1 in 5 young adults live with a mental health condition according to the “Teens and Young Adults” section of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ website. The statistics regarding those who are suffering are staggering. Yet, when I’m walking through the halls of Oyster River High School, I see none of that. I see students who look healthy, prepared, and competent.
The reality is, mental health is complicated. It’s more than the stereotypical movie scenes and plays that portray a person dramatically deteriorating at the hands of mental illness. Anyone can suffer from mental illness, no matter how healthy, prepared, or competent they appear on the outside.
“Mental health is something that many of us have to face in our lifetime, whether it’s our own mental health, or that of a family member or a close friend,” said Kim Cassamas, a school counselor at Oyster River High School. “It impacts us all in many ways, and the more we talk about it, the more we can learn of each others’ experiences, learn strategies, and learn that it’s okay and that there is hope. With time and hard work, you can get back on track, and it doesn’t have to define you for the rest of your life.”
Although many students struggle with finding a safe place to discuss their own experiences, Cassamas explained the benefit of both talking and listening. “[Having a conversation] helps to get rid of the stigma around mental health. Hearing stories allows people to relate, have a better understanding of what’s happening, and have more empathy,” she said.
Being affected by mental health shouldn’t feel shameful, but unfortunately, the stigma around discussing personal stories has caused many students and adults to feel like their mental health is a burden to them and their families. Walking through a hall filled with smiling faces and zipped backpacks, carefully filled with books and binders, you can feel completely alone. But in reality, you aren’t alone. Mental health can affect anyone.
I asked eight Oyster River High School students to share their stories with me. Here’s what they said:
*Please note that the content in this article could be triggering for some readers. If any of the following content upsets you, I strongly encourage that you stop reading immediately and get help from a trusted adult. All students’ names have been removed for their personal privacy.
I have pretty bad anxiety and sometimes I get panic attacks. I often get them when I’m driving. When I get them, my heart gets going and it’s a terrible condition to be driving in. One time, I got one when I was driving in the middle of Rochester and I pulled over onto the side of the road and I couldn’t see, feel, or taste anything. I had to sit in my car and drink four bottles of water until I could see again, and then I got out of my car and threw up. I drove home with my eyes still pretty blurry and I got in the shower and threw up again before fainting. My mom got home when I was knocked the hell out in my bed, and I only woke up briefly at midnight to tell her that I couldn’t go to school the next day.
I was terrified. My first reaction was ‘oh, this is definitely something medical,’ which is what a lot of people with mental health problems end up thinking. After I had four or five panic attacks, I went to the doctor and I had all of my blood tested and had electrodes taped to me and I had my heart tested. It turns out, it was all anxiety, and they recommended for me to go to a therapist. The therapist really helped and I haven’t had a bad panic attack since I started seeing her.
My mother struggles with depression. It hasn’t really been hard for me in particular but I’ve definitely watched her struggle with things. I think that everyone is affected by mental health in some way. There are little things too, like my mom’s depression being affected by the seasons. In this day and age, especially with social media, things can be tough. Even when there’s a case when you post something and it doesn’t get as many likes as you think it’s going to, it can affect you mentally. The stereotypical mental illnesses we think of are things like schizophrenia and depression. But something as little as a singular incident could really lead you down the road to a mental health concern if you’re going through a hard time.
When I was a freshman, I had the biggest scare of my life. My dad was driving me home and right as we came around the corner we saw that there were four police cars and an ambulance in my driveway. My [sibling] had attempted to commit suicide. I was talking to my parents a while after it happened and apparently it was the perfect storm of things that had gone wrong that day. [They were] having a lot of stress in school and [they were] very depressed. Unfortunately, they still are. I didn’t know at the time so it was a complete shock to me. I was freaking out. I just didn’t know what was going to happen. Going to the hospital was the second scariest thing that happened that day.
I didn’t see any of it coming because around me [they] had always been this very upbeat, great person. It was weird to hear that [they] didn’t want to be around anymore.
I don’t think that we’re providing enough resources for people with mental illness. There were so many factors that went into [their] decision. There aren’t enough resources in the school that people are aware of so that they can get the help that they need.
I haven’t really talked to my [sibling] about it, even though it’s been almost four years now. Honestly, I’m too afraid to talk to [them] about it.
Before she passed away, my grandma had schizophrenia. She has also dealt with alcoholism in her past. My mom was an only child, and when she was growing up, her mother’s mental health just wasn’t something people talked about. Through my grandma, I really learned how important medications are for people who need them, because it would literally be the difference between her functioning as a whole person versus her being in a hospital with twenty-four-hour care. Mental health is definitely something I’ve seen my mom deal with and I’ve seen how it affected her because it takes up so much time. When something like that is a problem, you can’t prioritize anything else: it’s making sure that she has the right care and the right medication at all times.
I remember once we brought my grandma down to our house from [the state] where she lived. Partway through the drive, we realized that her medication was still there and we needed to drive two and a half hours to go back and get it.
As she got older, her schizophrenia got even worse. It’s important to realize that mental illness is very different as you grow up. You may deal with something as an adolescent and not when you’re an adult or vice versa. I think it’s very different for every person who deals with it.
Mental health needs to be taken seriously, because when it’s not it can cause someone to take a one-eighty in terms of their personality and ability.
I’ve experienced mental health issues through my family. My dad has anxiety and he has also suffered with depression. Seeing that has really affected me. He’s a lot better now, but when I was younger, especially when my parents were going through their divorce, it was really hard watching him experience that. I remember one time my parents had a fight and my dad threatened to kill himself. I wasn’t supposed to hear it but I overheard it and that moment really stuck with me. I’m still impacted by it today. Through seeing how bad he got, I can see how much better he’s gotten. He does a lot of yoga, which I make fun of him for, but it has really helped with his anxiety.
Not everyone shows what they’re facing on the outside. A lot of people wouldn’t have known that about my dad because he’s really outgoing. If you met him you’d think he’s really funny and personable, but he does really struggle with his mental health. And really, it could be anyone. Some days are better than others but for the most part he’s doing a lot better.
I was seven when my father first noticed that I had OCD. I would do a lot of things in specific numbers, which is a trait of people who have OCD. Some people take steps in certain numbers or say things in certain numbers, and they always have a pattern. My numbers have to do with three, meaning that it can be a multiple of three, end in three, or just contain the number. When I was super young, I used to play with things in certain ways and my dad was home with me a lot and so he was the one who noticed me doing things like that that weren’t normal for a child. I think that as a kid I didn’t really realize that it was weird until it got more intense as my life got more intense. Going to school was hard for me because I started having to do everything in sets of three and the teachers wouldn’t allow that, especially when I wouldn’t answer certain questions because I didn’t like the numbers that were in it. Getting higher in school, I had to start learning with different methods to deal with my OCD and also deal with stress, which made it flare up more. When I was stressed, I would do my OCD tics, which are sometimes distracting to other people.
There’s definitely stigma around OCD. There are so many different types of OCD and some people don’t realize and don’t research it because they don’t have to, since it’s not impacting their life. A lot of the stigma involves people assuming that I like to clean things or that I have to tap on things as I walk by them because they’ve seen that stuff in T.V. shows. Not a lot of people know that I have OCD but when they do learn, that’s always the first thing they think of. It’s not necessarily a negative thing, but I find it interesting that that’s the only perception people have of OCD. With other mental health disorders, I see a lot of stigma too, especially around anxiety and depression. People think it’s such a definable thing, but in reality people have all different types of it and it’s different for every person that experiences it because of the factors in their life.
My last girlfriend had a lot of struggles with depression and anxiety, which we bonded over, since I also struggle with anxiety. I get really nervous about things. Public speaking should make me nervous, but it’s the one thing that doesn’t make me nervous. I get a lot of anxiety around school and interacting with other people. I always have these horror scenarios running through my head. It’s the reason why I wear headphones a lot and listen to a lot of music, because my headphones take a lot of my focus away from that. If I find myself alone, I’ll think about exactly what went horribly wrong in my day and how I could’ve fixed those things. The best way I can describe it is like I’m living in a video game where I wish I could go back and fix my dialogue choices to get a better ending. That’s what’s always going on in my head.
I can be completely fine: super optimistic, happy, and self confident. That’s me most of the time. But what happens with me is that I get a buildup of stress, and I have it building up without having a way to let go of it. It builds until one thing sets it off. For me, that triggers lots of crying and sometimes hyperventilating, when it gets really bad. I usually just want to pull inward or curl up into a ball. When I try to open up my body language, even if it helps relax my muscles, it makes me feel worse because I feel exposed. After a while, I realized that those times when I would break down from stress weren’t just things that only I dealt with. I remember one of those times, I was like, “oh, this isn’t just me. There’s an actual way to describe this and understand what’s happening.”
“Mental health is something that affects you, whether or not it’s an illness or just a part of your overall mindset,” said Kerstin Nielsen (‘19), a member of Oyster River High School’s Mental Health and Wellness Committee. The Mental Health and Wellness Committee began in early 2018 with the goal of reducing stigma around mental health and providing students with resources. “I have friends that deal with mental illness and mental health as a whole. We tend to put mental illness into a bubble. We put it in its place and we ignore it, because we don’t want to talk about it,” she added.
Both faculty and students at Oyster River have noticed a need for more dialogue and resources for those struggling with mental illness. “Mental health is a main focus for us right now,” said Cassamas. “We’ve been working really hard to implement a comprehensive counseling program. The three domains that we focus on are social emotional wellbeing, academics, and career development. They all rely on each other and they all impact each other,” she said, detailing the major changes that Oyster River’s Counseling Department has made over the past six years.
“Right now, we’re running the career development program during Flex. Career development and learning about interests, skills, and future potential, helps students’ overall social emotional well being. That also helps them to be more engaged in their academics,” she explained.
Despite the school’s effort to make change, Cassamas noted that the results of this change will take time. “When it comes to implementing programs, students want to see very quick results and see the impact right away, and in reality, that’s not how it happens, so that can be frustrating,” she said.
Cassamas detailed just a few of the many courses of action that the school has been taking. For the past few years, Oyster River High School has been implementing Signs of Suicide (SOS) training to all ninth graders. Last year, the school implemented the Bystander Training program with UNH, which will also take place throughout next school year. The Counseling Department is also introducing important National Awareness Months into advisories, which are selected based on the information students gave in Youth Risk Behaviour Surveys.
“All of the work that we’re frontloading in freshman year is carrying out and through,” she said. “We feel like students see us as a resource and are accessing us. We want to empower students so that they have the skills to know what to do. From my standpoint, in terms of my experience over the six years, it’s working.”
Other major changes such as the addition of Advisory and awareness-focused assemblies have strived to help address this pressing issue. Additionally, the Mental Health and Wellness Committee held a student-led community forum at Oyster River in November of 2018.
“We had talked about having a discussion about mental health but we hadn’t really jumped into it. I think that [the community forum] was a good starting point to truly start talking about it,” said Jean Nielsen, Kerstin Nielsen’s mother, who attended the event. “It’s vitally important to keep kids feeling like what they’re going through is okay and normal. We need to be aware of it. I think that there are bigger stressors in the world now than when I was a kid,” she added.
Nielsen agreed with her mother, saying,“[mental health] is something that affects us in so many ways, and there are people that just don’t know. They might know that they’re feeling a certain way or that they’re struggling in certain ways but they don’t have the vocabulary or the knowledge on how to describe it and get help.”
Dr. Ryan Long, the psychologist at Oyster River High School, explained how he sees the school progressing in the future, saying, “I hope we make a transition to integrate more of a focus on mental health along with the strong academics we have at Oyster River. Our focus is very academic oriented, which creates a lot of pressure and competition, which don’t help with stress and anxiety. It’s important to be successful, but it’s also important to manage your stress on your route to success.”
In a community with a focus on academic success, it can be difficult to ask for help, especially when you feel like you’re the only one suffering. Fortunately, there are people all around you who are willing to help, and many of them have very similar experiences. Talking with a school counselor, trusted adult, parent, therapist, or friend can open doors to healing.
Artwork by Alana Ervin