Phrases like, “She’s like psycho or something” are commonplace among the student body. While these statements aren’t usually said with malicious intent, they are insensitive to those who struggle with mental health.
A student, who wishes to be anonymous, was diagnosed with depression three years ago and said that it is insensitivities like these that diminish their struggle.
This insensitivity often leads many to develop an incomplete understanding of what mental illness actually looks like for people.
The student acknowledged that even if people don’t mean the things they say, it shouldn’t be said at all because they downplay the seriousness of the topic for others who are absorbing this insensitivity.
With phrases like “go kill yourself,” which even has its own acronym, becoming so popular, many don’t consider the true implications.
“It’s so toxic because it desensitizes it and for one thing I’m like ‘okay maybe you’re trying to cope’, but also it’s detrimental to yourself and others because it’s not cute being told to kill yourself,” they said. “It’s less about being mean, but it’s more like people joke about it so much that it makes me feel almost embarrassed,” the student said.
Sometimes the lack of sensitivity lies in the things that are left unsaid. The student noted that the lack of depth with which mental health is addressed plays a crucial role in the limited knowledge and care students have about the topic.
“We need to address the problems entirely because I feel like the discussions are very surface level and it’s kind of just tips and tricks. We don’t actually talk about what it really means,” they said. “In order to break past that boundary, you need to address it fully at a deeper level instead of just breathing exercises and being there for a friend.”
With the recent passing of another student, they felt the administration missed an opportunity to effectively initiate conversations around mental health in adviseries so that students could be more educated and empathetic towards the topic.
“I know with the recent [death] there wasn’t a lot we could say, but I feel like discussions didn’t really [start] about any of it whatsoever. It was completely skipped over.”
Although the student acknowledged that there wasn’t much conversation that could have occurred around the student’s death, they were frustrated that more teachers and advisers didn’t acknowledge the topic head on.
“Because those discussions weren’t controlled at all, it wasn’t productive because it became the student’s job to process it on their own and so it just felt more gossipy and kind of insensitive,” said the student.
Sophomore Elizabeth Ross shared that she too has struggled with depression for most of her life. She feels that the school does a good job addressing mental health but emphasized that it’s a subject that should be talked about more consistently.
“It’s so important not only to address it after something horrible happens,” Ross said. “It’s most important to address mental health before something horrible happens.”
Counselor Nikkie Evans, who specializes in childhood and adolescent anxiety and depression, explained that due to the limited conversations around mental health in general, people are sometimes led to respond in ways that aren’t constructive or positive.
“I think sometimes it makes them uncomfortable if they don’t really know what to say because it is something that we don’t really address head on but we’ll kind of skirt around the topic,” said Evans. “It’s better to just be direct and head on and have those conversations.”
The lack of these direct conversations about mental health has not only some caused people to approach the topic with little sensitivity, but has ensured that many remain uninformed about the reality of mental illnesses, thus reinforcing the stigma.
Having open and honest conversations about mental health would help break some of the boundaries that currently exist between the reality of mental health and the stereotypes people assign to them.
Contrary to popular belief, the student said in their experience with depression, they aren’t just sad all the time.
“At the beginning I was sad all the time and I was angry,” they explained. “Currently it’s lack of motivation, just sluggishness and isolating. Emotion-wise it’s more numb than actively being sad.”
This lack of motivation affects them regularly in their everyday life as they have received multiple detentions for being late since they often have a difficult time simply getting up in the morning. It also interferes with their class work.
“There was one particular test that I knew the material and instead of taking the test, I just sat there looking at the paper,” they said. “I didn’t pick up my pencil.”
The student participates in an athletic extracurricular and said they really enjoy the sport. But even partaking in activities they enjoy proves difficult.
“I signed up and got all changed and made it halfway to the field house where we were meeting and I just turned around and walked two miles home. I did that for three days after school,” the student shared. “It’s just so hard to show up [for things like that].”
The stereotypes most people have come to accept don’t encompass the truths that this student experiences daily.
Ross believes that the obstacle doesn’t necessarily lie in simply talking about mental health but actually getting people to care about it.
“I think New Trier is already pretty good about discussing mental health and making it a topic that matters,” Ross said. “The issue is usually that students and some teachers at the school will have no regard for this topic.”
In order to get people to express more empathy for the subject, Evans emphasized, people need to accept mental illness as normal, because it isn’t an uncommon struggle.
“People think of mental illness as this thing but they don’t realize the amount of people who struggle. The people that are struggling are just like anyone else,” she said.
While getting everyone educated and more empathetic toward mental health is the most ideal goal, the school, and the larger culture, are far from realizing it. The student said that for all the good the school has done in accommodating her mental health needs, they feel as if they are being judged by their teachers due to the general preconceptions of mental illness that still exist.
“There was this weird kind of tense feeling. My teachers just kind of acted differently and I feel like that’s how a lot of people respond,” they said, “They either kind of ignore it, exclude it altogether, or they treat you differently like you’re fragile.”
These preconceptions stem from the lack of education regarding the varying degrees and types of depression and other mental illnesses, but education in all of these areas is important so that students can support each other in the most effective and constructive ways possible.
According to Evans, mental health looks different for everyone. Each person struggles, manages and uses support in different ways.
There is no easy answer as to how to achieve a truly informed and supportive environment in which students who struggle with mental illnesses can feel more comfortable and equal among their peers, but having honest conversations could help steer the school in the right direction.
Ross said, “For how important mental health is, it’s not talked about enough.”