In 2016, Pace was shaken by the devastating loss of juniors Parker Berman and Stephen Walker to suicide. For our school, it brought close to home one of the most concerning problems of our generation: soaring rates of reported depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. And although much has been done at Pace since then to further support students, one of the most important things has yet to be fully accomplished: understanding the reality of mental health, and how we as individuals can help our classmates.
The statistics at Pace alone are staggering. In a survey conducted in October by the Knightly News, roughly half of Pace students responding reported having struggled with mental health concerns during high school, with the majority having dealt with either anxiety or depression, as well as disordered eating and other illnesses (such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder).
Perhaps the biggest lesson that Pace has learned since 2016 is that mental illness can be incredibly difficult to identify, much less treat. It’s a narrative that has become horribly familiar: a kid who seemed to have it all, who was always happy, surrounded by lots of friends, a star student and athlete, taking their life seemingly without warning, or struggling with issues that led them to be seriously harmed or institutionalized.
One of the most important things to learn from these narratives is that anyone – from the quiet kid in the back of the room to the star athlete and student who’s always the life of the party – can struggle with intense, and even life-threatening, mental health issues, with no one around them even realizing.
A senior who requested to remain anonymous was one of the millions of teenagers who was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. “The most difficult part to explain is that on the outside, I was thriving. I was outgoing, happy, always laughing. I was so out there I was hidden. I had no ‘reason’ to be depressed, and that was maybe the hardest part to come to terms with. I felt like I didn’t deserve help, so I didn’t seek it.”
The epidemic can be especially terrible for boys, who often find little to no support, or face pressure to conceal mental health issues. A junior boy who requested to remain anonymous said, “I think there’s such a huge pressure for boys to deal with mental health issues in silence, because it’s thought of as ‘weak.’ It’s so unaccepted for boys to tell their friends or family they need help, and so boys will say nothing and try to deal with it themselves, and that can have terrible consequences.”
Part of the problem is that many people fail to spot the symptoms of depression in boys – aggression, irritability, and anger – which aren’t what we think of as the typical symptoms. Another problem, some experts say, is that many boys do not have the kind of emotional intimacy with friends that girls do, leading them to feel there is no one they can talk to.
Many mental health experts have been brought to Pace to discuss mental health, but there can still be a sense of helplessness. After all, in the face of such issues, how can someone help?
The solution, of course, must begin with awareness. The facts are simple: statistically speaking, about 1 in 5 high school students suffer from a diagnosable mental health issue. It’s a statistic that’s hard to believe, of course, because so few will seek help. Few people recognize that their friends need help, because the symptoms are hard to recognize, particularly when the person tries to hide them.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, although 46% of people who attempt suicide each year have a diagnosed mental health disorder, an incredible 90% had signs of a possible disorder, as reported by friends and family. This means that the majority of suicides are committed by people who likely had a mental health disorder that they didn’t have diagnosed. Perhaps, had they received treatment, many of them could be alive today.
Talking about mental health shouldn’t happen when someone’s mental health issues are severe – that’s equivalent to only helping someone when they are so sick they are on the border of death, rather than when they start running a fever, or feel tired or develop a cough.
The solutions to mental health are complicated and multifaceted, but it can start with three words: “Are you OK?” Ask the athlete who has started skipping practices with no explanation. Ask the student who used to care about their grades who has stopped turning in homework or studying. Ask the person who has suddenly started drinking or smoking excessively. Ask the friend who’s always joking and laughing, and ask the quiet, shy friend. Ask a friend whose appetite has suddenly changed, or who suddenly always seems to be cancelling plans and staying home.
Checking in on your friend’s mental health should be normal. Whether the problem is as simple as being stressed out or as deep as a serious mental health disorder, as a community we need to check on each other.
The truth about mental health issues is that they are treatable, and if they are caught in the early stages, they are preventable. But work must be done on both ends.
“It took me years to reach out and ask for help, and I only did it when I had no other option,” said another senior who asked to remain anonymous. “I realized I could have gotten help so much sooner and avoided so much pain. It’s a really hard process, and it’s ongoing. I’ve accepted that this will probably be something I struggle with for the rest of my life. But now, I know I can survive the worst episodes. Whether it’s medication, or therapy, or working out or talking with friends, I’ve learned to control my symptoms. Reaching out to my friends literally saved my life.”
What can Pace do to help students? There’s no doubt that Pace has increased its efforts in the wake of 2016. “We doubled the number of mental health professionals on campus, we investigated what other schools are doing, and most importantly, we aren’t afraid to talk about it,” said school counselor Sara Eden.
Pace has focused on reaching out to students who other students or teachers have noticed struggling. “Pace does an excellent job discussing mental health, and Pace is great at reaching out to people they think might need someone to talk to without overstepping,” said junior Elliott Mathis. “Differently, they can seek more student input, particularly from students who have personal experience.”
The only way people will feel more comfortable reaching out is by de-stigmatizing the topic of mental health. Just because mental health is private doesn’t mean it needs to be a secret, and there’s a distinct difference between the two. On the other end, those who notice their friends struggling should ask them about it. Mental health can’t be taboo anymore. Normalizing conversations about mental health could literally save lives.
“If you acknowledge there’s a problem, if you’re open to help, things can improve, and that’s the biggest thing we want students to know,” said Mrs. Eden. “There are so many things that hold us back, whether it be embarrassment or thinking we can handle it on our own. Having the humility to admit we need someone else – that’s a huge step.”
“Don’t blame yourself,” said Mathis. “Know that you are worthy of getting help. Having the courage to seek help is a commendable thing, and don’t be afraid to talk about it. It’s super scary, but it could save your life.”
Any of the anonymous people interviewed in this article could be someone you know. They could be your friend, or someone on your sports team. They might even be one of your closest friends. No matter how close or not you are to them, they are your classmates. And checking in on them, or the dozens of other students like them, could make a bigger difference than you’ll ever know.