‘Take Me Seriously!’: How Atlanta Teens Feel When Their Mental Health Is Deflected

“Phrases such as ‘walk it off’ and even ‘just drink water’ are a few examples of what has been used to deflect problems and have caused unnecessary obstacles for teens’ mental health care,” writes VOX ATL reporter Sabra Hirsch.

Art by Sabra Hirsch / VOX ATL

By Sabra Hirsch

Even though the number of students with mental illness is on the rise — the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports “approximately 1 in 5 youths aged 13-18 (21.4 percent) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life” — many teens could give you a story of times they’ve encountered advice that minimizes or ignores their reality.

Phrases such as “walk it off” and even “just drink water” are a few examples of what has been used to deflect problems and have caused unnecessary obstacles for teens’ mental health care.

In fact, NAMI has even found, “Just over half (50.6 percent) of children with a mental health condition aged 8-15 received mental health services in the previous year.”

The number — one-half — is scarily low for the number of children who receive treatment, especially considering that suicide is the third-leading cause of death among youths ages 10-24.

In three interviews with VOX ATL, Atlanta teens expressed their frustrations with the apathy and dismissal.

Sydney Sneeden, an eighth-grader at Peachtree Charter Middle School, faces situations where school officials can’t help her through her anxiety attacks.

Marily Minton, a peer of Sneeden’s who also lives with anxiety, feels as though she cannot receive the support that she needs.

And Owen Ingram, a student at St. Pius, has struggled to get depression taken seriously.

VOX ATL: What’s an experience you remember in which you felt as though your mental health problem wasn’t taken seriously?

Sneeden: When I was first telling my dad about my anxiety, he said, “Isn’t that convenient for you,” as though I was making it up as an excuse. Why would I do that? What reason would I have to do that? It’s like, I’m coming to you with a serious problem that I have, and you’re just not taking me seriously. It kind of hurt, especially coming from a family member.

Ingram: I’ve had a couple experiences where my mental health has just been a “get over it” sort of thing. There have been situations at school where I’ve been sad and just lay my head down and people just say, “Don’t be sad.” That’s not how it works. I tried to tell them that, but they just didn’t understand it and say, “You’re just a pessimist.” I’m very misunderstood.

Minton: All my life everyone thought I was just shy and was too scared to talk to people. No one ever even thought of the possibility of me having social anxiety. Everyone has always told me to simply “get over it” and “face my fears.” They never took it seriously and assumed I would grow out of it. Well, guess what? I haven’t. Surprise.

VOX ATL: What’s a common phrase you hear people use when trying to make you “turn off” your symptoms? Are there certain phrases that may have unintentionally affected you?

Ingram: A common phrase is “that’s life” and just “stop being sad, try to think positive.” People have poked fun at me when I came to them with my problems or just don’t acknowledge it. This hurts because it either shows that I don’t have someone to take me seriously or someone to talk with me at all. The unintended consequences of playing my mental illness is me getting hurt.

VOX ATL: How has the common apathy changed you?

Ingram: This really has changed me because it makes me, for one, even more depressed, and it just makes me want to avoid that person and just not be around them. Society can change by asking if there’s anything you can do, support me or just try to cheer me up instead of saying “stop being sad.” That’s never worked. Jokes have usually worked though. Just trying can really make a difference.

VOX ATL: In what ways has the stigma of mental illness affected you?

Ingram: I just don’t want to come out to certain people because then they’ll probably keep saying “just be happy” or just think I’m weak. I’ve developed habits of holding in my feelings, which has done more damage than if I would have come forward.

This story was published at VOXATL.org, Atlanta’s home for uncensored teen publishing and self-expression. For more about the nonprofit VOX, visit www.voxatl.org.