Mental illness: In the shadows no more

Steadily, mental health moves to forefront of societal conversation

Anna Masciandaro, Web Editor

For Emma Rogers, the depression feels like she’s drowning. “The best way to describe my thoughts during those times is like being underwater and seeing that the outside is right there, but not being able to move your body so that you can get to the surface,” the WHS senior said.

Another senior at the school, who asked not to be identified, also compared his depression to drowning. “The worst part for me is, I’ll be lying in bed and all through my head will be thoughts telling me I’m not good enough or that I’m taking up too much space or that I’m worthless,” he said.

WHS senior Samantha Miele said her anxiety brings with it a “constant heaviness that can literally fill my chest in seconds which makes it the most difficult,” adding that it’s always there, right alongside her PTSD and depression.
These three WHS students are among the many in our school and country who are living with mental illness.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 children ages 13 to 18 have or will have a serious mental illness. As millions of teens experience this, we see the conversation beginning in earnest in our hallways and homes.

“For too long, mental health has suffered from a hush-hush kind of mentality and it often goes as an untreated and unaddressed illness,” said Ms. Maureen Mazzarese, director of counseling for Westfield Public Schools. “I think the more we allow people to talk about it, the more we can support and stay on the healthy side rather than on the illness side.”

Students’ Experiences
“Everything feels muffled and there is no drive to do anything,” said the senior male who had compared depression to drowning (for clarity, we’ll now refer to him as Student A). “It leaves you exhausted to the point where if there was a fire, you’re not even sure if you’d feel like moving.”

Miele said her post-traumatic stress disorder is the most predictable yet the hardest to live with. “It inhibits my ability to live day to day in a normal sense,” she said. With these overwhelming feelings occurring, she added that “it’s not always easy to be loud and fun and happy. Sometimes it’s hard to even get up or focus on simple tasks.”

Some students also feel physically affected by their mental illness in addition to being mentally impacted. “My legs usually tense up when I’m anxious or in a depressed state and I feel like I can’t move them,” said Rogers. “My face also gets really hot and I have trouble catching my breath. I can’t control my tears and feel like I have no way of stopping them. I usually feel like I’m going to throw up. It feels like I’m going to pass out from getting too worked up, but the thoughts are definitely the worst part.”

In addition to depression, Student A mentioned that he has lived with body image issues. “My trouble with body image probably stemmed from a combination of me hating myself and having a close family of athletes,” he said. “Whenever I looked in the mirror, I saw the scrawny, unathletic little brother.

“I had to stop looking at mirrors because if I glanced in one I ended up staring at how useless my body was. I began to cover up my body and exercised a lot more. The only times I was truly happy with my body was when I wore heavy, baggy clothes.”

Why It’s Important
Many people often avoid talking about mental health because there’s a stigma attached to it that makes them uncomfortable, but this discomfort shouldn’t discourage discussion.

“By discussing mental health, we normalize getting help and we can create a culture that prioritizes openness and mental well-being,” said WHS senior Linzy Rosen. “If left undiscussed, societal expectations could really harm teens who are struggling and need someone to talk to.”

A large part of the mental health issue is the way it’s talked about amongst teens and the stigmas that are attached to mental illness.

Senior Jacob Pesenson said that the language of mental health often skews our awareness of it. “Some use the terms ‘depressed’ and ‘anxiety’ so loosely that it’s created this social sphere where if you don’t tell everyone how depressed you are or how much school gives you anxiety, you don’t get the attention you’d otherwise expect,” he said. “People who do avoid the topic of discussion often cast themselves outside of that social sphere, and sometimes are really those who need to be having the discussion.”

Student A expressed similar concerns about the treatment of mental illness. “Outside of school we talk about mental health in the wrong way,” he said. “There is a discussion, but a lot of the time it’s more about protecting people from the mentally ill or protecting them from themselves more than it is about actually helping them. Among teens we joke about it, but a lot of the time we’re not real about how much it impacts us.”

A WHS senior girl, who also requested anonymity, said the mental-health stigma “mostly comes from the opinions of older generations who aren’t as open as we are now.” This student (who we will refer to as Student B) added, “The most common mental illnesses like depression and anxiety are more normalized and acknowledged, but others, such as schizophrenia, are still heavily demonized.”

Pesenson also acknowledged how the stigmas have grown from past generations. “The stigmas are created from a generation where you’d have to learn to deal with it on your own, and the common belief would then be passed down to the current generation of parents and adults,” he said.

The way in which today’s culture portrays mental health also adds to the stigma surrounding it. Motivational speaker and performance artist Dr. Mykee Fowlin, who has come to WHS in recent years to give presentations, said that the way mental health is portrayed on a global scale makes it seem like people who have mental-health issues are to be feared instead of helped or understood.

There is a widespread movement in New Jersey counties to become “Stigma-Free,” meaning that the county and its citizens won’t discriminate or judge those who live with a mental illness or with substance use disorders.

According to morriscountystigmafree.org, the website for the movement in Morris County, the initiative “recognizes the high prevalence of mental illness and substance use disorders in our communities, and promotes re-education and understanding that can help lead to treatment and recovery.”

The Role of School
For teens, the most common mental illnesses are anxiety and depression, but other, lesser-known illnesses affect adolescents across the country as well. These include obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, to name a few. Mental illnesses like these can be caused or intensified by home life, social media, social standards, genetics and school stress.

The school environment, especially at WHS, can be stressful. Rosen said that since Westfield is so competitive, “Students put an inordinate amount of pressure on themselves to be the best, perform the best, go to the best college and compete with their peers.”

This competitive nature leads to teens taking on high-level classes and an extensive amount of extracurricular activities. Student A added that students often prioritize school over happiness, eating and sleeping. “It’s not that we don’t value those things for the most part, but when you’re at WHS, being advanced is the norm,” he added.

Dr. Denise Clark Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and co-founder of the organization Challenge Success, said, “A lot of parents don’t realize if your kid isn’t getting 8-10 hours of sleep every night, there’s a much higher chance of becoming clinically depressed or anxious.”

At the high school level, the mental health issue is gaining recognition. Five years ago, the Westfield District implemented a program called Effective School Solutions (ESS), which acts as an in-school outpatient facility for students who are in the program. ESS provides clinical therapeutic services which include group therapy, individual therapy, monthly family therapy and home visits as needed.

According to Mr. Anthony D’Agnenica, the ESS program coordinator at WHS, last year ESS was contracted for 18 students in the program, but since there was such a high demand for it, ESS increased the number to 27. This year, there are 21 students currently enrolled in the program. Many other WHS students also see therapists and other mental-health professionals outside of school.

Additionally, WHS health teacher and mental health advocate Ms. Susan Kolesar ran a program called the Guy and Girl Thing, which was discontinued this year after running for 13 years, but may continue if there is increased student interest. In the program, students were given a safe space to talk about different issues that they faced. Student A said, “[The Guy and Girl Thing] was the greatest thing WHS ever did to address [mental health].”

Mental health is also discussed in freshman year health classes at WHS, and it’s brought up in other health classes if it correlates with the curriculum. Kolesar said she covers it in senior health class for suicide prevention and in discussions about the rise in mental health conditions among college students. In junior year health classes, she added that it’s mixed in with topics like teen pregnancy, sexual assault and dating and relationships.

Student B said: “As far as adults talking to us, [mental health is] not really a conversation outside of a health classroom. Our district is lucky that we do talk about mental health as part of our curriculum because I have friends in other districts and states that don’t have that.”

D’Agnenica added that the Westfield school district is making progress in terms of mental health. “Not all districts have something like ESS,” he said. “It’s refreshing to see a district implementing what we’re doing and seeing positive results.”

Student A said that if a student doesn’t take AP Psychology, then “the whole conversation about mental health is reduced to a two-week [health class] unit that a good amount of students don’t pay attention to till the night before a test.”

Rosen also said there should be more places outside of the classroom environment where mental health is discussed in relation to the students. “There are not enough constructive opportunities for students to speak out and share their experiences,” she said, and recommended that there be more open forums hosted by the school for students to talk about their challenges and interact with others who are going through something similar.

Ms. Wendy Sefcik, a Towaco, NJ, resident and mental-health advocate involved in various suicide prevention organizations, lost her 16-year-old son T.J. to suicide seven years ago. She believes that schools around the nation need to reevaluate their health class curriculum and address mental health issues in a more in-depth way.

Sefcik added that the New Jersey Department of Education is also recognizing the need for more mental health discussions in school curricula and has developed a program on social and emotional learning.

Outside Factors
According to a 2016 study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that the prevalence of major depressive episodes in adolescents increased from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 11.3 percent in 2014, and in young adults it shifted from 8.8 percent to 9.6 percent. Teens and adults alike are pointing toward social media and the environment in which teens are growing up as the causes of this.

Mazzarese said that social media “creates a bombardment of exposure and information that adds its own stress. Teenagers are very vulnerable because more than any other age, [there’s] an ongoing sense of comparison.”

Kolesar also looked to social media as an explanation for the increase, and mentioned that scrolling through social media can create a feeling of exclusion and inferiority. She also added that seeing others’ selfies and snapshots of people looking glamorous can make people feel like they don’t measure up to their peers.

“We become lost in a striving for perfection, because we need to seem appealing to the rest of the world,” said Pesenson. “The more people compare themselves to others, the more likely they are to develop depression, and the more we let social media and other interactive platforms suck the light out of life, the less we spend actually enjoying it and experience it through our own eyes rather than a cell phone’s.

“We live in a world of statistics we should fear, and goals we’re told we have to reach, and it leaves most of us sobbing, anxious wrecks.”

Kolesar also mentioned that current events play a large role in teens’ mental health. “There’s a lot of world events and national events such as natural disasters to political scandals and mass shootings where we wake up and we’re faced with that,” she said.

Mazzarese also added that we live in tumultuous times, which can contribute to the anxiety level in everybody. “There’s a lot of disagreement and a lot of angry politics and divisiveness and I think all of that takes its toll on everyday living,” she said.

TJ’s Story
On Dec. 1, 2010, at 16 years of age, T.J. Sefcik died by suicide. Even though he didn’t go to WHS, he wasn’t just some stranger—he was a teenager; he was one of us.

Like many teenagers, he was involved in sports. In hockey he played as a defenseman and in lacrosse he was an attackman. He also enjoyed surfing, skimboarding, skateboarding and dirtbiking and was enrolled in honors classes.

His mother, Wendy Sefcik, described him as extremely dynamic, outgoing, charismatic, loving, sensitive and funny. But T.J. also lived with depression, although he worked hard to hide it from his peers and didn’t get the help he needed.

T.J.’s life was cut short, but the reality is he isn’t the only teenager to die by his own actions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds in 2015.

Attention and Funding
While mental health is an important issue in the U.S., some believe that it isn’t given enough attention or funding.

Ms. Gabriella Urato, a licensed clinical social worker for Care Plus New Jersey, said that mental health is being talked about more and that there have been major advances in advocacy and stigma-free initiatives, but that “despite these efforts, mental health services are still underrepresented and underfunded.”

Ms. Nicole McQuillen, a licensed clinical social worker and vice president of children and family services at Care Plus New Jersey, added that the amount of access people have depends on their health care plans. “They’re always cutting funds for mental health and they’re cutting funds for people who are in need,” McQuillen said. “Just because you have health insurance doesn’t mean you have mental health insurance.”

Miele said mental health is often neglected unless it hits the headlines. “Both inside and outside of school, I don’t think people talk about it unless a terrorist attack or mass shooting occurs,” she said. “Then people care all of a sudden and forget in a week.”

These types of discussions often add to the stigma surrounding mental health. People living with mental health issues are actually more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators of it.

Student B said that within her friend group, they talk about mental health often and they’re open about everything that they’re going through. But they realize that everyone else might not be having the same open conversations.

Resources and Moving Forward
It’s important to note that suicide isn’t the end to every case of mental illness.

Many students said that they employed different healthy coping mechanisms, such as writing, music, taking deep breaths, using fidget toys and rhythmic tapping, to help deal with what they are going through.

There are hundreds of organizations out there that provide help for teens whenever they need it. One that consistently came up during interviews was Caring Contact, a volunteer-staffed crisis hotline that provides support and education to Central and Northern New Jersey. Kolesar said that she gives a Caring Contact business card to all of her students because they never know when they might need it. (A list of resources can be found at the end of this article.)

Talking to someone is also constantly stressed as an essential part of getting help. Whether it be a trusted adult such as a counselor or a teacher, or a friend, or a complete stranger at the end of a helpline, conversations can be supportive.

“The sooner you get help, the sooner you will be able to enjoy the wonderful things in life,” said Rogers. “You aren’t alone and it will all be worth it in the end.”

Wendy Sefcik, who gives a presentation titled “Remembering T.J.—A Story of Teen Depression, Lessons and Hope,” said she really wants her program to relay the message of hope. “We don’t want people leaving our program feeling sad and feeling bad for us,” she said. “We want people to think, ‘Wow, I can recognize this now and I can help myself or somebody that I care about.’ ”

While the mental health issue is starting to come to the forefront of social issues in America, there’s still a long way to go. Rogers and Wendy Sefcik both mentioned that through education, people who feel as if they are alone will realize that they aren’t. Through education, the stigma that is typically associated with mental illness can be eradicated and those who are living with mental illness can gain healthy ways to cope.

“With education and awareness, people will start to realize it’s a part of pretty much everyone’s life in some way or another,” Sefcik said.