My first major depressive episode happened when I was 13 years old. It felt like someone turned the lights out on my life, leaving me in complete and total darkness.
The hopelessness and alienation that I felt was definitely outside of the norm for me – it was gut-wrenching, physically painful – but despite the very clear shift, I was left to figure it out on my own.
I have very loving parents, parents who are totally invested in the wellbeing of their children. But despite my early onset, I didn’t get diagnosed with bipolar disorder for another five years, until a complete breakdown forced me to seek out help as an adult.
Valuable years that could have been spent healing and learning important coping skills were, instead, fraught with self-harm, suicidality, isolation, and despair as I attempted to navigate my mental illness alone.
An earlier diagnosis, no doubt, would have made a huge difference in my life.
My story is not unique, either.
In my work as a mental health advocate, I continue to meet others like myself who struggled as teens, and yet didn’t receive the life-saving help that they needed until much later in life.
So what gives?
I, like many other teens with mental illness, flew under the radar not because my pain wasn’t apparent, but because my pain wasn’t taken seriously.
Assumptions simply based on my age made it difficult for the adult figures in my life to intervene, even when that intervention was desperately needed.
Even the very best of parents and guardians are still guilty of making these assumptions, which are an enormous barrier in helping teens who struggle with their mental health.
What kinds of assumptions am I talking about?
Try these on for size:
1. Teenagers Don’t Suffer from Mental Illnesses
There are a shocking number of people who believe that teens simply can’t have a mental illness.
In reality, though, we know that half of all people with a mental illness will experience their first episode by age 14.
This means that half of adults with mental illnesses were once teens with mental illnesses – but, more often than not, are not diagnosed until much later in life.
2. If a Teen Is “High-Functioning”, They Can’t Have a Mental Illness
I did everything I could to keep my illness out of sight because I was afraid of what would happen if people knew what was really going on.
So if you looked at the surface, you would think I was a happy and healthy teen. My report card would tell you that I was smart, capable, and in control. But I spent weeks at a time not wanting to live anymore, faking a smile while inside, I was coming undone.
3. Mood Swings Are Just a Normal Part of Being a Teen – It’s All Those Hormones!
It’s true that teenagers can feel some pretty intense emotions as the hormones start to kick in. Puberty is a really overwhelming experience, as I’m sure most of us can remember.
But this is a problematic statement nonetheless.
First of all, it invalidates the very real emotions and experiences that teens are going through. It trivializes their feelings.
4. They May Be Depressed Now, But They’ll Grow Out of It
You know what would’ve been cool? If I’d “grown out” of bipolar disorder.
But that didn’t happen.
And though you may learn better coping skills over time, there’s no guarantee that any mental health issue is simply going to disappear on its own.
5. They Aren’t Old Enough to Know the Difference Between Mental Illness and Typical Stress
Even if this were true, I somehow doubt that someone on the outside could magically know what another person is going through, not having lived their experience or been in their shoes.
This is another excellent example of adults completely dismissing the pain that teenagers are experiencing.
The idea that a teen can’t know the difference between an illness and stress is problematic on two fronts. It suggests that they shouldn’t believe their gut when they know something is wrong, that they shouldn’t trust their own experiences and should, instead, ignore their pain. And secondly, it upholds the idea that they are defective for not being able to cope with this “normal stress” – that they’re weak for not knowing what to do.
6. There’s Nothing to Be Depressed or Anxious About at That Age
I was told – often – that my life wasn’t so bad, that I had no reason to be depressed.
This suggests that mental illness depends exclusively on circumstances.
But while circumstances can agitate an illness, a mental illness can impact any person, regardless of their environment.
It’s true that I carry a lot of privilege as a white person who grew up in a stable, middle-class household, with two parents who cared deeply about me. To an outside observer, my life wasn’t “that bad.”
7. Clearly They’re Just Hanging Out with the Wrong Crowd
When I was called in by a high school counselor because of my self-injury wounds, I was asked “which of my friends” were also doing it – as if my pain were just a fad, something I was doing to be hip or cool or edgy.
Because my grades were too good. I was the kid next-door. I was so smart. So how could I be doing this?
Must be the crowd I fell into.
This was one of the most offensive things I encountered as a teen.
8. If a Teen Is Struggling, It’s Probably the Fault of the Caretakers
No amount of love, no amount of money, no amount of dance classes or violin lessons or summer camp was enough to fend off bipolar disorder.
A stable and loving household, whatever that really means, is not a safeguard against mental illness.
My parents did the best that they could – I love them so much for that – and although abuse, financial insecurity, or distress in a household could certainly be triggering, that is not the sole cause of mental illness in teens.
A teen’s mental health issues are not necessarily a reflection of their home life, nor does it necessarily reflect on their guardians, in the same way that any kind of illness could be caused by environmental factors, but isn’t always.
I think my mother said it best when she told me that I didn’t come with an instruction manual.