graphic by Hannah Mathes
Statistics show one in five students lives with Mental Illness. Two Seniors share their real journeys toward help and healing.
May 19, 2017
Look around you. According to statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in each normal sized high school class of 20, four students are likely struggling with a diagnosable mental illness such as anxiety, social anxiety, depression, eating disorders or bipolar disorder.
According to youth.gov, mental health disorders involve the absence of the ability to:
- Navigate successfully the complexities of life
- Develop fulfilling relationships
- Adapt to change
- Utilize appropriate coping mechanisms to achieve well-being
- Realize their potential
- Have their needs met
- Develop skills that help them navigate the different environments they inhabit
Two students, Seniors Caroline Ford and Josh Greene, know first-hand the struggles of mental illness. Their stories put a face to the statistics, statistics that are often shocking and news to many.
The most common mental health problems found in teenagers are depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, but there are numerous other diseases that plague teens frequently. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 20 percent of teens live with a mental health condition. Between 10 to 15 percent of teenagers have some symptoms of depression, and depression increases a teen’s risk for attempting suicide by 12 times.
According to 2014 data from the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the second most common cause of death for teens behind only accidental injury. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, from 2009-2013, the Collin and Denton County area reported 10 suicide deaths per 100,000 people. However, though North Texas counties claim better statistics than the rest of the country, they consistently reflect a trend of significant increase over time.
Eating disorders are also associated with underlying mental health conditions. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders states that at least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S., and it carries the highest mortality rate of any other mental illness.
Caroline and Josh’s stories begin very differently, reach low points but thankfully both found help, unlike many other adolescents. They open up for LionNationOnline about the narratives leading up to their mental illnesses, seeking treatment and what they have learned.
Noticing Something’s Wrong
Caroline grew up with knowledge about mental illness. She said, “Because mental illness runs in my family, I have been worried about it since I was younger.”
Last year, she realized she was struggling with depression. She said, “My depression was caused from different situations. The way I coped with things, I internalized everything, and when a situation came up that I couldn’t internalize, it all came out.”
Statistics suggest that up to 30% of adolescents experience situational depression, which, according to NoMoreBullying.com, is defined as “an adjustment disorder where an individual has an increasingly difficult time coping or adapting to a changed situation.” While different than clinical depression, situational depression causes the same feelings of sadness and hopelessness.
Josh’s story begins his Freshman year of high school, before coming to PCA. He found himself with a group of friends who got caught up with drugs. At the same time, he had isolated himself from his mom. He felt alone, so to fit in with his group, he eventually gave into the pressure to do drugs. Once he tried drugs, he found himself unmotivated to even try to fit in any longer. He said, “I didn’t feel I had purpose or meaning, so I isolated myself.”
He also decided to no longer believe in God, a decision he made based on emotion rather than logic. He said, “Being alone made it worse, and I had no motivation to continue.” Without a medical diagnosis and without seeking treatment, he found himself sitting in his room with a bottle of pills, prepared to end his life.
He stopped believing in God because he didn’t think Christianity was rational. He decided if God was real, it would be a way out, a way to double-check his decision. If God was real, he wasn’t going to kill himself. He decided if he was going to follow through with suicide, he needed to do some research. He said, “I started to look for a logical way out.”
Spending time researching the facts about Christianity and reading apologists’ arguments, he logically concluded that Christianity was true. He also found fulfillment emotionally. He said, “I saw happiness from Christianity.” A month later, he attended Freedom and saw a tangible expression of Christian worship. Later, at camp, he solidified his decision to commit his life to following Christ. Jarrett Stephens spoke about how there is a way out of the bondage of sin. In that moment, he accepted that he could be free of his pain.
When Caroline knew something was wrong, she approached her parents about seeking treatment. She said, “I told my parents I wanted to go talk to a Christian psychiatrist. It was important for me to talk to someone with an eternal perspective.”
On top of the treatment she was seeking, Minimester also led to healing. On the Amazon trip, she got to talk to her peers and open up about her struggles. Sharing her struggles with others helped her as she continued treatment. Long-time Minimester trip leader and Director of Institutional Advancement Mike Beeson believes Minimester is a great time for people to let down their walls because when far from home, there is more freedom to be open. He said, “When traveling to distant lands, we oftentimes allow the Holy Spirit to effectively use us how God intended.”
More recently, she began taking medicine this year along with other treatment. She said, “Medicine has helped. I thought I could do it alone, but it was too much to handle.”
Josh, however, did not open up so quickly in order to seek treatment. He only shared his struggles with his parents his Junior year. He said, “I wish I would’ve sought treatment instead of doing it on my own.”
Both Josh and Caroline stress that seeking help from others is paramount when facing a mental illness. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states, “Choosing the right mix of treatments and supports that work for you is an important step in the recovery process. Treatment choices for mental health conditions will vary from person to person. Even people with the same diagnosis will have different experiences, needs, goals and objectives for treatment.” Just like people with pneumonia or the flu or strep throat need to find treatment specific to their disease, so do those struggling with mental illness.
Christianity and Mental Health
In the past, mental illness was a taboo subject for the church. For example, because the Bible says, “Do not be anxious,” many assume that, for instance, anxiety disorders come from a lack of faith.
Ed Stetzer, the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College wrote in Christianity Today about the growing new approach to mental illness among Christians. When Stetzer began ministry as a pastor, he approached mental illness as he had always seen it, only needing to “pray it away.” However, when a member of his church, even after seeking Christian counsel, took his own life, his perspective shifted.
He wrote, “The fact is that mental illness and spiritual struggle can be (and are) related. We are not separate things, we are complex people—remarkable connected in spirit, soul, body, mind, etc. But, let me be direct here: if we immediately dismiss the possibility of mental illness and automatically assume spiritual deficiency, our actions amount to spiritual abuse.”
In 2014, Lifeway Research published a report entitled “Study of Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith.” Statistics show that 66 percent of pastors speak on mental illness one time or less each year even though 65 percent of family members of someone struggling want their church to be more open about the subject.
Best selling author of The Purpose Driven Life Pastor Rick Warren lost his son to suicide in 2013, and his story instigated new conversations about Christians and mental illness. He opened up to CNN about the church’s perspective right after Lifeway published the statistic that half of evangelicals believe Bible study alone can solve mental illness. He said, “There’s no shame when any other organ in your body fails, so why do we feel shame if our brain is broken?”
Apologetics teacher Mr. Steve Lee believes that Christians need to take action and have a more proper grasp on the issue. He said, “Firstly, Christians need to understand that we, as humans, are complex beings and that we, as Christians, with it being like a worldly struggle, should take a more Christ-like approach to mental health.”
He has noticed Christian leaders and the church treating people with mental health disorders as if the disorder is a flaw that they should be able to just “get over,” as if Christians should not have to deal with such issues.
But, mental illnesses and spiritual struggles go hand in hand. Mr. Lee said, “We, as humans, are spiritual, but we are also a physical body with a mind, and at times the struggles people have don’t have spiritual causes. Although they may manifest as spiritual struggles, they might have mental and physical causes that need to be treated.”
Once Josh chose to commit his life to following Jesus, he sought treatment by developing his spiritual life. He never sought medical treatment, but looking back, he wishes he had reached out to someone for help rather than going at it alone. Becoming more involved in the church, he turned from his past habits of doing drugs and drinking and pursued authentic faith.
He said, “Before my mental illness, I was just going through the motions. Once I decided to pursue a relationship with Christ, my faith became solid.”
God used Josh’s mental illness to light a fire in his spiritual life. Because of his experience, he has found Christ to be trustworthy, which has transformed his faith.
Along with biological causes, Caroline also found her struggle with depression to be linked with her spiritual life. She said, “It was a turning point for me. It forced me to take my faith seriously and mature in my faith.”
Depression and other mental illnesses can have physical causes, but many times physical problems hide themselves in spiritual struggles, and the ways we deal with each should be different.
Logic and Worldviews and Bible Exposition teacher Marc Rose said, “There are physical ways we can deal with mental illness including healthy eating, avoiding illicit drugs and alcohol, physical exercise and seeking doctors and appropriate medical care. Christians should eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health issues by treating it as a serious health issue.”
Mr. Rose gave three practical ways to deal with mental illness:
- Remember that feelings are real, but they are not reliable.
- Remember God gives us one another for a reason.
- Love those with mental health issues, don’t enable them.
Mental Health Myths: Busted
Both Caroline and Josh have noticed many misconceptions and mistreatment on the subject of mental illness. Caroline emphasized that mental illnesses are physical, related to chemical imbalances in the brain. She said, “People told me to just be happy or to smile. I hated when people told me to smile, because I didn’t choose this mental disease.”
According to Mental Health America, “Mental illnesses may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of these.” Often, a combination of stress and biological factors results in mental illnesses, rather than the stereotype that disorders like depression are simply environmental.
Josh has noticed mistreatment of the issue of suicide. He said, “Lots of people say that suicide is ‘selfish’ and that people who commit suicide aren’t thinking about the pain of the people they are leaving behind. But I was in a pain that I never want to go back to.”
He stressed that people contemplating suicide feel so bad that they can’t consider other people’s pain since they are in such pain themselves. Founder of Suicide.org and suicide survivor Mr. Kevin Caruso said, “Suicide is a desperate act by someone who is in intense pain and wants their pain to stop.” According to NAMI, over 90 percent of the people who die by suicide have a mental illness at the time of their death.
Author Katie Hurley, who also survived a suicide attempt, said, “Suicide is a decision made out of desperation, hopelessness, isolation and loneliness. The black hole that is clinical depression is all-consuming. Loved ones are the reason many people hang on for just one more day. But the soul-crushing depression that envelops them leaves them feeling like there is no alternative.”
The Truth About Mental Illness: It Applies to You
Statistics show that everyone has someone near them with mental illness. Caroline serves as SGA Executive President and Josh plays every Thursday in the Chapel Band. Both are respected and active members of their class. If they can struggle, anyone can struggle. That’s why it is so important to be informed.
If you believe you may have an issue with a mental illness, Caroline and Josh have a message for you. Caroline said, “Talk to someone. Going through depression is ten times worse when you go through it alone.” Josh, too, said, “Do not isolate yourself. Surround yourself with others for support. Spiritually, trust in the hope that was given to you by Christ.”
To help others who are hurting, Caroline and Josh shared things they wish others had done for them. Josh was active in SPOTS and other church activities, but no one took notice that he was different. He wishes they had noticed that he was always on the outside, never involved in any cliques and obviously unhappy. Though many try to hide their struggles, Josh believes that by simply paying attention, others should be able to notice if someone has changed.
He said, “I wish someone had reached out to me. I’ve seen some improvement, but people need more encouragement from the church.”
Caroline kept much of her struggle to herself. Once she began telling people about her experience, she wishes that others would have surrounded her with consistent prayer and openness.
She said, “I think people avoid people with mental illnesses, so I didn’t want to tell people. People need to be open, because even your best friends are going through things that you don’t know about.”
Theof the Teens Can Survive program at the Suicide and Crisis Center of North Texas analyzed the difference in mental health issues for teenagers and adults. She said, “Teenagers act out differently than adults. Agitation is confused with ‘teenagers being teenagers.’ Their brains are built differently, and sometimes adults forget that.” With the rise of social media, adolescents are more and more likely to express suicidal thoughts online, activity that should be taken seriously.
PCA: Room for Improvement
Both Caroline and Josh think this is a topic that needs more attention at school. The church continues to improve, and the school embraced this topic at BWi with the speaker Jeremiah Johnson, who calls mental illness “The Church’s Inevitable Disease.” Multiple students approached Dr. Johnson after he spoke regarding their own struggles with mental illness.
Caroline said, “I think the school focuses a lot on drug use, but doesn’t always talk enough about the hard stuff like suicide and depression, which are very real for students.”
Practically, Caroline suggested a chapel should be dedicated to mental illness awareness, possibly during National Suicide Prevention Week in September. She said, “People need to learn each others’ stories. A club like GRACE Council that could focus on a discussion about illnesses would be helpful, too, because I think mental illness is much more common than people think. Adults and teachers seem to brush by it because they don’t realize how common it is.”
Students consistently agreed that they would like to learn more and be exposed to more information regarding mental health. Sophomore Logan Doyle said, “I wish the school took the issue more head on, I feel like I could learn a lot.”
In a time when the toll of Mental Illness is showing itself more and more, raising awareness, making help easy to find and learning how to support those in need should be goals for all Christians. Examples in our own Lion family clearly illustrate the need for awareness and compassion in the school community.
Contributing to this feature: Managing Editor Gavin McManus and Staff Writer Ann Rene Cione