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The Age Of The Imbalanced Brain: The Alarming Prevalence Of Mental Illness In Modern Teens

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SILVER SPRING, Md. — All my life I have struggled with depression.

Suicidal thoughts, social anxiety, mood swings, emotional pain. It’s all so familiar. And it’s not an uncommon experience.

In March last year, my brother was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts due to anxiety. In January this year, my close friend was placed in a partial hospitalization program for suicidal thoughts due to depression.

In February, I sat for hours with a friend suffering through a wave of emotional sickness. Another friend had to switch schools twice in one year to find a place that would satisfactorily accommodate her anxiety and subsequent frequent panic attacks. Still another admitted to me that when she’d been hospitalized for attempted suicide, she said whatever she could so she could fake her way out of being there.

Of a close group of five friends of mine, four are in therapy to deal with their mental health.

Anxiety, depression and other mental disorders are debilitating to all of these people, to myself and to so many more. Yet the increasingly poor mental health of teenagers doesn’t receive enough attention.

In February, my high school incorporated a 15-minute homeroom period to tackle an open discussion about suicide.

As if 15 minutes could make a difference, remarked the health teacher I had for the period. The discussion served as more of a trigger for me than anything else, painfully resurfacing my experiences with my brother and my friends.

I want to bring more real attention to this issue, and I have spoken to many teenagers who agree. Here are some of their stories.

Maddy, 17

“It’s a little bit complicated. I was originally diagnosed with depression and anxiety.”

Six or so of Maddy’s therapists over the past few years have additionally jumped between post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder and an eating disorder as possibilities. She is currently in the process of being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.

Maddy should be a junior in high school right now, but instead is a freshman at Bard College in a special program that did not require her to complete high school. Her high school sophomore year was so difficult for her (she failed many classes, spent an increasing amount of time at the hospital and spent three months keeping up with the curriculum from home) that this was the best option for her.

“It was very slow, it was very quiet, and it was very lonely, but I’m actually doing okay right now,” says Maddy– except for the feeling of having missed out on the classic American high school experience.

These problems first became debilitating for Maddy when she was in fifth grade.

“I was cutting myself like every time when I got home and I’d be crying every night… [During the day,] I would start hyperventilating and sobbing and I wouldn’t be able to feel my hands.”

She was also restricting her eating and her grades were beginning to drop.

“The thought that kept running through my mind was ‘I can’t even do school. If I can’t do school, what can I do?’”

Yet Maddy had an overwhelming sense that, as she put it, “none of my friends talk about the fact that they cry every day so I’m not going to either because I don’t want to be the weird one.”

For a brief period in middle school, she was able to deal with her issues herself. “It’s kind of surreal almost when you are healthy and you realize that you weren’t healthy before.”

In seventh grade, Maddy had a friend with a compulsive need for attention and validation. She herself was dealing with depression and was struggling with sexuality. “She would self harm in all sorts of ways.

“On school nights, she would be talking to me until like two in the morning, and her words would be like ‘my life is in your hands right now, I just want to kill myself, whatever, like I’m gonna beat my head with drumsticks’ or she’d be like ‘I’m gonna stick my head in the oven’ or ‘I’m gonna bang my head against the wall.’

“We were both like thirteen at the time so hearing this kind of stuff was pretty upsetting. And so I would feel like I was responsible for her life. … And I would be so afraid that what if I say ‘I’m so sorry I have to go to sleep’ and then she dies and then- and then I have to live with that my whole life.”

Maddy started, in her words, “expressing some vague desire to commit suicide.” She admits she had been suicidal since fifth grade, but it was really starting to hit her in a way that scared her.

“I could see what was happening, but it was just so hard for me to exist. I would feel like I could feel everybody’s eyes moving around the room … and I felt like I could feel like everybody’s consciousness moving around me, and it felt like everybody was just having their own worlds and there were all these different universes overlapping, and that I could feel all of them, and it was just so much, it was like so overwhelming… It was really draining.”

Every day, Maddy felt as if she had to put on a plastic hazmat suit just to enter the world.

“It was like that all the time and in class and at home and with TV shows and I would be trying to write, I would be trying to draw, I would be trying to go out and talk to people all the time and it always was like I was too tired.”

She says she started dealing with intense physical side effects.

“I would feel like the world was spinning and like my vision would like go kind of blurry. I would be throwing up, passing out a lot and be complaining all the time of feeling lightheaded or feeling kind of odd or out of it, maybe sometimes feverish. I wouldn’t have a fever -but I’d feel kind of hot and cold all over, or I’d feel like my hands like I couldn’t feel my hands or my legs.”

With Maddy’s doctor telling her over and over that nothing was wrong, she had this penetrating feeling that everything was useless. She thought that there was no cure for her, that there must be something seriously flawed with who she was as a person.

“I just felt so alone and so frustrated, and then I got really suicidal.” It began with intensely “wild delusions” about who she really was. “I literally was thinking that I was an alien or I was from a different universe. I was thinking ‘okay, well, the only way to find out where I actually am, where I’m supposed to be, how I won’t suffer anymore, the only way to find my home is to kill myself.”

She revived old cycles of behavior, cutting herself again, not knowing how to talk to anyone about her delusions.

For the first time, she started seriously formulating plans in her head.

“I was thinking I’m gonna get a tank of carbon monoxide at the science department at [the University of Maryland] and I’m gonna bike out to this barn I saw.’ That, or I would think, ‘I’m gonna bike out to this bridge and jump off and, and tie like rocks to my ankles so I won’t be able to swim up.’”

Eventually, it got so bad that she was admitted to an in-patient facility. It was after this point that she began fully exploring different school paths for herself, ultimately forming a positive long-term plan for her education. But still, she struggles.

Every time it gets bad, it feels to Maddy like she’s in a bell jar.

“People could see me from the outside in, but I am looking at the world through this warped glass.”

Anna, 16

“You have to take some of the initiative yourself.”

Anna has struggled with PTSD, generalized anxiety, social anxiety, depression, OCD and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

For a long time, Anna’s parents tried to offer her the opportunity to get medication or see a therapist, but as Anna explains, “I was scared of accepting that I needed help. But I realized this was really actually taking a toll on me. I wanted to take steps to be healthier and happier.”

One of the things Anna realized is that “medication isn’t the be all, end all.”

Rather, she has had to learn to use it to regain control of herself, as she put it: “You have to take some of the initiative yourself.”

There are a lot of things, however, that Anna still has difficulty with, particularly when it comes to letting people in.

“It’s really hard to build that trust,” she says, even though she wants to.

She talks specifically about pressure points as a trigger. Anna says she has various places on her body that people who have hurt her used to touch, and when anyone touches those places, negative memories of that person resurface.

“One time during chemistry, my friend was touching me in my pressure points as a joke- and you can imagine that was just terrible.”

Anna also has lots of difficulty focusing. She says it’s like she “suddenly becomes more aware of conversations happening around me” and gets “really invested in those conversations” in a way where she can’t return to her assigned task.

“I can’t turn my brain off.”

Anna often spirals, looking too far in the future, thinking about college, worrying about everything unrelated to what she’s doing. She actively trains herself to avoid that so she can be able to complete even simple tasks, such as going to sleep.

“There were some days where it felt like I just wasn’t motivated to do anything, it felt like I had lost interest on anything I had previously cared about, which really sucked. When you’re in that kind of mindset, you’re often very distant [but ultimately], you really do need people showing that they care.”

This person did not feel comfortable with their name being published. The name Anna is a pseudonym, and is being used for narrative purposes.

Ellie, 17

“I can’t be stopped or controlled and I don’t think things through.”

Ellie has bipolar disorder.

“I’m all over the emotional spectrum,” she jokes.

There are two types of bipolar disorder. In broad terms, the first is restlessness and the second is hyperactivity. Ellie struggles with both, though mostly type two.

“With type one, I have a tendency to wake up in the middle of the night and clean my whole room or make my entire lunch for a whole week. [With type two,] really little things can set me off.”

For Ellie, these triggers can be anything from disappointing herself, to getting into fights, to surprises- either good or bad.

When she “feels like she’s falling off a cliff,” she uses friends, medication and theatre as her parachute. But it’s difficult. The extremes of her emotion are “unstoppable,” taking over her thoughts and actions.

“The worst is when I get really angry… I can’t be stopped or controlled and I don’t think things through. I just say a lot of things I don’t mean,” she says.

“I had a time in my life when I just cast everyone out. At the time of course, it was like an emo phase, like ‘I don’t have any friends.’ I would not talk to anybody because I was just so mad all the time. My brain was just not resetting. That was really hard because I felt like I could never be relaxed or happy again. I was so tense and I felt so claustrophobic all the time.”

Of course, it goes the other way too. When she gets happy, she admits that she can make bad choices.

“I’m like ‘oh, let’s celebrate,’ ‘it would be fun to like do drugs or go drink.’ That stuff doesn’t really mix with the medication that I take. So that can spiral.”

She gets restless, jittery, anxious and jumpy when she is on one of her emotional highs, and has even made the mistake of re-entering a toxic relationship because her positivity overlooked the problems with that choice.

“I deal with a lot of social stress, and just not being a very nice person, and get spastic for no reason- and it’s hard to deal with it.”

Joseph, 16

“I’m kind of a mess,” Joseph says, referring to the amount of disorders he has struggled with: depression, anxiety, ADHD and OCD.

ADHD first appeared in elementary school. Depression and anxiety, on the other hand, were set off when he was in eighth grade.

“I started being really scared of mortality and stuff like that.” He was consumed with worries, and the usual middle school struggles didn’t help with that.

“[There were] these two girls in my class,” he remembers. “I was into one of them. And then the other one took her phone and pretended to be her and flirted with me, and so that kind of messed me up.”

Today, Joseph says his mental health issues have made his life more difficult in endless ways.

“I’m consumed with so many thoughts, worried about so much stuff. Then ADHD makes it hard to focus for any amount of time. With OCD I’m super particular about stuff, but it doesn’t come out where I actually get it done. If it’s not going to be how I want it, it doesn’t get done. It makes work really hard to do.”

The way to deal with it, Joseph says, is to distract himself with other things. Reality television, talking to supportive friends, reading the news, filming. But then the work doesn’t get done and the negative cycle comtinues.

It gets particularly bad for Joseph when social anxiety is involved.

“I’ve definitely been through stuff- I would never act on it. But it’s just hard.”

When Joseph talks about it, he starts speaking faster and faster.

“It never makes a lot of sense,” he tries to explain, “and so that always sucks. OCD kind of exaggerates, like fantasy– every situation is always super exaggerated in my head.”

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