The Hidden Struggle


For much of history, mental health has been treated very poorly. Abnormal behavior was thought to have been caused by demonic possession or witchcraft. As time went on people’s views of mental health were clustered into the category of crazy, and it was only in the 1960s and 70s that chronic mental illness was seen as a legitimate health concern that needed professional treatment. It is true that we’ve come a long way from those times, but it never hurts to be a little more informed.

The most common form of mental health conditions in teenagers right now are anxiety and depression. These are serious conditions that usually appear in a person’s teenage years or early adulthood. According to the National Institute of Mental Health and Anxiety and Depression Association of America, an estimated 31.9% of U.S. adolescents aging from 13-18 had any anxiety disorder as well as 18.1% of adults 18 and older.

People can often mistake anxiety for depression and vise versa. It’s important to remember that they are two different conditions, however the symptoms for both conditions are similar. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as: “feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” The APAs definiton of depression is: “lack of interest and pleasure in daily activities, significant weight loss or gain, insomnia or excessive sleeping, lack of energy, inability to concentrate, feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.”

Possible symptoms of these disorders are:

Anxiety- hypervigilance, irritability, restlessness, lack of concentration, racing or unwanted thoughts, fatigue, sweating, anxiety, excessive worry, fear, feeling of impending doom, insomnia, nausea, palpitations, or trembling.

Depression- anxiety, apathy, general discontent, guilt, hopelessness, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, mood swings, sadness, agitation, excessive crying, irritability, restlessness, social isolation, early awakening, excess sleepiness, insomnia, restless sleep, excessive hunger, fatigue, or loss of appetite, lack of concentration, slowness in activity, thoughts of suicide, weight gain or weight loss, poor appetite, or repeatedly going over thoughts.

If a person has anxiety or depression, that doesn’t mean that they will have every symptom listed. Allen High School’s crisis counselor, Jennifer Atencio, said that the most common symptoms she sees are a lack of interest and/or energy, change in weight, change in sleeping habits, inability to focus, and feelings of worthlessness. 

An anonymous student with anxiety and depression, referred to as Teri for confidentiality reasons, said “my heart will start beating fast or it’ll feel harder to breathe. My hands might start shaking and my throat feels like it’s closing up. It even makes me feel claustrophobic in my own skin if that makes sense, it’s as if walls are closing in on me,” when they described what a panic attack felt like for them.

However, no matter what different behavior you see in people with anxiety and depression, it’s important to remember that they are not just random actions. Any symptom displayed is normal for someone experiencing this disorder and should be taken seriously in order to help them.

According to Psychology Today these mental disorders don’t only affect behavior, but can cause actual change in key areas of the brain. New neuropsychiatry research shows that depression symptoms are associated with abnormalities in specific areas of the brain, including the hippocampus (the memory center), the anterior cingulate (the brain’s conflict-resolution area), and the prefrontal cortex (involved with planning and executing activities).

These disorders can be brought on by stressful life events that can range from the pressure of graduating college to the loss of a loved one. “Simple things like checking out at a cash register or ordering a pizza can bring on a lot of anxiety for them,” Teri said.

These disorders could also be passed down genetically. If a relative has suffered from these conditions then there is a chance of ‘genetic inheritance.’ Anxiety can even be a learned trait from parents or siblings.

However, there is no definitive answer to what causes anxiety and depression, in fact, Atencio said, “many students who come to see [her are] at a loss as to what [is] “wrong” with them.” Many supportive friends and family ask what they might think the problem is in an effort to help, but repeatedly asking what the problem is when there isn’t an answer can be very frustrating to the individual. Furthermore, suggesting that someone is acting like this for attention is never a good idea and can make the entire situation worse.

These difficult emotions can cause many adolescents to turn to substance abuse in an attempt to cope and avoid their feelings. This can lead to addiction, academic problems or problematic friendships and relationships.

It can be very hard for someone with anxiety and depression to open up and ask for help-especially if they start to withdraw from friends, family, or relationship partners, an act of self-isolation that can worsen their mental health.

“I only talk about mental health with select people because I’m just not close enough with other people,” Teri said. This is why it’s important to pay attention to your loved ones and make it clear that you are there if they need support.

People with anxiety and depression are not looking for sympathy. They would just like to be treated normally. Atencio said she recommends that to successfully approach someone you believe is in need of help, you should express genuine concern and ask him or her to talk to a counselor or therapist to see what help is available. Often, people just want to feel heard, but struggle to communicate their problems because they are afraid of their struggles being minimized or dismissed altogether.

“I don’t know how to ask for help, so it feels like I have to continue whatever I’m doing. I also feel like I’ll be judged or viewed as weak in a way,” Teri said.

If there is someone you are concerned about, Atencio said to help them understand that asking for help is not a weakness and it does not make them incapable of achieving things on their own. People with anxiety and depression have likely tried to handle everything on their own for some time, but it can get to be too much. For example, Teri said just talking to someone about anxiety and depression makes her feel better.

Allen High School’s crisis counselor said that counselors and therapists are very useful resources in the struggle against anxiety and depression. They can offer a consistent outlet for discussion as well as keep all information discussed confidential. They can also provide guidance to identify any triggers or stressors that are possibly intensifying the anxiety and/or depression. Identifying stressors is very important because it can also help the patient and their counselors identify healthy coping mechanisms.

There are many ways to fight anxiety and depression. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has recommended that children aged 13-18 get 8-10 hours of sleep and adults get 7-9. Additionally, eating well-balanced meals and drinking plenty of water is a good start. 

“Usually, I try to figure out why I feel depressed or anxious. I think about when the last time I ate was, if I got enough sleep, if I’ve made an effort to text or call anyone, or if I need to take a break from homework. I’ll often turn to certain activities like watching TV, painting, meditating, writing, listening to music, exercising, going outside, or watching funny videos on Youtube. Sometimes I just let myself feel sad until I’m ready to move on. In the moment though, the first thing I’ll do is take a deep breath and drink some water,” Teri said.

According to the AHS crisis counselor, the most common forms of treatment include therapy and medication. In more serious instances, students may need in-patient care or a day treatment program. But the important thing to remember about anxiety and depression is that it is real and if someone is suffering from it then the best course of action is to talk to someone who can help.

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