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Invisible Wounds

Originally published in The Chronicle Vol. 12 (Color Outside the Lines).

Photo+credit+Mikaila+Barker.
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Invisible Wounds

Photo credit Mikaila Barker.

Photo credit Mikaila Barker.

Photo credit Mikaila Barker.

Photo credit Mikaila Barker.

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In October of 2017, junior Sebastian Harty committed suicide. The news shocked the campus like nothing had before — we’d lost one of our own. Described by one of his teachers, Ms. Kara Wilson, Sebastian was “a student that sought others out — he always made sure that everyone felt loved and cared for.” Friends, family and the school itself were left stunned and heartbroken. In a community trademarked by its sense of student camaraderie and social efficacy, it seemed impossible that a tragedy like this could occur at Classical. Yet now, CAHS is included in the sadly growing list of schools affected by student suicide.

According to the Center for Disease Control, suicide is the second leading cause of death for American teenagers ages 15-19 — and those numbers hit closer to the Caiman community than most realize. Compelled by both his life and tragic death, the journalism team went searching for answers. Students were given the option to complete an anonymous Google survey which asked questions related to mental health and suicide. At its close on March 20, 370 student respondents completed the survey; 88.6% (328) indicated “Yes” when asked if they believed that “mental health is a serious issue that is negatively affecting [our] generation.”

We all have mental health; some days are great, and some days, we barely get by. But among us, there are those who suffer from specific and debilitating mental illnesses. Sebastian Harty was diagnosed with one of the more well-known mental illnesses, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which affected his interactions with others and left him dependent on medication. OCD has a wide variety of types and a spectrum of severity. Sebastian had a very rare and specific form of OCD wherein he faced constant compulsions to prioritize others’ well-being over his own. “[He had to make] sure that everyone around him was happy … he wanted everyone to be pleased with what he was doing,” teacher Ms. Wilson said. Sebastian was kind, generous and a good friend to many. “He was supportive, no matter what I did … We joked and teased and laughed,” his good friend junior Isabella Portlock said. The two friends even had a running, popular debate between which was better — waffle cones or waffle bowls. “If he was still here, it’d probably still be going on,” Portlock said. In his daily life, Sebastian presented himself as an upbeat teenager who went out of his way to make everyone around him comfortable. Because of this trait, few people understood the extent of his suffering, or that he was suffering at all. “People have a picture of what mental illness looks like, and it’s not what you think,” Jennifer Harty, Sebastian’s mother, shared.

Poor mental health, in fact, doesn’t always present itself visibly. “I’m tired of the belief that my suffering means nothing because you can’t physically see it like you can see a bruise or a broken arm. It’s like the saying goes, just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean that it isn’t there,” one respondent said. “Being a teenager is tough. Being a teenager with a mental illness is worse … We can choose to change the way society perceives mental illness or we can choose silence, but the latter will cost us many beautiful souls full of potential that felt like nobody understood them. It’s all up to us.” However, these struggles don’t exclusively apply to mental illness; everyone has invisible wounds. Whether or not you have been clinically diagnosed with a mental illness, your pain is your pain, and should never be invalidated.

While not everyone exhibits symptoms of their struggles, sometimes there are warning signs. Sebastian’s family was unaware that in the days leading up to his death, he had stopped taking his medication. While it is a common assumption that discontinuing medications is a positive step in one’s life, many people who use medication to manage their mental illnesses do so because the illnesses are too harsh to combat with pure volition. Sebastian made the dangerous decision to stop taking his medication independent of his doctor’s counsel — medication he needed to reduce his brain’s hyperactivity, and, thus, the severity of his compulsions. His parents believe that, if they had known about this rarely-discussed warning sign, they could have better recognized the urgency of Sebastian’s situation and taken action. There are other subtle actions (or inactions) that can indicate someone needs support, but it can be hard to distinguish jokes from genuine cries for help in a culture that normalizes casually mentioning such warning signs. “People constantly joke and make light comments about being depressed, wanting to die or telling one another to kill themselves,” one respondent said. These jokes have become so ingrained in teenage culture that many no longer recognize the serious implications that these comments can have. Since people often mask their struggles, being alert for even the smallest signs is critical.

In the optional final question of our survey, when students were asked to provide insight and feedback on the topic of mental health, 215 of 370 weighed in, offering their own arguments for the growing problem and articulating clear and compelling solutions for change. Students most often cited the following as stressors aggravating mental health decline: the presence of social media; the pressure to perform well, both at school and at home; and the stigma and discomfort of discussing mental health as a community.

Nearly a third of respondents described the negative effect social media has had on our generation’s self-perception. Most students have access to one virtual platform or another, where many social media influencers — and their peers — present idealized versions of their lives to their online followers, often leading teens and young adults to set unrealistic standards for themselves. “I believe our constant knowledge of everyone’s situation through social media … gives us a feeling that we are not good enough,” one respondent wrote. “Too often, I see people becoming disillusioned by how ‘perfect’ their peers’ lives seem on social media and at school,” another student added. Social media does not cause mental illness, and is not inherently evil — however, the psychological abuse, skewed perceptions and social comparisons that may be faced on such platforms can prove to be seriously detrimental to one’s mental health. Ironically, someone’s seemingly beautiful or joy-filled Instagram feed is not always indicative of a beautiful or happy life. While social media can trigger feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem and low self-worth — components of something like depression — ultimately it has as much power over your mental state as you give it. And for those who feel these harmful effects, there is a simple, if at first tough, solution: don’t use it.

Numerous survey participants reported that interpersonal and academic expectations are a major contributor to the problem. “There’s pressure to be the most popular, the smartest, the one handling the most rigorous courses … I think it’s important for teens at this age to have an outlet where they can take their minds off of those pressures and just relax,” one respondent wrote. Other students added that “many kids feel like they need to perform perfectly in school for colleges” and there’s “a considerably larger emphasis on doing well in high school [equated with] doing well in life.” One respondent articulated the compounding factors of mounting pressure. “Students are stressed about homework, tests, and finals … I have no idea what I am going to do with my future but I also have tons of ideas and possibilities. When I start to think about what I could do in the world and also about how much I won’t be able to accomplish, it really freaks me out.”

Another factor that continued to surface in student feedback was the stigma and implied shame surrounding the topics of mental health, mental illness and suicide awareness. “[Mental health] is considered something that shouldn’t be talked about, but more often than not there’s someone within a 5-feet radius of you who is suffering,” one student wrote. And in daily situations, another student shared, “I feel obliged to reply that I’m doing well every time I’m asked, but it’s rarely true. I would say that there is a stigma around verbalizing your true mental state — one that shouldn’t exist in the first place.” One student relayed their own personal struggle and solution to finding help: “Never just assume that you know how anybody else’s life is, don’t be so quick to judge, don’t assume that someone is fine … it is best to be kind to everyone and reach out to as many people as you can with positivity … because you never know who you may impact with the smallest amount of kindness,” the respondent said. “I was struggling the most I ever had … but fortunately I had people who surrounded me and opened my eyes to the options for my health … I finally knew I needed help and because I had support I got over the fear of letting people know what was going on.”

The topics outlined by student responses all lead back to one question: what can we do as a community to combat the growing epidemic of mental health facing our generation? There was a general consensus among respondents that destigmatizing mental health issues on and off campus — along with supporting each other when we choose to seek help — have the potential to create change in our generation. Several respondents also advocated for more counselors to be available, and for them to have a heightened presence on campus. “We … don’t have reliable access to a counselor,” one respondent said. “It’s not uncommon to be waiting for 20, 30, 40 minutes to see her in the middle of a class period. There are a lot of people that need help at our school. And the truth is, we don’t have enough resources to help us during the school day.” To combat the stigma and silence surrounding mental health issues, one respondent emphasized that we need to normalize asking for help, and “that it is okay (and not shameful or weak) to do so.” One student said that “setting up open forums and promoting awareness is crucial for our generation,” while another reaffirmed the sentiment that having open communication about mental health would be beneficial to the student body: “I’d say everyone needs someone to talk to. And almost everyone has felt deeply sad or really stressed out and helpless at a time in their life.” For some, the path to improved mental health can be made easier by receiving professional help or even speaking up about it, but it can often be hard to make that leap alone. Although there is no universal way that is guaranteed to help a struggling friend or family member, the knowledge that someone is there and willing to support you can go a long way.

On April 16, 2018, Sebastian Harty would have turned 18 years old. “What he manifested in his short 17 years is what some people don’t even achieve in a lifetime,” Ms. Wilson said. Although he had spread love and positivity to everyone he encountered, Sebastian had much more life to live. He had the resources necessary to help him cope in the midst of his struggles — a supportive family, loving friends, the right medication — but his conscious decision to not utilize them ultimately cost him his life. For a teen struggling with their mental health, suicide can appear to be the only option — “but that’s not really the real story,” the Hartys said. Suicide is never an option. Ending your own life doesn’t fix anything for anyone, and Sebastian’s catastrophic decision led to the pain and suffering of his friends and family. “Try to think about what you would miss out on if you did kill yourself … graduation, accomplishments, your future … and so many would miss you … I would miss you,” Portlock said. Nobody is better off without you. While certain moments of your life can weigh heavily on you, those moments do not determine your legacy or your self-worth. “Throw yourself into helping yourself and helping others. He made a huge impact while he was here and that could have continued. It’s not the answer,” the Hartys said. “There’s no glory in suicide. There’s no glory. You’re so much better off here, making your impact here. Help each other. It’s so much more glorifying to do that.”

For a full review of the survey results, including detailed respondent feedback, please visit:

https://crimsonnews.org/5933/news/5933/

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1 Comment

One Response to “Invisible Wounds”

  1. Dianne Richardson on April 11th, 2019 6:50 am

    Well written. Thanks for the insight.

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