Op-Ed

Making room for mental health in schools

Posted

"I’m going trick-or-treating with Freddy Brown this Halloween dressed as Chucky.”

I said this to my mom as I left my therapist’s office at the Bio Behavioral Institute in Great Neck. She laughed, and I did, too, but the words “Freddy Brown,” “Halloween” and “Chucky” gave me a pang of anxiety. It was 2007, I was 12, and I had recently been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

This was one of the exposure therapy exercises I used to desensitize myself to certain words and actions that triggered my anxiety. My therapist asked me to describe everything that physically bothered me, and what I did to alleviate that anxiety.

Some people think OCD is just washing your hands over and over to prevent germs or double-checking that your door is locked. These could be the symptoms of some who live with the disorder, but for me it was different. I created rituals for when I was exposed to one of my fears, almost like banishing an evil spirit with sage.

So my therapist had me watching scenes from horror movies and talking about a classmate who smoked cigarettes and dealt drugs (whose named was changed to Freddy Brown for anonymity), and eased me into stopping all my rituals. To this day, I haven’t stopped them all.

I also started taking medication. I’m a product of the ’90s, and some of my friends were prescribed Adderall for ADHD, but I was prescribed Prozac for OCD. And I felt like a pariah.

I had difficulty relating to my peers throughout middle school because of both my sexual orientation (I came out as gay to myself and my family at 19) and my worsening mental state. No one at my school knew I was struggling until my parents confided in my seventh-grade science teacher. My grades were slipping, and they had asked what I could do for extra help, explaining that I’d had a rough year because of my diagnosis.

But other than that, it was a secret.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of U.S. children ages 6 to 17 who are diagnosed with anxiety or depression spiked from 5.4 in 2003 to 8.4 by 2012. The National Center for Biotechnology Information reported that 12.8 percent of children ages 12 to 17 were diagnosed with at least one major depressive episode in 2016.

I’m lucky my parents intervened early and found the Bio Behavioral Institute, or I may not have been diagnosed. The OCD, anxiety and depression would have become stronger than the urge to recover. In high school, I might have taken the cocaine I was once offered by “Freddy Brown.” I might have liked it, used it to self-medicate, like so many with substance-use disorders do, and I may have become another face of the opioid epidemic.

We need to equip teachers and school staff with the tools to recognize mental illness, and refer students and parents to the resources they need to get help. From there, we must work on making treatment more affordable and accessible. But first we need to educate.

More than two dozen East Meadow residents took part in a program called Youth Mental Health First Aid on Nov. 2, learning from representatives of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention how to respond to mental health crises in school. The program, hosted by the East Meadow PTA Council, was introduced in 2014, thanks to a federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It is in high demand in East Meadow, said Coordinator Phil Schoppmann, of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and will be coming to Rockville Centre schools later this month. More schools are engaging in programs like this, while including mental health education in their curriculums so students may also learn about their own struggles and those of their peers.

Why are more children experiencing anxiety and depression? Some may point to social media. Schoppmann described social media as a double-edged sword, because a child may be cyberbullied one day, and receive help from a Facebook post or group the next.

In an August NPR article titled “The Scientific Debate Over Teens, Screens And Mental Health,” author Anya Kamenetz identified some reasons for negative trends in mental health, ultimately saying that young people may be more forthcoming about mental health issues than in the past. “Ironically, this openness may in fact be partly due to social media,” she wrote.

I’ve noticed it, too, and wouldn’t have been able to write this column if I didn’t regularly see posts, memes and comments from friends on my Facebook newsfeed about mental health challenges. We’re here for each other now more than ever.

Brian Stieglitz is the editor of the East Meadow Herald. Comments about this column? BStieglitz@liherald.com.