It’s Not All In Your Head

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It’s getting to the time of year when getting out of bed can feel like an impossible task. 

The ‘winter blues’: a slow and steady loss of energy and motivation as the days get darker and colder. Officially diagnosed in more severe cases as Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD), the winter months can be a psychologically draining time. 

Researchers still don’t know the full cause or treatment, but many theorize SAD has something to do with the production and regulation of serotonin (the ‘happy’ brain chemical) and melatonin (the sleep hormone). Vitamin D, hormone replacement therapies, and small lifestyle changes are all recommendations from doctors to treat the issue that affects 6.8 percent of the US population.

For teenagers, seasonal mood changes can be more noticeable than in adults due to the impact it has on academic and social performance.

Midwinter always starts to get really hard for me,” senior Elena Martinez said. “When it gets really cloudy and everything is always grey, that’s really tough. Last year when it was snowing, I literally stayed in my bed for like 2 weeks. I took so many ‘sick’ days because it got really bad.”

Timothy Zimmermann, a ninth grade humanities teacher, reflected on the patterns he’s noticed as an educator. 

“[After the fall] high school becomes school again,” Zimmermann said. “It’s not exciting, your teachers want you to do stuff, your classes get hard, and at the exact same time it gets dark all the time, so for sure the energy drops off.”

In academic spheres, not completing assignments or falling behind is often attributed to laziness or bad work ethic. However, mental health can be a significant factor at play preventing kids from succeeding, which can be difficult for teachers to pick up on. 

“Sometimes kids may give off the appearance that they really don’t care or they’re not that engaged, but [school] is a huge stressor for kids,” Rosie Moore, a mental health specialist at Garfield’s Teen Health Center, said. “They want to be successful and they don’t want to let people down or seem like a failure.”

This forces teachers to ask a tough question.

“How do you know when a student isn’t motivated because there’s stuff in their life that’s causing them to do that, versus when they’re just being lazy?” Zimmerman said. “I always assume that there’s some mental health thing…because there almost always is. If someone’s not turning in their homework, there’s usually a decent reason for it.” 

 

Adolescent anxiety, academic or otherwise, has been sharply increasing over the past decades.

I think mental health issues in general have shown a significant increase in the time I’ve been here,” Moore said, who has worked at the Teen Health Center for the entire 20 years it has been open. “Depression used to be the number one problem, but as of late it’s been anxiety and panic issues. I think students have a lot of stress and pressure, both in school and out of school. And just the general climate of uncertainty and worry.”

Studies corroborate Moore’s experiences—in recent generations, there has been a significant uptick in adolescent mental health issues. Between 2007 and 2012, rates of teenage anxiety disorders went up 20 percent and rates of suicide and self-harm nearly doubled. 

Many people connect this trend to the rise of smartphones and their effect on teenagers.

Amarra Andreson, a junior on CORE (Congress of Racial Equity) staff, finds that phones act as both a light-hearted distraction and social outlet, but can negatively impact how people talk about mental health.

“You know, like, going on my finsta [a ‘fake’ Instagram usually exclusively for friends] and ranting or posting on my private story and just like not doing anything about it so when people actually check up on me, I’m like, ‘oh, it’s okay, I’m good now.’ But, really, I need that physical support,” Andreson said.

The internet also spreads information about current events. As Moore said, though mental health difficulties can be traced to hereditary factors (for example, familial history of mental illness) or to individual traumas, but it’s also deeply impacted by broader societal issues. 

“The climate crisis… we’re all worrying about that because it’s what we have to plan our future around,” Andreson said. “Knowing about disasters going around the world, increase[s] in poverty, stuff like that… things that don’t directly impact some of us… they’re all being piled onto us to think about how we’re going to move forward.”

All-encompassing issues like climate change and academic stress illustrate how mental health is relevant for everyone — no matter their race, socioeconomic status, or culture. But especially at Garfield, one of the most diverse high schools in the district, it’s important to note how structural racism adds layers to the dialogue.

Discussion of mental health can be especially taboo in non-white cultures, which makes it more difficult to begin conversations about it. 

“My dad is Mexican and my mom is Filipina. My dad definitely struggles with his own mental health but just doesn’t acknowledge it. He sees it like, ‘you kids are privileged, you have nothing to be sad about,’” Martinez said. “So anytime anyone is depressed and there’s nothing conceivably wrong in their life, he just sees it like, ‘that’s some white people sh*t.’”

But it doesn’t stop there: data suggests that when people of color do seek help, it is far more difficult for them to actually receive care. According to the US Office of Minority Health, suicide was the second leading cause of death for black adolescents in 2017, yet in that year, white people were twice more likely to receive mental health support and/or medication than black or Latinx people.

 

So within our own school, how can Garfield shift its culture to be more supportive and prioritize mental health — especially within stressful academic environments? 

A good place to start is our Advanced Placement (AP) courses. AP classes have a reputation for placing students under a great deal of pressure — not only from parents and teachers, but also from peers. 

Elena Martinez noticed that AP classes can exacerbate anxiety. 

“I felt like I was failing all the time in school even though I was doing well,” she said. “It wasn’t until I started legitimately failing school that I learned to get over that anxiety. I’ve gotten better at not beating myself up over every mistake I make.”

How should Garfield address this problem?

“The first step is for everyone to generally be more empathetic to each other,” Martinez said. “Before judging, [try] to understand and [help] each other out when you can. Just [check] up on each other, not being condescending.”

When it comes to the classroom, teachers often find it challenging to identify and help kids that are struggling while staying on top of their curriculum and keeping control of the class. 

“There’s a lack of knowledge about how to go about actually helping a kid,” Martinez said. “When teachers would ask, how can I best support you, a lot of the time I didn’t even know the answer to that. I’ve had lots of teachers tell me I could come in and talk. I didn’t take most of them up on it, but just knowing that someone cared and was there.”

Zimmermann had a similar perspective: it is often hard for teachers to know how to support struggling students. 

“The job in my life is to help people learn, but people learn best when they are mentally healthy, so I think of [trying to support students mentally] as part of my job,” Zimmermann said. “I’m in no position to diagnose, no position to treat, but I do want to take the kind of care of people I can.”

More well-known outlets for mental health support at Garfield come with their own complications.

“There’s always that stigma around seeking mental health at school because one, people can see you,” Andreson said. “I personally feel like, I don’t want people to think there’s something wrong with me!”

But according to Ms. Rosie, research shows that kids who have a trusted adult in their life do better in school and have better emotional wellbeing. 

“Counseling is important, [but] it doesn’t necessarily have to be a therapist,” Moore said. “It’s just finding an adult in the building that you can connect with.” 

There are a lot of things we can do better as a school. 

“[We need to have] conversations about mental health in a classroom setting in a way that doesn’t trigger people but also is more information and expands on resources,” Andreson said.

Moore’s take was more specific. 

“The first thing is to get plenty of sleep,” Moore said. “Really, self-care. Hygiene, eat well, do some deep breathing. Just realize it’s not the end of the world even if it seems that way.”