Mental health: Choose your words carefully
By Gabriella Casagrande
Think carefully about everything, anything, you’ve said recently surrounding mental health.
“I’m so depressed.” “I have the worst anxiety.” “I’m going to shoot myself.”
Sound familiar? They should. These are all phrases I’ve heard tossed around countless times. Each time they cut like knives into me, diminishing my own experiences with these disorders.
There is a huge stigma around mental health. Through middle and high school, I’ve studied topics ranging from relationships to substance abuse to mental illness, but somewhere along the way I gained the impression that my feelings were normal.
Just teen angst, a part of growing up. Everyday banter about depression and anxiety played a huge role in nurturing my denial, in convincing me that what I was feeling was nothing to worry about.
Your dialogue on mental health affects us.
Mental health disorders know no borders. Girls, boys, teenagers and grandparents of any race and any socio-economic status can experience depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder.
The rich white teen, the boy with the perfect life, can spend his nights having panic attacks. It’s sometimes the most put-together of us who fall apart or hurt ourselves the most when we are alone.
Your dialogue on mental health affects us. We hear your offhand comments that trivialize something we live with every day. I’m sure that most of you don’t mean to equate your experiences with ours, and that lack of awareness is part of the issue.
When you use words like “depressed” so loosely, you ignore the seriousness of the illness. It shouldn’t be a joke or quip.
It’s not a joke to me if I whisper to myself that I’m a failure whose life isn’t worth anything. When I’ve gone weeks without a reason to get out of bed in the morning, or weeks of forced laughter because if someone asks how you are, you might break into a million pieces right then and there. Or weeks where you wonder what happened to the old you because when you finally eat, the food tastes like nothingness, and the music, no matter how often changed, always turns to white noise.
Weeks where you would do anything to feel anything. To feel anything at all, let alone feel happiness.
When it’s been weeks like that, the last thing I need to hear is that you are depressed because your boyfriend is being distant or you didn’t do as well in your tryout as you would have hoped.
I couldn’t make it past the doorway.
Tossing around phrases like that makes it harder for others to take depression seriously — something we already have to deal with when people tell us to “just be happy.” It minimizes the experiences of the millions of people experiencing life-altering mental disorders.
And that’s what they are — illnesses, disorders. Not an overreaction or a weakness, as we often hear they are.
Maybe you say you have anxiety. You might BE anxious at a moment, such as before a big presentation, but this is NOT the same thing as having anxiety.
I still remember my first school dance. Excitement spread like wildfire through the Sixth Grade until the day of the dance. We stressed over what to wear, who to get ready with. Would I dance with Will?
We were all so nervous to walk into that cafeteria, but only I couldn’t make it past the doorway. My heart rate picked up, beat so loudly it overpowered the speakers. I wasn’t even technically at the dance yet, but I already felt like a deer in headlights, felt my airway tighten, felt caged in.
None of my friends or I will ever forget that night. For them, it meant graduating to become middle schoolers, our first taste of everything we had dreamed about since “Grease,” “Sixteen Candles,” you name it.
For me, it was a night of faking happiness, a night that oscillated between bathroom breaks that lasted too long and water breaks that happened far too often. I can let my smile slip during the breaks. It’s like coming up for fresh air — an escape from being hyped up by my friends, when all I want is to be out of this nightmare.
When my mom picked me up at the end of the night, I reassured her that, yes, I had had the best time, and of course I couldn’t wait until the next dance, and don’t worry, my shoes and dress were perfect.
I never did get to dance with Will.
Don’t make jokes about suicide.
I often imagine what it must be like to go to a social event like this and not have crippling anxiety. What it must feel like to not constantly be told to just have fun and relax, when that’s all I’ve ever wanted but can never have.
Instead, I get this: The sight of a mosh pit makes my stomach churn. I go to the bathroom 10 times an hour. Self-deprecating thoughts barrel through my mind during the attacks. When it’s finally over, I hate myself even more for not being a “normal” teen. I loathe myself for not “getting over it and getting out there.”
Sometimes I try, only to be met with a lightning heart rate. I think I’m having a heart attack. Someone opens the bathroom door, and the space fills with laughter. I suffocate my cries so that I won’t be heard, hold my mouth closed as tears streak down my face.
Of course, no one can know that this is happening. I’ve perfected the cycle that allows me time alone without staying away so long that someone might come looking for me — that would only add to my anxiety!
Years later, I gear up for another dance. “This time, it’ll be different,” I tell myself. What I mean is, “I’ll be different.” Because I don’t feel normal with this disorder. The dance isn’t different. I sink down to my knees on the bathroom floor.
“I’m going to shoot myself,” you said. You were someone I trusted. Thank God, I wasn’t in a bad place when you said that. I started to tell you to not make jokes about suicide, only each word I wrote felt less powerful than the previous.
How can someone who’s never held a handful of pills and wondered if they were strong enough to make it through the next class or even the next five minutes understand?
Many teenagers think depressive thoughts are part of growing up.
It is important to think about how you use words like “depression” or “anxiety.” My depression does not come from getting one bad grade on a quiz. I wish it were that trivial.
I realize there may be readers who suffer, or believe they suffer, from depression. The way I experience depression and anxiety may not be the same way someone else might experience them. The last thing I want to do is to discourage others from getting help if they need or want it, or to make people think their feelings are not valid because they have not been medically diagnosed.
Many teenagers believe that suffering depressive thoughts is just part of growing up. It’s why I didn’t think to ask for a therapist until late into my symptoms.
Please think before speaking. Remind yourself of the power and the potential hurt in your words. There may just be someone nearby who truly suffers from an illness you can only speak about.
Gabriella Casagrande is in her second-to-last year of high school, currently studying at School Year Abroad in Rennes, France. She plans to complete high school at the Dana Hall School in Massachusetts. Her favorite classes include science, history and politics. Outside of school, her interests include soccer, music and volunteering. She hopes to make a career in sports medicine or with an organization such as Médecins Sans Frontières, at the intersection of health and humanitarian aid.