Mental health is an issue I’ve dedicated numerous blog posts to over the past year or so. It may be reaching the point where I’m starting to sound a bit repetitive (and it may not always be clear how it ties to atheism though that shouldn’t stop atheists from caring about the issue), but I have personal reasons for wanting to bring this subject up from time to time. So, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, here are some more thoughts on mental health.
Over at Freethought Blogs, Miriam has written a piece on teenage mental health. The article opens with the following:
There’s a disturbing and pervasive idea out there that the psychological troubles of teenagers are inconsequential and unworthy of attention because they’re just a part of “teen angst” or “growing up” or whatever.
Right away, the article hits home. Looking back on my teen years, it certainly felt like I was going through the “teen angst” stage. Anger and misery were common feelings. I often thought of those emotions as being related to the general difficulties of growing up along with the challenges I was dealing with at the time. It wouldn’t be until a few years later, when I started talking to health professionals about depression and anxiety, that I was able to realize that those emotions I was going through in the teenage years may have been more than just “angst”. I wonder how many cases of teenage mental health are ignored because it is viewed as “angst”?
Miriam goes on to say:
Painting all teenage mood problems in a single shade of “teen angst” can prevent teens with diagnosable mood disorders from seeking help, because they either second-guess themselves and conclude that what they’re experiencing is “normal” (read: healthy) or they try to get help but are rebuffed by well-meaning adults who tell them that this is just what adolescence is and that they’ll grow out of it.
And then, of course, they find that it doesn’t get better after adolescence, and sometimes they tragically conclude that they must simply not have “grown up” yet. (Again, count me among them.)
The dismissive attitude of adults is troubling, and worth noting that it can carry on into adult life where stigma against mental health still exists, in those years we look to adults for guidance. When the guidance is poor and dismissive, the teen will feel even more isolated.
The “It Gets Better” messaging is also problematic, as Miriam points out. You set yourself up for a harsh hit from reality when you reach the stage where things are supposed to “get better” and they don’t. Having hopes, only to watch them dissolve will make the situation worse.
Second, mental issues do not need to have reached clinical levels to be unpleasant, troubling, and inconvenient. Any time you’re unhappy with some aspect of your emotions, moods, thoughts, or behaviors, that’s a good enough reason to seek help from a therapist. Seriously. Either the therapist will help you accept aspects of yourself that you’d been bothered by, or they will help you change those aspects. Whether or not those aspects have a fancy name in the DSM isn’t really relevant.
Do not wait for someone to tell you that your mental health condition has reached a clinical level before seeking various forms of health. Getting help while your health is relatively stable is better than waiting for the worst possible situation. Just like you go to get a check-up for your physical health, go get one for your mental health.
Nobody thinks it’s weird that virtually every teenager (who can afford it) goes to a dentist and has their wisdom teeth checked and probably removed. Nobody thinks it’s weird that virtually every female-bodied teenager (who can afford it) starts seeing a gynecologist when they become sexually active. Nobody thinks it’s weird that people of all ages regularly get physicals and get their eyesight and hearing checked.
It is expected that everyone will need (and, hopefully, receive) treatment for some sort of physical ailment over the course of their lives. Yet the idea that even a sizable minority of people will need treatment for a mental problem still gets many people ranting about how we ought to just “snap out of it.”
Hopefully, there will come a time when talking about mental health among teens becomes easier for all the parties involved. As easy as going to the dentist to get their wisdom teeth checked and removed. (Well maybe that’s a bad example, wisdom teeth removal is not fun – at least it wasn’t me).
Are some teenagers actually “over-dramatic” (whatever that even means)? Probably. But it’s hard to tell who’s being over-dramatic and who isn’t, which is why that’s a decision best left to a professional. I was constantly accused of being “over-dramatic” when I was a teenager.
I must admit that during my teenage years, I had friends who I felt were just being “over-dramatic” that there were in a mood that they’d get over in a few days. Thinking back to those days now, another explanation comes up. Those people were dealing with a mental health issue. One I never saw because I never stood, because I bought into that stigma that people just need to toughen up, and to stop feeling so miserable about their lives because, hey, it can’t be that bad. Can it? Let’s hope that through education we can prevent other teens from holding such attitudes. Mental health stigma involves myths that need to be addressed in order to eliminate the incorrect beliefs people hold about them. I’ll end this post with the closing paragraphs of Miriam’s piece as I believe they offer the advice everyone should walk away with when they finish reading this post:
If a teenager mentions or threatens suicide, take them seriously and help them get treatment. If they turn out to have been “over-dramatic,” a therapist can help them figure out why they threaten suicide hyperbolically and find a way to stop. That’s a therapist’s job, not a friend’s, teacher’s, or parent’s.
The belief that the thoughts and feelings of children and teenagers are not to be taken seriously is widespread and dangerous, and goes far beyond just mental health. It is far better to take someone seriously and get them help when they didn’t really need it than to ignore someone’s call for help and attention when they do need it.