Updated: Jan 12
By Afua Siaw
Image via LA Johnson/NPR
Trigger Warning: this article discusses mental health, including depression, anxiety and suggestions towards suicide. Resources can be found at the end of the article for those seeking help and advice.
Mental Health: that word right there speaks a thousand words. It's one of the most powerful words ever written or spoken.
What is Mental Health?
According to the dictionary, mental health is defined as your social, emotional and psychological well-being. However, pondering upon this question, it doesn't capture the true essence of the phrase.
Imagine this: Pre-COVID-19, you wake up at 6 am Monday morning. You guessed it: a school day. Sitting on the hard stool, back aching for decade-long hours as the voice of your teacher echoes through one ear and out the other. You stare at the clock, watching the hand move slower and slower and slower -- STOP.
On a scale from 1-10, how irritated did that make you feel? Did you feel as though you were teleported back to a place you wish you didn’t have to go?. If you said yes, then you’re in good company with the majority of young students. But, the question we must be asking is, why do we feel this way? I would argue that it is because school has a detrimental effect on our mental health. So… how have our schools addressed these issues?
For me, my mental health has always been comparable to a perfect morning. A sunny day, birds chirping, flowers bright - I think you get the point. I’m a bubbly, fun person, that is until I go to school. For me, high school hasn't been my cup of tea. Waking up at 5:45, leaving my house at 6:30, walking in the dark as I feel the weight of my backpack creeping up my shoulder reminding me that this will be a dreadful day. It was surveyed that college students stated that mental health interfered with their studies, according to an American College Health Association 2015 study. As a result, this negatively impacted their academic performance; stress (30% of students), Anxiety (22%), Sleep difficulties (20%) & Depression (14%). So what does our education system do about these numbers?
As I walked down the halls, the empty walls gazed at me, as I saw my reflection and thought back to easier times: middle school. I felt a sense of relief, seeing the walls filled with positive messages here. That feeling was like no other. BRRRRRRNGG BRRRRNGGG - suddenly, I found myself back in reality, watching kids finishing up their homework, copying answers of course as they head to class, the others looking dead as if in the zombie apocalypse but they didn’t want to run.
Now, don’t get me wrong, schools have guidance counselors. These are staff members who are paid to care about our feelings. The words “My door is open open” or “I’m here to listen” is what you typically imagine. Students, however, tend to use their guidance counselor for school-related activities, such as college recommendations or changing schedules.
When students are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious, they deal with what is known as self-diagnosing, the act of detecting if you have a disease or disorder without a certified official. An article from the Journal of Abnormal Psychology showcased that “between 2005 and 2017, the proportion of teens 12-17 who reported the symptoms of a major depressive episode within the last year rose from 8.7 percent to 13.2 percent”. This idea of self-diagnosing is common, especially in mental health disorders, but how do our school or guidance counselors address it? When we start to feel ‘bleh’ or lose interest in what we enjoyed, that may be a sign of depression. If so, what could you really do? Talk to your counselor who has lines of students waiting outside her door, with burning questions? What makes me so important?
Dory, yes, the fish, famously said: “just keep swimming.” Swimming is like walking, once you learn you never forget. But, one day, I’m worried, I’ll forget. Mental health only becomes an issue when someone feels like they are underwater and instead of rising up, they decide they will be better off below.
When given homework, assignments, and tests, every day, all week, these drowning feelings only increase. We do all this work just to be able to…... what, get a job? If you had to say what you want to do right now, and you couldn't change it for the rest of your life, what would you say?
Did you say doctor or lawyer, or was it your parents saying it? The reason we work so hard, the reason we stress ourselves staying up until 1 am, is because we can’t bear to imagine the pain of letting the people who risked everything for us down. Countless nights, staying up just floating in the water, staring at the stars, hoping to make a wish.
For me, I always thought I was doing medicine for my parents. I felt as if my parents were sinking me and I tried to get back up, but for some reason, I couldn’t. I didn’t have the ability to let them down. Homework screams danger in my mind, pulling an all-nighter seems useless, yet, we all do it. This can lead to various cancers, Alzheimer's, and can make it easier for you to get a heart attack as stated in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences. The mindset that anxiety, depression, stress, and all, isn’t a big deal- that mentality should be eradicated because it is indeed called sinking.
Mental Health Resources:
Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) provides information on prevention, treatment and symptoms of anxiety, depression and related conditions (240-485-1001)
Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) provides information and referrals on ADHD, including local support groups (800-233-4050)
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) provides information on bipolar disorder and depression, offers in-person and online support groups and forums (800-826-3632)
International OCD Foundation provides information on OCD and treatment referrals (617-973-5801)
Written by writer Afua Siaw