Recently I have had the opportunity to spend time with several teenagers from various backgrounds that all have one thing in common. They are all living with, dealing with, and suffering through some form of mental illness. Regardless if they were labeled Bipolar, Depressed, Schizophrenic, or some other DSM designation, they remain children. I think this point is often swept under the rug like so many dust bunnies.
Treating young people like adults when it comes to mental health treatment does a disservice to everyone in treatment and the profession as a whole.
Long ago, in a California, far far away, middle and high schools had licensed therapists on their payroll. In this land of school buses, quality lunches, and plentiful homework, children struggling with the pressures of being forced to conform to whatever definition of popularity was popular at the time, were able to reach out to a trusted professional during school hours to teach them coping skills. Today’s children have so much more to deal with and none of the support children had a few decades ago.
In the eighth grade I was struggling with how to be who I was inside and conform to who the world wanted me to be on the outside. A teacher could tell I was struggling and cared enough to refer me to the school therapist. I remember the day I met with him…
Spring dew covered the bare limbs on the growing saplings that flanked the path from the quad to the main office. The small brick building lined the front of the middle school. I opened the door to find only one child sitting in the row of hard back chairs that lined the wall in front of the vice principal’s office. The receptionist looked up briefly from her keyboard and asked for my hall pass. I handed her the pink slip of paper and waited. She glanced at it, handed it back to me, called for Mr. Ryse, and told me to sit down. I nodded in agreement, and sat in the chair that was farthest away from that other kid.
As I waited, I examined how the swirls on the lime green carpet wove their way under desks and down the small hallway. Soon, brown hard soled leather topped shoes smashed the swirls while walking toward me. Mispronouncing my first name, he called for me and when I acknowledge him, I was asked to follow him. He spun on his heel and led me down the short, narrow hallway to the third door on the left. The door was open and I followed him inside. A window the size of a few sheets of binder paper, faced the door. There was a chair next to the window that he motioned for me to sit in. I removed my backpack, set it on the ground by the feet of the armless chair and sat down. He sat in a brown leather chair in front of his desk and by the door. A pen was in his right hand and a long yellow notepad in the other.
“Are you comfortable?”He seemed genuinely concerned with this detail. When I didn’t reply, he asked it again and shifted in his seat.
“I guess so,” I managed to eek out. I wanted to say I was everything but comfortable. I wanted to say that I was nervous and confused. Members of my family had mental issues. They had been labeled “crazy” and I wanted none of those labels to fall on me.
“Good. Let’s begin with a few standard questions.”
I nodded in agreement and the flood gates of things needing answers came spilling out of his mouth.
“How old are you?”
“13” I thought he really should know this already.
“What grade are you in?
“Ok, now tell me about your class schedule.”
“You should have it there somewhere. I’m in five honors classes, student government, and have a zero period enrichment class.”
“I see. Are there any extracurriculars?”
“I am on the academic quiz team and a student peer leader.”
“I see, and what are your thoughts on school? He asked as he jotted down notes on his yellow pad.
“School is fine. There are a lot of things to deal with, but it’s fine.” I saw no point in lying to the man. School was okay. It had to get done and there was no alternative.
“What are your plans for when you grow up?”
“I wanted to become President of America, but was told that black girls can’t do that.”
“And how did that make you feel?”
“It is what it is. If I can’t be president, I want to become a judge for the supreme court. I know that no one black has done that yet, but I will be the first.”
He continued to write his notes down and ask me a few more questions. After each question, his notes seemed to take longer to write down. One question really stood out to me and comes to my remembrance often. He asked me if I feel like I’m smarter than other people. My response was yes. I knew this to be true because I was getting A’s in honors classes and had a desk full of medals at home that proved I was at least smarter that most of the 7th and 8th graders in the County.
The doctor then asked me if I thought I was important like Jesus? I said that I was important but I didn’t know how important. And being a smart ass, I asked him how did he know that I wasn’t Jesus? My level of sarcasm clearly sailed clean over his bald head. About an hour into this line of questioning, he placed the notepad on the desk and asked me if I had ever heard of bipolar manic depressive disorder. I said that I had and that my mother had it. He said that made sense because it’s transmitted in families. He said he would write a report to my parents for me to get started on medications.
I remember leaving with a sealed envelope to take home and give to my mother. I wasn’t really sure what had happened as I made my way to my next class. The class was PE so I doubt I made much effort to get their quickly. Nerds hate PE.
I went home that day and gave the letter to my mother, who quickly read it and said there was nothing wrong with me as she balled it up and tossed it in the trash. That ended my middle school mental health services.
I spent the next four years dealing with depression and thoughts of ending my life with no one to talk to or support me through those times. At the age of fifteen, after being sexually assaulted, I tried to take me life. It would be four years before I ever told anyone that. Ironically, it was a therapist that my college mentor suggested I see when I was struggling with my course load. At the age of 19, I found a sounding board of all of the dark and terrifying thoughts I had over the years. This therapist worked for the college and saw me regularly during my time there. She referred me to a psychiatrist and my two years of taking the mood stabilizer lithium began. It helped to stop the mood swings but did little else for the general sadness.
I’m not saying that medications don’t help. They help some people a great deal. They just didn’t really help me. It was the years of talk therapy, support groups, and boundary establishment that helped me the most.
Today, I feel that we are way too quick to not really listen to our young people. We are quick to throw drugs at their problems instead of taking the time to really be present in their lives.
I try to make time and listen to any young person who wants to talk to me. I try to listen without prejudice or judgement. I strive to be a safe place for them to share what they are going through. I am the mother of two teenage children. They have tons of friends who confide in me. They know I’m going to “keep it real”. They tell me all sorts of things they feel they can’t tell their parents. If it’s a big life altering thing, I comfort and encourage them to tell their parents. I have even mediated some of those discussions. Most of the time, they just need a sounding board. I am happy to fill that role and wish someone had done that for adolescent me.