Students at my high school – and, I believe most students nowadays – are no stranger to the feeling that their lives are at risk every time they walk onto campus.
In 9th grade, we had a bomb threat. I was thirteen, maybe fourteen years old. And I was too young to understand anything other than the joy of not having to go to school. Police scoured the campus, cleared us to resume classes the next day, and a few days later, the incident was forgotten.
Four years later, we had three distinct school shooting threats – scribbled on bathroom walls, messages of pain and hatred, one of them specifying a time and date. Classes weren’t cancelled that day, but more than half the student population just didn’t show up. I went to school thinking, I can’t leave my friends to die alone.
I was seventeen years old. Seventeen. And I already knew deep in my heart that the system had failed us all.
After a terrifying but uneventful day, the school administration held assemblies whereupon students were briefly introduced to all the “mental health services” available on campus: graduation counselors, a school nurse, two psychiatric social workers, and several others.
Again: this was 12th grade. I had been at this school for four years, and I had never been told about these people, I had never seen their faces, I hadn’t known they even existed.
As I sat there at the assembly, the only thoughts that ran through my mind were: It’s too late. Too late, too late, too late.
And it’s not enough.
Doing some simple research on mental health issues isn’t that hard. Type in suicide statistics into Google and you’ll find that suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 14-21 – in other words, for students. Dig deeper and you’ll discover that symptoms of the vast majority of mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and bipolar disorders, surface during that same period.
So why aren’t we talking about it?
Most of my student friends are or have been suicidal. Several are dealing with depression and anxiety, one is dealing with eating disorders, several self-harm. I am perpetually afraid that I am not going to see or hear from some of them ever again. And yes, I’ll be honest – depression runs in my family, and I have my days too.
This is something I think most people don’t understand: when the education system fails to understand and accommodate students with mental health issues, the burden of caring for them falls on their peers because oftentimes there is no one else. And I am tired of standing between today’s youth and death. I am tired of trying to heal students who have been rejected, students whose nurses and doctors do not even try to understand, whose teachers blame them for “acting out” and being disobedient when the real problem is an education system built for a 100% mentally healthy individual – in other words, built for someone who doesn’t exist. Built for someone who doesn’t have family problems, who doesn’t have financial problems, who can learn to play the game and function at the highest level and get the highest grades on every exam and not be absent a single day.
This system not only fails to accommodate real students, it’s also often the trigger of their mental health issues. When we’re held up to this impossible standard, many of us burn out fast. Many of us just stop trying because we realize we’ll never be “star students”. Many of us give up on our education and career goals because we learn very, very quickly that the system was not made for us. And many of us get angry, and frustrated, and hurt, when we realize that most adults don’t even try to understand us, that our mental health issues are always downplayed as “teenage angst,” that the one psychiatric social worker at school doesn’t have time for us because they’re too busy trying to care for the two thousand other students struggling to make it out alive.
And some don’t. A lot, actually, don’t.
And nowadays, some take all their bottled-up anger and pain, grab a gun or a knife, and try to take others down with them.
The problem is not “that one psychotic kid”. The problem is not “that crazy white dude”. The problem is not “that one mentally ill student” or “that cowardly security guard”. The problem is an education system that is fundamentally flawed, and the problem is having teachers and administrators who are sometimes able to “talk the talk” but never take the initiative to realize that students with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are sitting right there in that very classroom, just trying to make it to tomorrow.
I am tired of having a one-sided conversation.
Let’s talk about this.