Sydney Adams is a senior at Homestead High School.
My name is Sydney. I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and recurrent major depressive disorder. I take 40 milligrams of Prozac daily, and I see a psychologist biweekly. Every night before I fall asleep, I scrawl a “+” or a “–” in my calendar so that in three months, when my psychiatrist asks me how many bad days I've had, I can give her a number instead of just a shoulder shrug. As I write this, I can count the number of people who know these things on the fingers of my hands. They are steps in a routine I was once ashamed of, but now am not.
I am growing. I am learning. I am coping.
I am one of the 44.7 million American adults who the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports will experience a mental illness this year, and I am blessed to have grown up in an America where the taboos surrounding mental health are beginning to fall away.
But this does not mean our work is done. American society has opened its mind to change, but now more than ever, we must examine our attitude toward mental illness and the community of people it affects.
Growing up, I learned there are few scarlet letters more condemning than those that spell C-R-A-Z-Y. By eighth grade, jokes about self-harm, depression and “emo” were so well-ingrained in my generation's vocabulary that I feared opening up would mean becoming a punchline myself.
Meanwhile, the rhetoric on mental illness I heard from most adults suggested that I rehabilitate myself with a positive attitude. But no amount of optimism freed my mind from the feelings that followed me, and I began to fear that my entire character was at fault. This guilt was exacerbated by the fact that whenever mental illness got news coverage, it was only to explain away horrific acts of mass violence.
So I went to the internet, where mental illness is reduced to a hashtag. Obsessive compulsive disorder is quirky; anxiety is endearing. Schizophrenia is mysterious; depression is romantic. To a mentally ill teenager who feels there is nowhere else to turn, this realm of the internet seems like home.
But I believe it is a home built for collapse.
When people vent their darkest thoughts to one another without any resolution, each individual takes on the weight of the entire group while still having to cope with her own life. And while attempts at positivity are made, they are rare, opposed and often suggestive of a message that is not altogether healthy or sustainable.
Members of these online communities begin to disassociate from what they feel. Instead, they create a story that is more artistic and less realistic – a narrative whose beauty lies in the tragedy of repeated defeat. They aren't happier, but they begin to feel less alone.
After following this romanticized notion of mental illness for months, I started to believe sadness was attached to my identity and always would be. I'm blessed enough to know better now, but not everyone can say the same.
I insist that we examine the influence of the messages we broadcast to America's youth. I fear that if no one reminds these kids that the future of a life with mental illness holds more than shame and tragedy, they will never aspire beyond that.
Stigma tells teenagers with mental illness that they should be ashamed of their problems, while romanticism obscures their view of the fulfilling life they could have if those problems were better managed and overcome. I believe there is hope, not just for individuals with mental illness, but for generations of people who need a reminder that they are not alone. I believe America is ready for a conversation about mental health.
Now, we must speak.