Last week, I held an assembly on mental health for my school, Berkeley High. No event related to mental health awareness has ever taken place at BHS before, so I set out to organize an assembly that would provide students and teachers with information and resources.
To give a little bit of background into BHS, I remember that as a freshman (I’m a senior now), we had a few days reserved for “Social Living.” During those days, we talked about drugs and sexual health, but mental health was never touched upon. Now, the school has expanded the time period for Social Living — second semester of freshmen year is dedicated completely to this topic. However, this expansion did not address the problem: there is still no set curriculum that includes mental health. This lack of structure means that the information taught by each teacher varies. Some teachers decide to talk briefly about mental health, and some don’t, whether it’s because they do not feel equipped to teach about it or do not feel that it is important. Because the importance of mental health has yet to be addressed on campus, I invited Abbie Gregor, a former therapist from our school’s Health Center, to discuss the most common types of mental illnesses among teens and to provide online and local resources. To make the assembly less clinical and more personal, I also invited a Berkeley High junior, Ruby Spies, to share her own experiences with depression, anxiety, hospitalization, OCD, and anorexia. Lastly, I asked my friend, Nadia Ghaffari, the founder of TeenzTalk, to speak about the power of peer support and influence.
In my introduction, I mentioned that mental health is an incredibly taboo topic to talk about. One of the main reasons is the stigma attached to it. Mental illnesses are not always taken as seriously as physical injuries because often these internal experiences are difficult to communicate and not obvious enough for others to legitimize. Instead, mental health problems are viewed as “weaknesses” or “behavioral problems,” and even associated with criminality. This negative portrayal, misunderstanding, and ignorance of mental health only perpetuate the stigma, ultimately hurting everyone around us. I often witness people who are struggling feel too ashamed to reach out for the treatment they deserve and need. Because this topic is brushed aside and voices are silenced by stigma, some people are not even aware of their own symptoms.
I remember when I used to go through my days with a constant heavy feeling that stole any possibility of joy from me. This feeling completely polluted my thoughts and I felt worried more than I felt anything else. The worst part was that I didn’t know what I was experiencing and I told myself that I deserved to feel so much pain. It wasn’t until later, when I told my friend what I didn’t know to be symptoms, that I realized I had anxiety. She understood how I felt because she was experiencing anxiety and anorexia as well as coping by self-harming. At first, I could not comprehend how much self-hatred she could possess until I began to feel the same way. We were both lost, both self-destructive, until one day, I actually saw the blood stains on her sheets. The color of rusted red screamed at me to seek help for both of us because another night, she might just cut too deep, and I might act on my thoughts. Without telling her, I spoke to a school counselor. My friend was then assigned to a therapist and I continued to speak to that school counselor, a year after we both confided in each other.
Despite what it felt like at the time, my friend and and I weren’t the only ones in those dark places. Some are still trapped within their own thoughts and feelings. There are so many people around us who live with these conditions, and there are also those who do not yet know what they are struggling with. They can feel extremely isolated and worthless, and might be blaming themselves for what they are going through.
Having experienced the worst of my days and having watched the people I love break down, I wish that no one has to ever experience any type of mental illness. I know that my wish is unrealistic, but what I can do is help change the way we talk and view mental health. Mental disorders are as debilitating as physical maladies, and we need to recognize that. I do not want people who are battling with their own minds to feel alone, to feel that their feelings are invalidated, to feel that they deserve all of this. Like Nadia, I want to promote discussion as one of the ways to shatter the stigma that shrouds people’s conditions. This awareness starts with education, where people can empower themselves by learning about mental disorders and how they can identify them among themselves, their friends, and family members. This knowledge can then lead to an understanding of their needs, their feelings, and their desire for help. An event like this in a school setting also aids teachers in identifying symptoms in their students. Sometimes, it just takes one person who checks in to make someone feel cared about. When teachers empathize with what their students are going through or recognize how mental disorders can impair daily performances, they show their students that they prioritize their wellness because without a healthy body, there is no space for optimal learning.
I honestly did not think I would make it to seventeen, let alone be in this place in my life. I am even surprised at my ability to share bits of my experiences, but every time I have done so, somebody has thanked me. After the assembly, many students came up to thank me and Ruby. One freshman in particular told Ruby that she gave her hope for the future. Teachers are grateful that this event occurred and some told me that they feel more comfortable pulling students out of class when they feel concerned. And thanks to Nadia, I can now share this story on an online platform, where there is a group of compassionate teens. The more we talk about mental health, the more it is recognized, and the less taboo it becomes. Let’s build that community. I want to continue building a supportive community at my school, and it began with this assembly. Ruby is aiming to start a peer education group on mental health and I am working to increase funding in Berkeley High’s mental health services. Let’s expand this community. I want all of us to embrace the importance of mental health and its essentiality in overall well-being.
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