I blogged about how busy the first couple of weeks back to school are. I didn’t mention one of the big reasons: I find the start of a new school year emotionally overwhelming.
Some of you know that I teach in an adult-education program. We offer high-school courses to young adults who didn’t complete high school. There are a wide variety of reasons why “our kids” didn’t finish high school in the first place, and as I get to know my students during the first few weeks of class, their stories begin to unfold. I probably hear more stories than most instructors do because I encourage people to write about their life experiences in my English classes. They produce some amazing pieces of writing — and stories that break my heart.
I don’t blog about most of these stories because they are other people’s stories, not mine to tell, and I’m not about to violate anyone’s confidentiality. But speaking in general terms, I have both heard and read harrowing stories of family dysfunction, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and all the other issues that can derail a young person’s education. Some of the stories that tear me up the most have to do with mental illness. A surprisingly (to me) large proportion of the young people we deal with are struggling with mental health issues — usually depression and/or anxiety disorders. Quite often these stories are intertwined with the ones about drug and alcohol abuse, but in many cases the mental health issues came first, and the drugs and alcohol are an attempt to self-medicate — often after prescription meds have made kids feel worse instead of better. Then of course alcohol and street drugs make them feel much better — but make the actual problem much worse.
I find myself reacting to this much the same way some people of my generation react to the sudden proliferation of kids with severe peanut allergies. I ask myself: “Is this something new? Where did all these depressed kids come from?” When I was a teenager, everyone was moody and miserable, but I don’t recall anyone being depressed and suicidal. Now it seems like every second young person I see has a clinical diagnosis of some kind … or should have one.
When I get to thinking this way, I have to remind myself of a couple of things. First, I’m working with a specialized population. I sometimes have to pull back mentally from the job and remind myself that while adolescence is difficult for everyone, the majority of kids actually get through high school without major psychic damage. The ones I see are the ones who don’t, so obviously my perception of “normal” gets skewed.
Second, there probably were depressed kids in my circle in high school, but depression and anxiety disorders were less well understood and even more stigmatized then than they are now … so the problem may have been hidden. There was probably a lot going on around me that I was unaware of.
But even taking those two caveats into account, it does appear that mental illness, especially depression, is increasing among young people. Which makes me ask two questions: Why? and what are we doing about it?
Is it really just that we’ve gotten better at identifying and diagnosing mental illness, and more willing to talk about it? (Or even, as some might suggest, that we’ve gone too far in the opposite direction and now insist on sticking clinical diagnoses on the “normal” ups and downs of adolescent life?) Or is it possible that, somehow, twenty-first century Western society is actually doing something wrong, actually making kids depressed and anxious? I have no idea. But given what I see at work every day — working as I do on the clean-up end of the problem, seeing the damage that’s done, the good kids that are lost along the way — I’m amazed this isn’t a bigger priority public health and research issue. Shouldn’t we find out why so many kids are depressed and anxious?
And while we’re doing that, couldn’t we also find some better ways to treat those who are already suffering? Professionally, I am on the remotest fringes of the mental-health profession — I have a degree in counselling psychology, which most mental health professionals consider the bottom of the totem pole, well below social workers and psychiatric nurses. I don’t even use my degree directly in my work, since I went back into teaching rather than getting a counselling job. So I look at this as an outsider rather than an insider, and find myself amazed at the treatment and mis-treatment horror stories I hear from kids and even from parents.
They’re not all horror stories. Some kids — usually those with aware, educated parents who are tireless advocates — eventually find good mental health care, and I have heard many kids say that they love their social worker or their psychologist or even (in rare cases) their psychiatrist, because that person has helped them so much. But for every such positive story there’s a nightmare story about misdiagnoses, hospitalizations gone wrong, meds that made them feel crazy (or crazier). I realize it’s a difficult area but I’m still amazed at how hit-or-miss the treatment options seem to be for young people with mental health problems.
Even those who get good care and have parents advocating for them every step of the way often drop out of school. The educational system seems to have gotten much better in the last 20 years at helping kids with learning disabilities — we’ve raised awareness and brought in resources to address an issue that was practically unknown when I went to school. But mental health problems haven’t been addressed in the same way. The supports that need to be in place to help a suicidal, depressed 15-year-old with OCD complete an education are still a long ways away. I’m not even sure what those supports would look like, but I hope somebody’s working hard at figuring that out. Meanwhile, I’m working with people who have sought an alternative route, often several years later, and keeping my fingers crossed to hope it works out for them.
You know what the worst part is? This is my third year doing this job — fourth, if you count the my first year at the Centre, when I worked part-time as a counselling intern. Every year, these stories tear my heart out. And every year, as September turns to October and autumn deepens … I get used to them. Every year, I start earlier to accommodate myself to heartbreak. I began this journal entry on Monday and at that point it was still too painful to write. Today I can write it and it hardly hurts. I’ve grown accustomed to the stories already.
I hope I don’t care any less, but my shock and horror subsides as I get to know these young people and their present becomes more real to me than their past. I have to adapt — if I went around in a perpetual state of shocked mourning, I couldn’t do my job. But I hate that this is something I have to get used to — that stories of suicide attempts, anxiety attacks, and depression become commonplace. It’s not right; these horrors shouldn’t be so much a part of our children’s lives that we as a society accept them. I need to say that, loudly, once in awhile. If only to remind myself.