2022 Mental Health Essay Contest Awardee: Gold
As I stowed away my bike and closed the garage door, I heard the first siren. Rushing onto the driveway, I solemnly prayed this was merely another “community disturbance.” When I saw the ambulance screech outside the grey house, I knew they were too late.
The next day, I found out that my friend died by suicide. I hadn’t heard the gunshot or stood behind to watch the EMTs call the time of death. But the image of a parent going though this loss has stuck with me.
I knew of rising mental health concerns before my friend’s death. Earlier that year, I conducted a survey of adolescents within my community to see how COVID-19 had affected their mental health. I could not, however, fathom the impact of the projected 15% deterioration of composite mental health now.
In my community, mental health exists largely as an afterthought. For many students, anxiety is a rite of passage in high school as optimizing academic performance is seen as more important than staying mentally healthy. Statistics such as “54% of students at our school showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression in 2016” have stopped encouraging caution and started motivating internalization. Since my friend’s death, I’ve tried to play my part in resolving the mental health crisis, working to spread awareness beyond my statistical results so my community doesn’t have to see them manifest. I believe that expanding initiatives that make it easier for students to reach out for mental health support will mitigate the current mental health crisis by supporting those that need help and normalizing help for those that aren’t sure yet.
Schools should consider partnering with local professionals for mental healthcare services in light of recent understaffing and overcrowding in school districts. For example, Hazel Health, a telehealth company based in San Francisco, partners with districts to provide students access to high-quality mental healthcare digitally. Services such as Hazel can make mental health support more accessible to all students. Hazel employs culturally-competent counselors and therapists, which can make students more likely to reach out for help when they need it. The online aspect of Hazel’s services allows therapists to see more students in a day and for students to see therapists for more hours within a day. Teachers can even recommend students for support, which can encourage more reserved students to open up about their concerns.
Increasing accessibility to therapy is essential for students to receive mental healthcare when they need it. Currently, student wait times for therapy sessions can be as high as 2-6 months, and students that are denied mental health support when they first reach out may stop them from seeking help altogether. The mental health services offered at school are often teenagers’ first experiences with behavioral healthcare, so cultivating positive therapeutic interactions within schools can go a long way toward breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health. I’m currently studying the effectiveness of Hazel’s initiatives as an intern at their organization to inform and improve their mental healthcare.
Another key solution for increasing access to mental health services is reforming national mental health hotlines. On July 16th, the new suicide prevention hotline number, 988, will become available nationally. This initiative aims to make it easier for at-risk individuals to reach out for help and take the load off of 911 to centralize suicide-related calls onto a singular line—both of which are necessary steps to increase the availability of mental health support in crisis situations. However, this centralization may decrease the options of crisis lines for callers, placing community hotlines at the bottom of the list. For example, peer-to-peer Warmlines, a type of community hotline where callers can speak to people that are in mental health recovery themselves, exist to help at-risk individuals that aren’t necessarily in emergency situations feel supported. When I spoke with Howard Trachtman, a mental health professional leading the national initiative for Warmlines, I learned that nearly all of the funding for 988 is going towards a single non-profit, Vibrant Emotional Health, while Warmlines and other community initiatives are being overlooked. For the 988 initiative to be successful, more national funding needs to be funneled into community hotlines and larger call centers need to integrate local hotlines. This will not only support at-risk individuals that prefer their local hotlines but also help National Suicide Prevention Lines accommodate more callers with shorter turnaround times. To help effect these changes, I’m writing articles for Warmlines to spread awareness of the need for more cooperation and confidentiality within 988.
It’s equally important to make subtle, steady improvements in the ways we discuss mental health as it is to reform large-scale mental health solutions. The way we speak about mental health influences how we perceive people with mental health conditions. For example, we should start saying “living with a mental illness” rather than “suffering from mental illness” to remind ourselves that it’s possible to live happy and fulfilling lives despite having mental health conditions. Schools can also make changes to show that they care about mental health and help deconstruct stigma. For example, our school started coding mental-health-related absences as excused, effectively starting “mental health days,” and runs an annual “mental health week,” which opens the door for uncomfortable but necessary conversations to begin. My hope is that reducing stigma through small acts of caring will encourage everyone, especially people that don’t feel like they deserve mental health support, to reach out for help.
I know what it’s like to feel invisible. But when we isolate in hopes of protecting ourselves, we forget the power that human connection has. For me, reconciling with my mental health concerns made me a happier, more empathetic person. It catalyzed me to work within my community to make the invisible just a little more transparent.
NIH recognizes these talented essay winners for their thoughtfulness and creativity in addressing youth mental health. These essays are written in the students' own words, are unedited, and do not necessarily represent the views of NIH, HHS, or the federal government.
Page updated September 20, 2022