Being a teenager is hard. Anyone who is one or has been one can confirm this. The teenage years are full of social and physical changes, big decisions and stress. This year, I learned that it's even harder to juggle the responsibilities of being a teenager when also struggling with mental illness.
According to research, the number of teens who suffer from an anxiety disorder is rising. I am among this growing group of teens with anxiety. I was diagnosed last year, and I spent most of my grade 10 year of high school learning how to cope with my anxiety while also trying to maintain a normal, balanced teenage social life, something I quickly learned is not easy to do. Navigating the ups and downs of high school is overwhelming as it is, and having to deal with a mental disorder on top of it sometimes made it seem impossible to succeed. My simultaneous battle with mental illness and with high school, although exhausting, has caused me to learn and grow a lot.
When I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder at 15, as a grade 10 student, I was already feeling the pressure to succeed. According to society, my peers, and many of the adults in my life, in order to be a well-rounded teenager I needed good grades, cool clothes and lots of friends.
There were already expectations set out for me as a teenage girl, and the pressure was multiplied thanks to my anxious brain, which convinced me that I was not good enough and would never be good enough to succeed at these things. Navigating high school with an anxiety disorder is exhausting, confusing and terrifying at times. Although I've struggled with anxiety for most of my life, it increased by a lot in the past few years. My family and friends began to notice something was going on with me when I stopped wanting to be around people. I went from being an extroverted, outspoken social butterfly to just wanting to be alone and watch Netflix. I've always excelled academically, but when my anxiety was really bad, my marks started to plummet. My teachers thought I wasn't trying hard enough, and they had no idea how much of a struggle it was for me to do my homework every night and concentrate in class. I was distracted all the time because I was constantly worrying. My anxiety told me that I was a failure, and I would never get the grades I wanted. It told me that I was annoying and that none of my friends wanted to hang out with me. I started to believe that part of my brain, and I stopped trying to be social, smart and well-rounded. Instead, I scraped by in my classes and many of my friendships dwindled.
Mental illness is vastly misunderstood in today's culture. I encounter people all the time who don't know anything about my disorder or how it affects my life. Too many times, I've heard "get over it" or "that's weird" or "you're crazy" when it comes to the topic of my anxiety. When I've approached teachers or coaches for help, they often don't know how to react. In a place as complicated as high school, when I didn't know how to get the help I needed, it was easy to feel alone.
Fortunately, I was surrounded by amazing people in my life who did want to help me. My parents, friends, counselors and community encouraged me and supported me through some pretty hard times. I learned through them that my anxiety could not define me. I learned how to be more confident and open about my struggles. Being a teenager is tough, especially when you have to juggle it along with an anxiety disorder. It's still really hard for me, and I run into new obstacles that I have to face every single day. But I continue to grow and learn and I'm conquering new fears all the time.
For those who are struggling with something similar, know that you're not alone. There are teens all around you who are going through the same thing. Surround yourself with people who love you and want to help you. The biggest piece of advice I can give you, as a teen that's been through it and is still going through it, is to be open. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it, and talk about how you're feeling often. Sometimes just being able to be open can make a huge difference.
This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week. There is a huge stigma attached to mental illness in our society, and by talking about what you're going through you can also help raise others' awareness. You can educate people and help them to understand that mental illness is something that affects people both mentally and physically, and that it is actually an increasingly common issue among teenagers. I have been overlooked, belittled and misunderstood because of my mental illness and the lack of awareness surrounding this issue. I was made to feel ashamed of the fact that I needed help because I was sick. We can make a difference as people who have been through it, or have loved others who have been through it, by removing the stigma. Speak up, and help raise awareness. This is my challenge to you.