do, and how to do it. We know they know the answers, but we have to make sure they are listening and that they are hearing what we are saying!
Tracy Greenberg is a mental health writer and advocate; in addition to her work for Sheppard Pratt, she volunteers for NAMI and the Crisis Text Line. Tracy is also a swim mom, mother, and wife, and is passionate about yoga, nature, and the Florida Gators. Follow along with Tracy at her blog.