In my day job as a school counselor, I walk the halls with them daily — the teenagers who suffer silently as a result of untreated mental health issues. Many of them eventually choose to share their stories; every single heartbreaking detail. However, there are countless others do not. And even for the ones who do find the courage and strength to reach out, they quickly discover that the resources and access to a proper diagnosis, treatment, and services are not readily available.
But it seems things are even worse than I thought. According to a recent NPR report on mental health issues facing our schools, up to one in five kids living in the U.S. shows signs or symptoms of a mental health disorder.
One in five.
That means that in a school classroom of just 25 students, five of them may be struggling with anything from depression to anxiety to substance abuse.
But here’s an even more alarming stat for you: Nearly 80% of adolescents who need mental health services won’t get them. At school, their untreated issues will lead to many of the common problems found in schools today: Things like chronic absence, low achievement, disruptive behavior, and dropping out.
Many people believe that adolescents and teens choose this way of life; while others feel that those who suffer from mental health issues could simply “turn it off” at a moment’s notice. I say, come spend a day in a classroom with students of any age, and see how tragic and real some of their stories are.
Sit next to the girl with debilitating anxiety who takes an hour to get from her parents car to the building. Walk the hallways with the frightened 7th grader who believes he’s going crazy because the voices he hears have no explanation. Or better yet, hold the hand of a 14-year-old whose failed suicide attempt left him feeling terrified of what’s next.
Imagine being so helpless that the only option you see is death. This is the reality facing so many teenagers in the United States.
The CDC reports that for youth between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death, resulting in approximately 4,600 lives lost each year. And those aren’t the only sobering stats: A nationwide survey of youth in grades 9 to 12 in public and private schools in the U.S. found that 16% of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13% reported creating a plan, and 8% reported trying to take their own life in the previous year.
As a secondary school counselor for the past 17 years, I have heard thousands of these stories; yet there is one that will stay with me for as long as I live — the one that will continue to be a reminder to always stop and listen.
He was the one student I worried about the most. The one I thought about when I went home at night, wondering if I would see him the next day. He had depression, anxiety, substance abuse problems, and behavioral and academic issues; at times it felt like the list of issues was never-ending. The words he spoke to me one day are still so clear in my head: “I almost did it last night. I was sitting in my room with the gun, it was loaded. I had it in my mouth and my finger on the trigger, and then I heard it — my mom. She had just come home and called out my name. I stopped.”
He was just 14 years old.
Even writing this now, so many years later, I ache for him. His pain, desperation, isolation, hopelessness and helplessness, was too much; killing himself was the only option he felt he had. I always think about the interruption that night. His mom calling out his name — that defining moment in both of their lives; the moment that saved his life. The moment that allowed him to finally ask for help.
Education and mental health are part of the basic human rights of children and youth, yet the stigma surrounding adolescent and teenage mental health care is an epidemic of the worst kind. Many of these mental health conditions are not curable, but with the right intervention and support, they are treatable.
We all need to realize that there are going to be times when conversations about test scores and grades need to be set aside to focus on what really matters: their mental and emotional well-being. And we need to care enough to ask just one simple question: “How are you doing?” Those four very powerful words can lead to a connection between an adult and a child that may be the very thing that makes all the difference.
September is Suicide Prevention Month. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org or call 1-800-273-TALK to speak with someone who can help.