Editor’s note: This guest essay is part of Education Lab’s Student Voices program. Read more columns by local students here.
I checked my phone. 11:57 a.m. I took a bite of sandwich and checked again. Still 11:57. The minutes of lunch were the longest of the day. It was the only part of my schedule where time was unstructured by adults. At lunch in high school, finding space was up to you. I didn’t have one. I shoved the rest of my food into my bag and walked toward the counselor’s office, praying the door would be open. It wasn’t. I walked up the stairs, hoping the secluded nook would be free. It also wasn’t. I went into the library, head low, and slid into a seat, feeling guilty for using a whole table. Feeling very alone.
I now know I’m not the only person who has felt this way. Mental health affects everyone, whether directly or by proximity. Access to help should be a fundamental right of students, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the necessary discussions about racial injustice. Some administrators, teachers, and students are talking about these issues. They are asking why so many students struggle with mental health, and are trying to destigmatize these topics. However, destigmatization is not a savior, but the first step in the discontinuation of a system that prevents many from accessing the resources they need.
Before I was able to understand the complexities of mental health, I went to school every day feeling like a shell. I was a high school freshman in 2016. I watched the hate vocalized during the presidential election spread throughout my school. I woke up dreading going to class, anxious for what people might say, the ways I might feel isolated. The school I went to was extremely competitive, and your value was often correlated to athletic ability or academic success. This environment drained me. I didn’t want to be swept up in the tidal wave of comparisons, but it was impossible to avoid.
Eventually, the counselor’s door was open. I entered, conscious that every minute in the safety of her office was a minute I didn’t have to spend out there. We talked. I cried. I didn’t feel relieved but I felt heard.
Then she told me I should talk to a therapist. Every stereotype about mental health flashed through my mind: I shouldn’t need therapy. I could figure things out on my own. I didn’t want to ask for help and besides, I didn’t really need help. What I was going through wasn’t that bad compared to other people. We’d had a mental health unit in class, but we only discussed diagnoses, not feelings. I didn’t know what my classmates were going through.
Apprehensively, I brought therapy up to my parents. They saw the state I was in and the way I felt ostracized. We’d had long talks about my options, and they were supportive of my going to therapy. We decided to try a therapist from my school’s recommended list, a list I only received after breaking down in front of the counselor.
The day came, and I was terrified. My hands were sweating as I inched into a tiny parking space outside her office. Inside, I eyed the hot water dispenser and paper cups, my throat dry as I looked around the waiting room, trying to not stare. I followed the therapist down the long hallway to a bright room filled with scattered toys and La Croix cans. She offered me a drink. I froze, feeling like a burden if I accepted and feeling guilty if I didn’t. She asked why I decided to come in. I stumbled over my words, trying to find the right ones, finally letting it spill out how much I despised school.
We talked through my options. Spending time engaging with solutions allowed me to finally feel like I could give myself permission to leave school and finish high school through Running Start, despite warnings that I would miss out on a “normal high school experience.”
I now question what’s normal about feeling like I’m taking up space that doesn’t belong to me, losing my drive for learning, losing pieces of myself? Going to therapy gave me the awareness to realize things I couldn’t on my own. The opportunity to process and discuss my struggles gave me new techniques and resources. It set me on a journey that is not over, and probably never will be.
I left the environment that was toxic for me. I had the privilege of a strong support system encouraging me to look after my mental health.
This should be the norm for every student.