The silent fight: Mental health crisis in the younger population
“My days used to be so dark. That’s the only way to describe them. They felt way longer than 24 hours, and it was almost like I never had any energy or motivation to
do anything at all. Every day felt the same, and I felt like I was starting to go insane for a while. It has ruined relationships for me, and it’s hard for me to make friends sometimes.” This was the daily life of an Orange senior, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue.
This student is not alone. According to the National Alliance on Mental health, “one in six U.S. youth aged 6-17, experience a mental health disorder each year.” The most common mental illnesses among teens are depression and generalized anxiety, that usually cause one to feel hopeless, with a loss of interest in activities, along with poor concentration and loss of appetite.
Mental health issues can have many different roots. For some, it’s an imbalance in brain processes, traumatic events or even genetic vulnerability. “I have a history of mental illness and addiction throughout my family. I was unfortunately added to the list of people with mental illness in the family when I was a sophomore in high school,” the senior said.
One of the major issues with teen mental health is that not many reach out and truly get the help they need to get better. According to NAMH, “50.6 percent of U.S. youth, aged 6-17, with a mental health disorder received treatment in 2016.”
“Eventually, I went to see a therapist at this place called Syntero. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and anxiety, and I went through a week-long process of puzzles and difficult questions just for me to find out that I, in fact, do have ADHD. I never started taking medication for any of these things until this year, and I've noticed a significant difference,” the senior said.
“I take Zoloft, but I'm tapering off of it now since it’s just making my depression worse, so I’m going to start exercising more and eating better. My mom was very supportive in getting me the help I needed, and she took me to see multiple therapists until I found one that I best connected with. I'm currently going through trauma therapy because of a recent PTSD diagnosis.”
Syntero, the counseling and support facility the student mentions, “provides evidence based therapeutic treatment and counseling services to children and adolescents. A specialized staff of master’s level clinicians are trained in a variety of treatment modalities that help individuals deal with substance abuse, trauma, grief and loss, anger management and other difficult behavioral health issues. The goal of our services is to empower individuals to manage effectively, improve their quality of life, and promote happier, healthier lives,” according to their website.
The experiences that many teens with mental health go through are oftentimes framed by stereotypes from others, something knowledge and empathy can help eliminate.
Lack of knowledge relating to mental illness can create distance between people who
struggle with it daily and others who don’t. School Psychologist Cari Lotko said “Stigmas often
arise when people have a lack of understanding and knowledge about mental health issues.
They can also arise when people view individuals with mental health issues as different and
they do not know how to respond to them (e.g., fear).”
One big challenge is that mental health is hard to see on the outside. School Psychologist Chris Birr reiterated and said, “When it comes to mental health, the cause is not always visible or there may not even be a clear cause to the mental health issue. Without a visible cause, the person with the mental health issue can be viewed by others as responsible for his or her condition.”
“The stigma associated with mental illness can be divided into two types: social stigma, which involves the prejudiced attitudes that others have around mental illness, and self-perceived stigma, which involves an internalized stigma that the person with the mental illness suffers from”, according to VeryWellMind.com views stigmas relating to mental illnesses.
Speaking out on mental issues can educate society and possibly diminish the stigmas. “By sharing and opening up, it allows others to gain more knowledge and understanding of what various mental health issues are and how they impact others. It can also decrease the uncomfortable feelings that others have in being with or associating with that person,” Lotko said.
As society is evolving, so is the stigma along with it. “With social media, there has been
an increase in mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. However, along with that,
there is also increased venues that allow for education and support for individuals with mental
health issues. With mental health being more openly communicated in a positive way,
individuals suffering are made more aware of ways that they can reach out for help, and thus,
get the help they need,” Birr said.
With social media being a big part of society, it presents negative effects to mental health as well. “The negative side of social media can exacerbate the symptoms of anxiety and
depression and lead to serious issues, particularly when individuals are targeted. It is often
easier for people to behave in a cruel manner toward people when they are not face to face and can do so via social media (directly or anonymously),” Lotko said.
The more awareness that has been directed to mental health, the greater tools society has created to help cope with all people who may be struggling with it. The high school has resources to provide students a start in seeking help, such as psychologists, counselors etc.
Increasing awareness can have a reverse effect on stigmas. It can also allow for more
resources to arise as society speaks out on combating mental issues. “Parents and students are becoming more understanding and open about discussing mental health and seeking help. Our awareness, knowledge and availability of treatment options has increased allowing more
people to seek help,” Birr said. The resources available are bringing people one step closer to
Referrals for students that need help can come from parents, teachers or even students themselves. “A lot of times, these referrals can be something that is addressed here with either the counselors or psychologists as we can all do a screening, but if it’s urgent we would judge it as to where it needs to go,” Lotko said. This typically means alerting parents or having a follow up with a mental health specialist. This year, the district is working with a specialist from The Ohio State University that they hired to help students.
The district works with a number of local organizations to get students access to help. Sometimes it’s Nationwide Children’s, but other times it is Syntero that Olentangy contracts with and leans on to provide our students with treatment. “I also recommend programs that other students have said have been helpful and that will usually provide different options for different situations,” Lotko said.
While many go through battles with mental illness, there are advancements in treatment being made all around, including right here in Columbus.
The Behavioral Health Department at Nationwide Children’s is in the midst of making drastic changes on behalf of the health and wellness of the nation’s youth. The department has joined the On Our Sleeves Movement in which it’s main goal is to transform the mental health of today’s youth.
“The On Our Sleeves Movement helps break stigmas by making it OK to speak out when you might not be feeling okay. It also teaches advocacy actions and how you can raise your voice about mental health too. When you start the conversation- about mental health, you’re already helping by talking about something that is so stigmatized,” Senior Marketing Strategist for Nationwide Children’s Jaclyn Niese said.
Niese is the liaison for the Behavioral Health Team when it comes to working with the On Our Sleeves movement. She is also the liaison for the surrounding community, working with faith groups, schools and numerous numbers of other groups. Niese also frequently advocates for mental health, keeping communities in Columbus well informed. Being the community liaison for On Our Sleeves, she triages the incoming messages to the clinicians.
Clinicians in the Mood and Anxiety Program at Nationwide Children’s Hospital frequently test and evaluate for mood, personality and learning disorders. Elizabeth Vickery, a clinician at Nationwide Children’s, provides cognitive-behavioral therapy in both individual and group settings.
“I work with highly anxious teens who typically suffer from impairing social anxiety—the fear of judgment and criticism by others. So, treatment typically focuses on getting teens to engage in social interactions and use coping skills, first in the clinic and later in other settings, like home and school. I commonly use exposure therapy, which is a type of active treatment that helps teens to ‘face their fears’ and gain confidence in being able to overcome anxiety,” said Vickery.
Vickery said the main factors of teenage depression result from a lack of communication and support from loved ones and friends.
“There are many factors that contribute to teenage depression such as, teens’ own beliefs about not being able to discuss their distress or to be who they “really are.” A lack of acceptance on a family, school or greater community level. Excessive pressure (either internally or externally) to maintain an image of perfection at all times, whether the ‘perfect image’ is academically, physically, or socially- based.
“All of this combined with a belief that faults shown in any situation are permanent, unfixable and devastating. And when teens use alcohol or drugs to try to self-medicate the symptoms of depression, problems become worse,” Vickery said.
Katie Thomas is an account manager for Behavioral Health at Nationwide Children’s and works in the Marketing and Public Relations Department. She helps with communication and marketing needs for Big Lots Behavioral Health Services.
“Our department gives the conversation starters and tips for friends, families and co-workers who want support children living with mental illness. All content and resources
have been developed with the mental health experts at Nationwide Children’s Hospital,” Thomas said.
The Big Lots Behavioral Health Services is a department for children facing mental health challenges. The families of these children can use them as a resource for finding the best treatment for their child.
“In some way, mental illness touches everyone. You may have a family member, friend or child who is living with a mental illness. For children especially, the statistics are sobering. One in five children is living with a mental illness, and 50 percent of all lifetime mental illnesses start by age 14,” Niese said.
With the adolescent mind continuing to grow, it can be difficult diagnosing a behavioral disorder. “First, a complete physical exam should be conducted by a physician to rule out causes for low mood such as low vitamin D or iron levels, or an impairment in thyroid function.
“Once these issues are eliminated or addressed, a therapist can help the teen to identify thoughts, feelings and behaviors surrounding the episode of depression. Distortions in thoughts that are common in depression (seeing oneself as a bad person who always ruins everything, for example) can be targeted for challenge and change,” Vickery said.
Once the physicians rule out the cause, there are various ways to help teens express their feelings and withdraw less from others.
“Behaviors that are consistent with depression, such as isolation and withdrawal, can be balanced out by the therapist helping the teen to schedule pleasant, or reinforcing, activities. Keeping a journal to look for links between the environment and mood, feelings and behavior is a common strategy used in therapy. “Other homework, such as practicing new social skills learned in therapy, is often recommended. For moderate to severe depression, a combination of medication and therapy is often very effective,” Vickery said.
Nationwide Children’s goal is to eliminate the stigma around mental illness in children and young adults, provide much needed educational resources and accelerate funding for research at Nationwide Children’s. With the help of On Our Sleeves, the team at Nationwide has high hopes for the future.
“The On Our Sleeves movement, launched on World Mental Health Day 2018, is on a mission to break the silence surrounding children’s mental health. With free online resources, On Our Sleeves is offering hope to families navigating mental health issues in their own lives,” Niese said.
This month, March 2020, Nationwide Children’s Hospital will open the Big Lots Behavioral Health Pavilion. At nine stories tall, it is the largest and most comprehensive center dedicated exclusively to child and adolescent behavioral and mental health on a pediatric medical campus in the United States. Not only will this new addition help, but On Our Sleeves also has a mental fitness challenge that pushes children struggling with mental health to take each day at a time with new health tasks.
“Our day to day interactions with our children, grandchildren, students, those we coach or mentor, and those in our workplace, neighborhood and social groups, are what will make a difference. Mentor. Be an advocate. Show kindness. Share mental health information,” Thomas said.
Even though mental health is becoming a more common in children and teens, many people and organizations are trying to break the silence and stereotypes and find ways to support each other in this journey.
Illustrations by Athena Heckman & Julie Kilpatrick