Positive Mental Health Outcomes start with us

Tara Mclaughlin, Patomac '19

How students and schools can support those with mental health issues. (Published: 2018)

Illustration by Eden Taff, Sidwell '19

As a high school student, it’s likely that one in five of my peers has some kind of mental illness. The academic stress of high school is enough to exhaust any of us, but when a student is also battling a mental illness, it forces the student to choose between their academic success and emotional wellbeing. During the high-pressure academic environments we are all in, it is so important to realize that we are each other’s biggest support systems. A simple “how are you?” or “your accent in French was great today!” can help to ease the day-to-day stress that we all experience. It can also make someone struggling with mental illness feel important, cared for, and listened to.

It is up to us to notice when someone’s eating habits change, when they become more reclusive, or when they appear to be unhappy more often than not. We cannot do this without being educated about mental health issues. During my freshman year, I noticed a friend go from being the first in the lunch room to picking apart a salad without dressing, so I asked her how she was doing. Her demeanor changed when she said she was “fine.” I made an effort to sit with her at lunch and make sure she knew that her friends and I were there to support her. Eventually, she shared with me suspicions of self-diagnosed anorexia, and had been for quite some time. In response, I encouraged her to talk to her parents about seeing a therapist, nutritionist, or psychologist in order to receive professional treatment and recovery from her disorder. As a junior, she attends weekly therapy sessions and has mostly recovered from her severe struggles with body image and weight. Treatment does not erase mental health conditions, but it can help us learn strategies to manage our problems without using physically and mentally destructive behaviors such as deprecation or self-harm.

We need to be able to admit that mental health issues do not spawn from weakness or inability, but rather are innate to some human experiences. No real work can be done to support those with mental illness when many people suffering from mental illness are led to believe that they should “just get over it.” At early points in my mental health journey, I often questioned how I could feel as bad as I did when I was a person in a place of great privilege. I have a strong family structure, I attend a private school, I have the means to attend college, I am able. Despite all of these things, however, I still felt alone. As I got older, I realized that mental health is an issue that impacts all people, directly or indirectly, regardless of race, gender, class, or any other identifier. Talking about the raw experience of issues such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders is crucial even if it makes people uncomfortable. Mental health issues are at times uncontrollable, but we cannot be ashamed of what we cannot control.