The Stigma of Mental Illness Through the Eyes of a Teenager

By Chloe Cochran

Senior, Souhegan High School

Mental illness as a whole is an extremely broad topic with strings attached to every open thread of symptoms, cures and the different age groups affected. I am a high school senior compelled to share an unconventional viewpoint of the standards people suffering from mental illness are put up against on a daily basis.

Last year, through Novus Vita Counseling, I met with Dr. Howard Goodman for a six hour one-on-one session of mental exercises to pinpoint the exact diagnosis for my mental state. Novus Vita Counseling is a family owned business, in a well-sized Victorian style home, on the main stretch of Elm Street in Manchester, New Hampshire. Immediately after coming to an end I was presented with a packet explaining the purpose for the entire process, and expanding on each individual task we completed together. I was diagnosed, at the age of 16, with Major Depressive Disorder, Depression Induced Anxiety and a Severe Social Anxiety Disorder. Suddenly I identified with the 1 in the 1 in 5 adolescents that have to hold hands with a different version of themselves everywhere they go. The consistent imagery adapted through commercials of people holding masks over their exterior expressions, became a very real feeling that I felt the true horror of.

Looking for a credible source that could still provide a personal connection, I reached out to Dr. Goodman for a raw definition of his outlook on mental illness after working with such a large diversity of patients. His response: “Mental illnesses are conditions that may affect functional (how one acts) or cognitive (how one thinks) behavioral characteristics.  Behavioral disorders such as depression and anxiety may be infrequent or chronic and affect the individual's ability to socially interact in a way that is generally perceived as typical by others.  Behaviors that are considered as atypical might include hearing voices, crying for no reason, exhibiting extreme defensiveness when such behavior is unjustified by the circumstances, experiencing life-limiting phobias, and more.”  

The last sentence of Dr. Goodman’s response, specifically the word choices of typical and atypical, plays on the fragment of mental illness that I am aiming to debunk, based on opinion, personal experience, and years of personal interest in researching further. I am attempting to utilize both fact and opinion to reach out to more developed generations, parents specifically, to clarify what needs to be recognized while researching further into the stigma of mental illness.

For example, the natural reaction of a concerned parent is attempting to look further into whatever it is they may assume their child is going through. Clicking into a large majority of any search engine, a list of common symptoms or “signs” of mental illness will appear before the eyes of an already frantic reader. The Mayo Clinic, a source certified by HONcode, provides a list that includes: feeling sad or down, withdrawal from friends or activities, and excessive anger, hostility or violence. While I am not attempting to claim these are false accusations concerning every form of mental illness, I believe they are much too broad and can lead to a wrongful self diagnosis in a time of panic of the unknown. Evidently it will continue to vary on the extent of how aggressively each person goes about opening their eyes to the endless research on mental illness, and if they should choose to go to a psychologist for a second opinion. From personal experience, having a one-on-one with a credible professional was the first step towards understanding what I needed to do to improve my quality of life and not label myself as just another statistic.  

While I am choosing to magnify the concern around the scrutiny of research developed around adolescent cognitive health, this is an all inclusive issue that should freely be perceived by all eyes.

I do not believe there is a name, list, or face that you can describe to me in enough detail that can fully capture what mental illness should look like, because it simply fails to exist. Whether I have tears streaming down my cheeks or an annoyingly big smile crowding my face, I can not be compared to or labeled as mentally ill based off of a list of qualities that I’m supposed to have.

Humor me by imagining this scenario: Put twenty people that have the same clinically diagnosed mental illness or disorders in a single room, and find me one pair out of the ten that can describe to you their prior experience or their current situation with even the slightest bit of similarity.

I can guarantee you this would not be a simple or time efficient task, because no two mentally diagnosed subjects of the same disorder, can be compared or wrapped into a summarized version of how their disorder may affect them or their daily life-style.

Mental illness is not what alienates such a large percentage of our society, the labels that society chooses to place upon mental illness is what makes the percentage of us that continue to walk and breathe as humans do, feel alienated from our own skin.