What peers can do to help the rising mental health crisis

By Adia Miller

According to the new data, in 2021, more than a third (37%) of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year. 

For five days a week, seven hours a day, kids in their teens are sitting in school, working to develop their minds and prepare for the next steps they will take in their lives. They aren’t doing this alone, though: they’re doing it alongside hundreds of other young people which is why it’s so important we look after each other.

Parents and teachers can set up a space and certainly do their fair share to help, but in the end it’s up to us to really create a safe space full of empathy and awareness. Socializing is a major factor in mental health, but that factor could easily help or hurt depending on how we decide to treat each other and educate ourselves.

Have Open Conversations about Mental Health

There is no obligation for you to ever reveal the intimate details of your mind including experiences and diagnosis, but topics of mental illness being labeled as taboo creates an ideology that in itself can harm someone’s mental state.

Removing the negative stigma around mental health, and even specifically seeking out opportunities to discuss it, allows for more open communication and can alleviate a lot of pressure. We need to know it’s OK to talk honestly about how we are doing, not just saying an instinctual “I’m good.”

And we need to know it’s OK to ask someone we see around if they need help. The need to converse expands far just beyond mental health to topics such as unhealthy coping skills and suicide. After all, mental illness is a factor in the majority of suicides. We need to let our peers know they have other ways to find relief, and we can’t do that if we never discuss it.

Bellbrook sophomore Cecilia Dyer who lives with ADHD and anxiety says she’s most comfortable having these discussions with close friends or siblings over parents and strangers, specifically those who themselves have a mental illness. She feels a certain comradery and understanding there that may not apply to the neurotypical. “People tend to find people like them,” Dyer said. “So most people I voluntarily hang out with have struggled with some of the same things I have. There’s a safety in talking to someone who really understands.”

Form Healthy Relationships

Friends, partners, and family members play a major factor in your mental health. It’s important that early on we, as young people, differentiate what relationships are good and bad for us, and can then discuss with those we trust.

There are two standard rules when it comes to any type of relationship. First, know it is not up to you to change someone else, for your sake and theirs. Ask: “Do I love this person as they are or do I love this idea of them I want to one day appear?” And second, if more than one person comes up to you to say a relationship is unhealthy, it’s time to take a step back and listen. One time can be misinformed, three indicates a pattern. 

One rule exists explicitly for families. Family is family until they threaten or hurt your emotional, mental, or physical well being. DNA is never an excuse for abuse.

“I would first try to work any issues out between me and the other person first,” Dyer said, “But I’d rather drop them and be happy than continue to be around them and suffer. That’s not fair to me.”

We need to be able to form healthy relationships and encourage healthy relationships for those around us. And we can do this by talking to one another honestly, knowing the signs of abuse in its various forms, and asking the question, “If this was happening to someone I love, what would I do?” when we recognize the signs in strangers, or even in ourselves.

Be a Part of Healthy Platforms

School isn’t the only place kids are swarmed with attention. Social media plays a large part in modern generations’ lives and more specifically their mental health. 

Photos promoting unrealistic body standards, the anonymity provided behind a screen name, and posts featuring only the highlights of our life have resulted in a proven decline in mental health as shown in this 2022 comprehensive study reported by the National Library of Medicine. 

One option to combat this decline is total avoidance of social media in what is called a social media detox. Remove yourself from every platform, delete apps from your phone, and focus your time on activities deemed healthier for you such as reading, family time, or meditation. 

“I tend to follow artists more than anyone else on social media,” one Cherry Creek High School student in Colorado said. “They’re people who inspire me and make me feel good. It’s the comments mainly on their posts as well as my own that can start to affect my psyche after a while. I ended up deleting Instagram and Twitter from my phone two months after starting high school and just kept Tumblr on my iPad. I have a job now and am working on early college admission, so I spend most of my time I would have otherwise been on my phone doing those things.”

While a social media detox is a healthy option, this cold turkey method isn’t the only solution. Another option is only following people on social media who you find encouraging or supportive, or keeping your circle close to only those you love and know love you and creating a healthy space for you and your loved ones to talk and catch up in. 

Or, if you want an interim social media break, organizations like Towwn (Take Only What We Need), or independent bloggers such as NowAndGen have charts and steps to help you through the process, from taking one day off to months.

Know the Signs for Suicide

It’s inevitable that the people most likely to notice the signs of suicide are our family and friends. And the vast majority of people who attempt suicide had previously expressed some sort of inclination towards it. But what good is knowing that if we don’t know what to look for? 

A comprehensive list of signs are posted on the Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s website as well as various others concerning health and safety. Some of these include:

-Withdrawing from loved ones

-Sudden disinterest in activities one once favored

-Sleeping too much or too little

-Talking about killing oneself, even if it seems in a joking manner 

A person can’t be helped if no one knows what pain they’re going through, and unfortunately communicating these topics is hard, so just having a basic understanding of these signs can make us all more aware.

“If you have a certain mental illness, you know what you’ve gone through and the symptoms you’ve had due to it,” a Bellbrook sophomore said. “It’s easy to then notice the exact same behaviors in someone else because they are far too similar to yours. I could likely see the signs of mental distress; however, the most important thing is aiding them because they’re going to need help.” 

Which is why as peers, we should also know the point below:

Know the Difference in Betraying Trust and Saving a LIfe

People contemplating suicide are in need of help, but they’re not always going to ask for it. In that situation, those who they’ve confided in or have recognized the signs need to know the next thing to do. 

Contact a professional who can help.

We need to take a step from the therapist’s code of ethics in reference to privacy: keep it to yourself unless a person can be seen as a risk to themselves or others. We are not betraying a friend’s trust in seeking professional help. We are recognizing that this issue goes beyond what we can do, and help is needed for the sake of a friend.

And unfortunately, girls and boys are facing a record high in levels of sadness, mental health issues, and suicide as shown in this ABC News article, so it’s important as ever to be vigilant and know the next step in helping a person in need.

It’s not a mark of disloyalty to report when someone is contemplating suicide or experiencing abuse. At worst, it’s a misunderstanding, but chances are, it may be helping to save a life.

Spread the Knowledge and Work Together

Once we are educated, it’s time to start educating others. Share books and articles full of quality information on mental health and self care. Exchange podcasts and videos. Go on hikes with friends, watch documentaries with family, have in-depth conversations about individual experiences and knowledge. Being socially healthy is part of the health triangle, and feeding one corner helps the whole thing grow.

If you have the urge to harm yourself, regularly feel sad or hopeless, are with a person who harms you physically or emotionally, or if you just feel like you need someone to talk to, please call 988, and talk to your parents or an adult whom you trust.

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