Mental Health and High School: The Good, the Bad and the Pitfalls

Patient Expert

I share these two entries about mental health issues in school settings - this one about high school and the next about college - as an opportunity to open up the dialogue for teens and young adults that will soon be either returning to high school or beginning college.

I went through high school and college with undiagnosed depression, anxiety and PTSD. I was an overly stressed-out person, and it is only in hindsight that I see my missed opportunities and close calls. My good decisions occurred only through sheer happenstance or by default. Perhaps by sharing an "inside look" at my experience, I may support those teens and young adults who are still in school and coping with mental health issues, and help them to make good decisions with forethought.

High School

By the time I attended high school, I had learned how to not share my feelings and instead put up a front. I felt hollow inside, a complete fake - my extreme perfectionism was in full swing and I was very shy. I tuned out the idea of fun because I was giving my full attention to school work and to what I looked like to others on the outside. I was a very serious teen.

By the end of my freshman year, I chose to play sports as a way to make friends due to my shyness. I was not a talented athlete, but rather practiced to be good enough to make the team - I started out on Junior Varsity before I made it to Varsity. Sure, it was embarrassing not to be playing Varsity, but it gave me something to do, and something to work toward. I had tried other after-school activities but I was so shy that just speaking up was hard. When playing sports, we were told what to do and I did not have to talk very much, except about the sport. And I was able to make friends simply by being next to others day after day. Not a lot of effort was required and I had the opportunity to interact with peers. And unbeknownst to me at the time, exercising nearly every day was a great stress reliever.

My friendships were okay, but they did not develop beyond the basics. I was skilled at pretending, and I streamlined my way in with the other students and tried to remain as unnoticeable as I could.

There was then a required health class every sophomore had to take. This is where I learned about the symptoms of depression. I approached my father on the issue of depression because he worked with the youth at the church. (At this point I did not know my dad was an alcoholic, just that he was not emotionally available all the time.) I shared with him what I learned in health class about depression and mentioned that I thought I had it. My dad told me I could not be depressed because I had nothing to complain about: I had a roof over my head and food on the table. I immediately felt like a fool, and the outcome of this "conversation" for me was that depression was not my issue - I was instead defective or broken, and I should not ever "complain" again.

I took my dad's word about depression and doubted what I had learned, doubted what I was experiencing. This would have been a great opportunity to approach the health class teacher or my guidance counselor, but I did neither. Had I approached either one of these adults, I do believe they would have at least guided me in the right direction. The health teacher even told the class that if anyone had any questions or concerns to see them after class. So the door was open, I just did not walk through. Other teachers I had were so good and so kind and would ask me questions (clearly they noticed something) but I always lied and said I was fine. I did not have the confidence to step forward. I felt it was my job to figure out how to perk up and work on a better attitude.

The best thing that came out of doing sports in high school was that the coaches told us not to smoke, drink or do drugs. I listened and did as I was told (I think I may have been the only one-but this is the reason I used when offered alcohol or drugs). Trying to fit in is always hard in high school, and although I attended parties, I only drank once during the summer of my junior year (I got very sick and did not try again until the end of senior year).

I am fairly confident that if I did not play sports I would have tried to fit in with the crowd that drank, hung out and smoked cigarettes and pot after school just so I could have friends. I was already good acquaintances with them, and this could have easily turned into my "escape" as well, as I am a person who is quickly addicted to most substances. To this day, I can barely remember my high school experiences because I was so stressed out. I was merely hanging in there until it was over. By the end of senior year, when all the sports were over, I started hanging out with these acquaintance friends more and more. I even went to school drunk one day. I started smoking because they did too. It was a good thing I was off to camp for the summer, as this quickly halted my escalating behavior.

What I had learned toward the end of high school was the feeling of escape with alcohol and cigarettes. This would once again catch up with me in college.