(Content Warnings: suicide, self-harm)
My first major depressive episode happened when I was 13 years old. It felt like someone turned the lights out on my life, leaving me in complete and total darkness.
The hopelessness and alienation that I felt was definitely outside of the norm for me – it was gut-wrenching, physically painful – but despite the very clear shift, I was left to figure it out on my own.
I have very loving parents, parents who are totally invested in the wellbeing of their children. But despite my early onset, I didn’t get diagnosed with bipolar disorder for another five years, until a complete breakdown forced me to seek out help as an adult.
Valuable years that could have been spent healing and learning important coping skills were, instead, fraught with self-harm, suicidality, isolation, and despair as I attempted to navigate my mental illness alone.
An earlier diagnosis, no doubt, would have made a huge difference in my life.
My story is not unique, either.
In my work as a mental health advocate, I continue to meet others like myself who struggled as teens, and yet didn’t receive the life-saving help that they needed until much later in life.
So what gives?
I, like many other teens with mental illness, flew under the radar not because my pain wasn’t apparent, but because my pain wasn’t taken seriously.
Assumptions simply based on my age made it difficult for the adult figures in my life to intervene, even when that intervention was desperately needed.
Even the very best of parents and guardians are still guilty of making these assumptions, which are an enormous barrier in helping teens who struggle with their mental health.
What kinds of assumptions am I talking about?
Try these on for size:
1. Teenagers Don’t Suffer from Mental Illnesses
There are a shocking number of people who believe that teens simply can’t have a mental illness.
This means that half of adults with mental illnesses were once teens with mental illnesses – but, more often than not, are not diagnosed until much later in life.
When teens with mental illness go undiagnosed, the consequences are dire.
It creates a vicious cycle, with 50% of teens with mental illness dropping out of high school and most winding up incarcerated (65-75% of juveniles in the prison system have a diagnosable mental illness).
When you say that teens don’t struggle with mental illness, you ignore the very serious epidemic of incarcerated disabled youth, and you discourage teens with mental health struggles from seeking out help.
Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. Anyone at any age can be impacted by these illnesses, and invalidating their struggles only perpetuates them.
2. If a Teen Is “High-Functioning”, They Can’t Have a Mental Illness
I did everything I could to keep my illness out of sight because I was afraid of what would happen if people knew what was really going on.
So if you looked at the surface, you would think I was a happy and healthy teen. My report card would tell you that I was smart, capable, and in control. But I spent weeks at a time not wanting to live anymore, faking a smile while inside, I was coming undone.
It wasn’t just my parents who missed the signs. There were medical professionals telling me that I couldn’t possibly have a mental illness because I was young and doing well in school.
I had doctors tell me that I didn’t have anxiety and that it must, instead, be heartburn. There were school counselors who said as long as my grades were high, there was nothing to worry about.
Nothing to worry about? By delaying my diagnosis and treatment, they allowed me to continue suffering in silence – which eventually escalated into self-harm and risky, suicidal behavior.
Plenty of teens who are considered “high-functioning” are grappling with their mental health, but their needs are often neglected because it’s assumed that they’re okay.
While it’s true that lower functioning can be a red flag, it should never be assumed that a teen that is high-achieving is mentally healthy by default.
It might just mean that they’ve become very good at hiding what they’re going through.
3. Mood Swings Are Just a Normal Part of Being a Teen – It’s All Those Hormones!
It’s true that teenagers can feel some pretty intense emotions as the hormones start to kick in. Puberty is a really overwhelming experience, as I’m sure most of us can remember.
But this is a problematic statement nonetheless.
First of all, it invalidates the very real emotions and experiences that teens are going through. It trivializes their feelings.
Regardless of where these feelings are coming from, it’s still their lived experience and adults should offer them support and guidance when it’s needed. Simply dismissing their struggles does nothing to help.
It also brings us back to the first point – that teens can and do experience mental illness. If we just assume that any mood a teen experiences is because of their hormones, we miss all the red flags that could help us detect a mental health crisis sooner rather than later.
Everyone assumed that I was a moody, dramatic teenager. And I was – I was moody because I was struggling with undiagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder and anxiety; I was dramatic because no one noticed and no one seemed to care.
We need to take teens seriously when they talk about their emotions, their experiences, their struggles. Otherwise, they will never want to confide in us. They’ll lose their trust in us, and ultimately decide not to seek out help even when it’s needed.
They will assume – like I did – that any adult they talk to will just dismiss their feelings.
4. They May Be Depressed Now, But They’ll Grow Out of It
You know what would’ve been cool? If I’d “grown out” of bipolar disorder.
But that didn’t happen.
And though you may learn better coping skills over time, there’s no guarantee that any mental health issue is simply going to disappear on its own.
Leaving a mental health issue unaddressed because you think that, given time, it’ll subside is a serious risk to take.
Allowing someone to suffer indefinitely also seems unnecessary, especially when there are often resources available right now to help teens cope with mental health issues.
And when you take into account the prevalence of teen suicide (the second leading cause of death in that age group), ignoring potential red flags doesn’t seem like a risk that’s worth taking.
5. They Aren’t Old Enough to Know the Difference Between Mental Illness and Typical Stress
Even if this were true, I somehow doubt that someone on the outside could magically know what another person is going through, not having lived their experience or been in their shoes.
This is another excellent example of adults completely dismissing the pain that teenagers are experiencing.
The idea that a teen can’t know the difference between an illness and stress is problematic on two fronts. It suggests that they shouldn’t believe their gut when they know something is wrong, that they shouldn’t trust their own experiences and should, instead, ignore their pain. And secondly, it upholds the idea that they are defective for not being able to cope with this “normal stress” – that they’re weak for not knowing what to do.
When I was told that my illness was just stress, I felt guilty and ashamed.
I felt like it was my fault – that I should’ve pulled myself up by my bootstraps and managed my “stress” like everyone else in my life seemed to do.
Blaming myself ultimately exacerbated the illness that was already ruining my life.
The reality is, it’s not up to an outsider to decide whether a teen’s pain is severe enough, especially when that outsider is biased. We need to trust teens when they tell us that they are suffering, and help them find the resources they need to cope – whether it’s typical stress or a mental illness, they still deserve support and validation.
6. There’s Nothing to Be Depressed or Anxious About at That Age
I was told – often – that my life wasn’t so bad, that I had no reason to be depressed.
This suggests that mental illness depends exclusively on circumstances.
But while circumstances can agitate an illness, a mental illness can impact any person, regardless of their environment.
It’s true that I carry a lot of privilege as a white person who grew up in a stable, middle-class household, with two parents who cared deeply about me. To an outside observer, my life wasn’t “that bad.”
But an “easy” life didn’t stop bipolar disorder from wreaking havoc in my life. It didn’t stop me from cutting. It didn’t stop me from spiraling. It didn’t stop my panic attacks, and it didn’t fend off my depression.
Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. And although our circumstances can trigger us (and our identities can impact how we experience these disorders), these illnesses can impact any teen.
Instead of invalidating someone when they tell us that they’re suffering, we should honor the difficult place that they’re in – and believe them when they tell us what they’re going through.
7. Clearly They’re Just Hanging Out with the Wrong Crowd
When I was called in by a high school counselor because of my self-injury wounds, I was asked “which of my friends” were also doing it – as if my pain were just a fad, something I was doing to be hip or cool or edgy.
Because my grades were too good. I was the kid next-door. I was so smart. So how could I be doing this?
Must be the crowd I fell into.
This was one of the most offensive things I encountered as a teen.
Telling me I was hurting myself because of my friends read like an accusation. I was basically being told that my pain was insincere, something that I was faking just to fit in. It took the worst pain I had ever felt and suggested it was all an attempt to be cool.
Nothing about desperately wanting to die really strikes me as “cool.”
No one who is suffering wants to hear that what they’re going through isn’t real. No one wants to hear that the worst experiences of their lives were just a trend they were following, like popping a shirt collar or wearing a snapback.
Mental illness is not trendy. Self-injury isn’t just a fad.
It’s also concerning that I was being encouraged to disclose the struggles of my friends, if they were indeed cutting. Telling me to “snitch” on my friends was not only a violation of their privacy, but also may not actually help them depending on their situation.
The idea that teens are not entitled to privacy is in itself a harmful idea. And if one of my friend’s were in an abusive household, “snitching” on them could put them in more danger, as counselors at our school were required to inform our parents when we were called in.
Pinning my struggles on someone else was alienating, hurtful, and at least fifty shades of f*cked up. Potentially endangering my friends and ostracizing me within the friend group? Not much better.
8. If a Teen Is Struggling, It’s Probably the Fault of the Caretakers
No amount of love, no amount of money, no amount of dance classes or violin lessons or summer camp was enough to fend off bipolar disorder.
A stable and loving household, whatever that really means, is not a safeguard against mental illness.
My parents did the best that they could – I love them so much for that – and although abuse, financial insecurity, or distress in a household could certainly be triggering, that is not the sole cause of mental illness in teens.
A teen’s mental health issues are not necessarily a reflection of their home life, nor does it necessarily reflect on their guardians, in the same way that any kind of illness could be caused by environmental factors, but isn’t always.
I think my mother said it best when she told me that I didn’t come with an instruction manual.
The reality is that, even when parents realize that their child might need help, they aren’t necessarily equipped with the knowledge, resources, and savvy it takes to navigate the mental health care system.
And in many instances, there are financial and emotional barriers that make it difficult to do the right thing.
Instead of blaming caretakers for not preventing mental illness, we should be critical of the systems in place that make treatment so difficult to access.
When we invalidate the suffering of teens with mental illness, we endanger their lives. We trivialize their pain, we discourage them from seeking help, and we ostracize them in our communities.
Despite struggling with bipolar disorder for most of my life, it took years before I received adequate treatment because no one believed me when I said that I was hurting.
The ageist assumption that teens don’t experience these illnesses, or that their pain is fleeting or somehow less serious, is not helping teens. If anything, it’s fostering a culture of shame and of silence.
As a result, we raise teens that secretly suffer, and will not get the help they need until they’ve reached a breaking point as adults or, often times, when it’s already too late.
There were few, if any, adults that validated my pain. I learned not to trust adults in my life; their dismissal of my depression reinforced my belief that they would never understand, and as a result, I could never confide in them.
I spent my teen years trying to pull myself out of the depths of suicidal depression – and I failed, unsurprisingly, because I didn’t have the knowledge or resources I needed to advocate for myself. The reality is, I was still just a kid, dealing with a disorder that was so much bigger than me.
I could have died. And while I’m lucky that I didn’t, not every teen with mental illness has a happy ending to their story.
We, as a society, need to create a culture in which teens with mental illnesses feel validated, and encouraged to seek out help. Because these illnesses will not fix themselves – and no teen should ever have to go it alone.
Sam Dylan Finch a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. He is queer writer, activist, and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to his work at Everyday Feminism, he is also the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, his hella queer and very awesome blog. You can learn more about him here and read his articles here. Follow him on Twitter @samdylanfinch.