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  • Martha Rasche

Here Are Your Evening Plans

If you don’t have very important plans for 9 o’clock (Eastern time) tonight, I urge you to watch the PBS documentary about the mental health of adolescents. It’s a Ken Burns presentation, “Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Health.” Last December, the surgeon general took the unusual step of issuing an “Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health.” “Mental health challenges in children, adolescents and young adults are real and widespread,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in issuing the document. From 2009 to 2019, the share of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40 percent, to more than 1 in 3 students. Suicidal behaviors among high school students also increased during the decade preceding Covid, with 19 percent seriously considering attempting suicide, a 36 percent increase from 2009 to 2019. Part I of the Burns presentation last night covered firsthand accounts of young people from across the country realizing they had a mental illness and how they and others responded to that (often without compassion or kindness). The roles of social media and the coronavirus pandemic were examined. A school counselor, mental health counselors, psychiatrists, mental health advocates and other adults chimed in. Tonight’s conclusion will focus on resilience. My depression began when I was a tween/teenager and subsequently I figured out two things at a very young age: I wasn’t going to get through my feelings of hopelessness very well if I could not talk about them, and the more I held those feelings in, the more isolated and disconnected I felt. As much as I knew I needed other people to keep me connected (I referred to it as “grounded”), I felt even more strongly that talking about my feelings — surely I was the only young person seeing/feeling the world with such misery — certainly would make others want to alienate from me. There also were family secrets (which were exacerbating if not outright triggering my feelings) to keep. So I stayed silent — and thus endured others’ continual chiding about my quiet personality. Such comments only made me feel worse (and are an unwelcome reminder of that time in my life when I hear them today). As I learned to manage my depression in my late 20s and 30s, I often thought about the mental health of young people. I got a gig some years ago writing columns that relate to mental health for the local newspaper, and I keep being drawn to topics related to youth. Adolescence itself is hard; I know firsthand that adding mental illness to the mix at that time in life can seem unbearable. Among the notes I took from last night’s episode, I wrote down these messages that I think someone of any age and mental state could benefit from being reminded of: “You matter.” “I just want (you) to know you’re never alone.”

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