Jasmine - Colorado
When I was little, I fell from the monkey bars. Fortunately, I had the help of all my peers, escorting me to the health room. Upon returning to class, I noticed everyone signing my friend’s cast. Such physical health battles are full of support and empowerment; humanity unites when helping one in a wheelchair or sympathizing with one diagnosed with cancer. Why is this any different with mental health? Recently in my community, 1 teacher, 2 students from a different district, and 1 student from my own school all died by suicide. Instead of catalyzing change, these lives are becoming numbers. For fear of embarrassment, for fear of seeming weak, for fear of being labeled crazy, for fear of being judged and misjudged, most do not talk about mental health. This neglected issue grows as many with mental illnesses feel alone and marginalized. This stigma can affect anyone. Any adult. Any kid.
When I was kid, I loved racing down the black line in the pool, feeling at peace with myself. I was a swimmer. Until I injured my shoulder. I lost my identity. My escape. Nothing had a semblance of worth. Everything became unfamiliar. I was depressed. I wanted to end my pain. My parents tried to help. They didn’t know what to do. Nor did I. I felt lost and alone.
Eventually, I recovered physically but not mentally. I was guilty, too, of falling into societal norms. I wanted to erase that part of my life. Even when I returned to swimming, I was too embarrassed of my constant anxiety attacks to accept my anxiety disorder. I wanted to be normal. My teammates didn’t seem to struggle with anxiety; everyone’s life portrayed on social media seemed so perfect. I felt like something was wrong with me. Even worse, in reaction to a high-stress culture, I have heard so many say, “I have 3 tests today, and I’m going to kill myself.” Mental health has become a common joke, but the reality remains hidden.
My own mentality radically changed when Colie’s Closet — a peer education group aiming to educate and remove the stigma around mental health — talked to my health class. Two students shared their personal anecdotes regarding mental health. I was shocked that they were talking about mental health, teaching crucial information, clearing up misconceptions, validating that it is okay to not be okay, and validating that it is okay to ask for help.
When I was older, I joined Colie’s. We present to more than 20 schools and 3000 students each year. Colie’s has set a successful precedent in the United States for promoting peer mental health education. It targets the problem of limited knowledge and awareness regarding mental health, which ultimately is the root of the stigma that keeps growing.
I wish there was a Colie’s in every school, in every district, in every state. However, this would take long-term commitment, time, and resources. So, how can we start? How can we start now? Teachers need to be knowledgeable about depression, suicide, risk factors, warning signs, and steps to take when concerned about a student. Support is available through free eLearning courses on Alison or even a $20 Mental Health First Aid Course. Teachers can be both a source of knowledge and a source of support. They can feel equipped to foster simple conversations in each class to address mental health while building a welcoming community. Whether this occurs once a day or even once a year, it would be such a drastic difference to what exists now. In doing so, teachers could be an integral part in breaking the stigma.
To build mental health literacy, students should be required to take a health class that discusses the intricacies of mental health for more than a week, treats mental health like physical health, and emphasizes that others also have mental illnesses through the recent You’re Not Alone and the Be Vocal documentary, all the stories on the Mind website and YouTube channel, or all the stories posted on the Project Semicolon website. All states, like New York and Virginia, need to recognize the importance of and implement a mental health curriculum.1 Furthermore, at Appalachian State University, they held a dedicated Semicolon Week that provided suicide prevention training, mental health monologues, presentations on social media impacts, and an Out of the Darkness walk to raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.2 All schools could provide the same for their students, and students could show solidarity by wearing the Project Semicolon symbol or green for mental health awareness. Also, to provide a platform for students to speak up, at the start of the year, all students could be required to fill out an anonymous sheet where they write down their own or friends’ stories with mental health. These stories could be read — anonymously or by the brave author if they so choose to indicate that on their sheet — on the school’s intercom system every morning or week. By promoting unity and awareness in school, maybe, just maybe, the need for a group like Colie’s will become less, and mental health will become the norm for youth.
I want to see that my generation of students became the driving force for mental health literacy and acceptance. Even then, every second matters, and current society is lagging behind. Given that suicide is one of the leading causes of adolescent death, proactive schools can offer the primary introduction to mental health, but individual protocols must ensue.3 Just as having an annual physical, just as going to the dentist, meeting a psychiatrist and having an annual mental health checkup should be the norm. Since currently 70% of a Primary Care Physician’s (PCP) practice involves psychological issues, mental health needs to be integrated into primary care.4 PCPs need to be thoroughly trained in mental illness by using the sources mentioned and through a medical school curriculum targeted at depression in youth. Still, no PCP can replace a psychiatrist, so these professions must be encouraged so that professional help is no longer too expensive or too far away. Finding and receiving help cannot be the fight.
Beyond the professionals, individual cultures need to take responsibility. For the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, this model minority stereotype creates a façade that pressures AAPIs to live up to a false standard. I felt judgement for my depression and anxiety. Similarly, my trans-sister cannot return to China and nobody even knew she had depression — struggling with gender dysphoria — because of this stigma. Yes, many AAPIs have suffered through poverty, but few acknowledge that mental illnesses are just as valid.
Depression is not a disgrace, not a display of ungratefulness for the “American Dream.” I seem to excel in school, but that does not mean I will not experience depression, will not idealize suicide. While bills like Chu’s Stop Mental Health Stigma in Our Communities Act help catalyze AAPI access to healthcare, more needs to be done to break the individual stigma.5 There needs to exist safe spaces in school and communities for AAPIs to talk, to feel valid, to realize they’re not alone, to be willing to find help. These communities need to be led by knowledgeable professionals like peer support specialists — preferably AAPI professionals who understand and are able to communicate on a cultural level. Also, services like those provided by the Asian Pacific Counseling and Treatment Centers need to be expanded nationwide. For those in more pressured situations, there needs to be affordable online support either through AAPI online support groups or AAPI online professionals. For those with intolerant parents, there needs to exist welcoming homes for those kicked out because they were brave enough to acknowledge their mental health; speaking up cannot be seen as a punishable offense. Though many AAPI parents may adamantly refuse to accept mental health currently, future generations can be saved if we start now. In stride with society, a domino effect can be created as more AAPIs begin to acknowledge mental health and inspire others to do the same and to share not just their achievements but also their struggles.
Yet, these initiatives do not just apply to AAPIs. Mental health is nondiscriminatory. Mental health affects so many people: Democrats and Republicans, poor and rich, Atheists and Christians, men and women. So, I ask again. Where is the support and empowerment around mental health? Promoting mental health awareness and resources is all of our responsibilities. Public officials, health professionals, school leaders, parents, peers, and all individuals can choose to take responsibility by promoting initiatives mentioned above or being a part of the initiatives themselves. And, myself? What am I doing? I am sharing my story with friends and other swimmers, presenting on behalf of Colie’s, speaking with my teachers and counselors, and writing this essay. One by one, we show that mental health is not embarrassing, not weak, not crazy. Together, we will break the cultural norm that says mental health is a joke, break the façade that mental health is abnormal, break the secret code of silence.
- Kaufman, Ellie. "New York, Virginia Become First to Require Mental Health Education in Schools." CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2018/07/02/health/mental-health-schools-bn/index.html.
- "Semicolon Week." Appalachian State. https://parents.appstate.edu/connections/blog/id/1059.
- "Adolescent Health Epidemiology." World Health Organization. https://www.who.int.
- Koven, Suzanne. "Should Mental Health Be a Primary-Care Doctor's Job?" The New Yorker. Last modified October 21, 2013. https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/should- mental-health-be-a-primary-care-doctors-job.
- Constante, Agnes. "New Bill Targets AAPI Mental Health Stigma." NBC. Last modified June 1, 2017. https://www.nbcnews.com.