The alarm on his phone goes off. He looks over at the bright white screen of the buzzing phone and thinks he just cannot go to school today. As he struggles to get out of bed, he realizes that the best shot of not going to school is to fake being sick. He goes to the bathroom, turns on the hairdryer and warms up his forehead, but is careful not to use the hot setting but instead uses the warm one.
This is not the first time he has faked illness to get out of school or a social event. He walks to the kitchen slowly while clutching his stomach. His guardian comes out eventually and says “What’s wrong honey?” He has the chance to tell her everything, but instead he claims “I don’t feel so good.” His guardian calls in to the school for him and he spends the whole day in bed.
WO Jr. John Smith (not his real name) suffers from social anxiety disorder and depression. “It’s hard when you have social anxiety disorder. People think that it means that you don’t like them, but I want desperately to make friends. I just can’t,” Smith said.
People who suffer from social anxiety disorder experience intense anxiety in almost all social situations. They often skip out on social events because there will be too many new people. “I have only ever been to one school dance. It was the worst. I just followed my friend who had a date and then I was obsessing over the fact that I must be a pain.” Other situations that cause emotional stress are being teased, being the center of attention, and being watched while doing something.
“One other huge thing that I deal with is trouble understanding people. I have all these things I want to tell somebody and I just freeze so a lot of my relationships fall apart,” Smith said. One characteristic of social anxiety disorder that is hard to understand is that those diagnosed know that their fear is ridiculous. “I mean it’s really hard because sometimes I tell myself to go talk to someone because it’s ridiculous to not to, and when I get up there I freeze and nothing comes out. Then they often look at me and say ‘What do you want?’ and I say ‘I’m sorry nevermind’ and walk away, which only adds to the fear of being judged.”
People diagnosed with social anxiety disorder are most afraid of the constant judging from others. Psychologists coined the term “imaginary audience” which is the fear that everything you’re doing is being watched by an audience. Usually people will grow out of this fear, but people with social anxiety disorder do not. Slightly embarrassing situations can cause a person with social anxiety disorder to think about the situation for hours or days.
Mental health problems affect a great number of people. “My counselor told me that about a quarter to a third of young adults experience depression before they are even out of high school,” Smith said. That number is staggering. That means that at least one in four people have dealt with depression before adulthood. “My social anxiety causes overthinking and fear of being judged, and my depression adds to and amplifies the feeling of worthlessness. I have been getting better and that’s what I really wanted to talk about. It is a problem that isn’t really discussed much in media or in general because people are afraid of the issue. It is why a lot of people don’t get help.”
Mental health has had this negative connotation associated with it for a long time. Many people hear mental health and think “crazy,” which in turn makes the issue uncomfortable to talk about. The fact is that there is a ridiculous number of students who feel very similar to the way Smith does. Many high school students desperately need help. The most common mental health disorders are mood disorders: major depression, dysthymia, and bipolar disorder. Smith deals with depression on top of the social anxiety as well. “My counselor says that the depression and the anxiety feed off of each other.” One mental health problem can be devastating, so as a society we need to have better conversations about helping. Awareness is the first step and any action to get the conversation started would help. Feeling alone is one of the most common thoughts that someone with a mood disorder or an anxiety disorder has, and just knowing that there are others can bring the issue into the light.
“I wrote my first suicide note at the age of 13. I was in the sixth grade. A lot has happened to me and my environment obviously had a huge part in how I developed. I’m not here to give everyone the details because that hurts too much to discuss. I have written a lot of suicide notes over the course of the last four years. I never kept any of them. I have been pushed so far to the edge that I couldn’t see clearly, and all I could think was how badly everything needed to just stop.”
As horrible as it seems a great deal of people have suicidal thoughts. There is often not a good way to tell. People display emotions in different ways, but just being a friend can save someone’s life. “The lowest point of my life was the time I locked myself in the bathroom. I pulled out a package of razors. I snapped the top off and then broke it. I pulled out one of the blades and drew it across my palm just to see how much it hurt, and it hurt. It hurt so much that I couldn’t go through with it, so I opened the cabinet to look for pills. Looking at those bottles I realized that I had no idea what could kill me,” Smith said.
If Smith had gone through with suicide there would have been a tragedy, but at that moment he received a text from a friend. All that text said was “Hey man are you Ok?”
“I cracked. All the weight on my chest had lifted if only for a second, but that second was enough. I looked around at the busted razor, and the pill bottles, and I asked myself ‘what the hell are you doing?!’” Smith said. A tragedy was avoided because one person reached out in a time of great need.
Smith desperately wants everyone who is struggling to know that they are not alone. The national suicide prevention lifeline number is 1-800-273-8255. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers. There is no solution. We can only try our best to help others. Even just smiling in the hallway can be a positive interaction. As a community it is our job to make sure that our members are safe. Just be a friend to someone and that can help a lot, maybe even save a life.