In Their Own Words:
Student writing on Mental Health
High school students gathered recently in Concord for Dartmouth Hitchcock Health’s Film Festival to talk about the issues that impact their mental and behavioral health, and to start the search for solutions.
There were fifty entries into the film festival, twenty-six of them being videos and the other twenty-four being written submissions consisting of poems or short essays. The videos and essays helped promote mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, self-harm, and many more.
Read the work of the writing finalists below. Warning, some content is graphic and may be triggering.
Emotions come in shades of color for me. I imagine tones and hues to best describe the
way they rip through my chest. Warm colors for feelings I would imagine are healthy, discussed
at dinner tables and demonstrated on Disney. Dark colors are saved for emotions that I never
read about in children's books or verbalized openly. Black for the times I feel everything, white
Purple is for shame. The type of shame that racks against my ribs when someone offers
a simple solution to my complex problem. A triangular block shoved into a rectangular spot. “I’m
always sad,” I try to explain. A light flickers across their face as if they know how to fix this. “Do
things that make you happy then,” they insist, shooting off a list of things that at one point or
another had made me happy. “You love animals and people, I remember back when you were a
kid...” My head clouds with blue and red, swirling together to make one thing very clear. I am
ashamed. Suddenly I feel that I am a complex problem rather than having one. I feel as though
I’m making this problem much larger than it is and maybe, just maybe, these simple things will
fix me. “You’re right.” I confess and look down. “I should’ve thought of that.”
Car rides. Car rides make me think of the color of the ocean or the sky but darker. The
ocean at night or the sky after rain. When the indigo pigment saturates my every thought, I cry.
Small tears with words printed between every molecule. The questioning glances from the cars
other passengers make me wish they could read these words, because I can’t tell half the truth
that they do. Vulnerability is not my strong suit. All I do say is: “It’ll pass soon.” I know this type
of sad. Blue like the ocean enough to drown in I’ve been told, but I can swim.
In other peoples rainbows, green represents energy. The good kind. The type that
makes you wake up 30 minutes early to put food in the bird feeder. I don’t know that kind as well
as I used to. Olive green is for my lack thereof. The exhaustion that’s found its way to my vital
organs rather than my appendages. My brain. My heart. They weigh me down until my bed is
the only place they can rest. The second I force myself out of the covers the fatigue comes
rushing back. A few more hours. Pretend you’re sick. I look in my mirror and slouch over to look
broken and weak. I wear shadows on my face and mess up my hair. I find my way to my mom’s
room and cough, “I’m sick. I can’t go to school, please.” I look at her like I never do. A
dependent little thing that she needs to save. “Okay,” she replies. I’m not sick though. I’m
exhausted. Much too tired for the mundane activities I’ve been forced to repeat. I’m olive green.
My rainbow doesn’t have yellow. It passes go straight to red. I bury that color, deeper
than anything else. It’s shoved down next to fossils and childhood memories that I don’t care to
revisit, and it just sits. I am angry. Angry that purple reminds me of shame not plums, that green
makes me think of the life that’s been ripped away from me. Blue isn’t for the sky or beach trips,
it’s the only color cold enough to resemble my depression. “You have potential,” I’m sure I do,
but my brain is sick. My mom asks how I’m going to keep a job with my attitude, I ask her how I
keep one with my illness. “You’re so angry all the time,” I know. I’m mad that I have everything
still in front of me, but I can’t get out of bed in the morning to reach it. Mahogany.
My rainbow is one I don’t hope to see. I wait for it to fall away, and for the colors to fade
back to neutral. I’ve spent nights wishing my world was in black and white. Happy and sad.
Nothing else. No shades or hues, no details. My rainbow is my depression, and I’m constantly
choking on the colors that hum loudly below the surface.
My head is spinning as fast as a tire on a car
Whoosh (breathing heavy)
I am breathing as heavy as an elephant weight
Pat pat pat pat (heart pumping)
My heart is a race car
Crack crack (knuckle cracking)
My body is a tornado
Super sweaty shaky and scared
It's totally taking over me
My heart is flying out of my chest
Pat pat pat pat (heart pumping)
My stomach is full of bouncing butterflies
Whoosh (Breathing heavy)
Ella Livengood The Mansion of My Mind
Lyrics from the song Mansion by NF
These walls are my blank expression. My mind is a home I’m trapped in, and it’s lonely inside this mansion.
As young adults, we are taught to hide ourselves and build walls around how we truly feel. At first this made us feel safe: safe from the judgement and criticism of others. However we continued to build more walls as we grew older, soon finding ourselves trapped, boxed in on all sides, stuck inside of a mansion that is our own mind. This becomes suffocating and leaves us feeling trapped, hopeless, and isolated. We were raised to believe this was normal, raised to think everyone needed walls and closed doors to hide themselves. Our reality has become a lie.
Broken legs but I chase perfection.
In first grade the guidance counselor came into my classroom and taught my class a lesson about communication. She asked us to share what made us angry, sad, and happy. It was so easy back then to express ourselves and there was no judgment involved. One of my peers complained about having to do the dishes after dinner, another complained about not being able to have a dog. The counselor explained that as we grew older, communication would come easier to us and we will be able to express our emotions in an easier way. For me, it feels like it is the opposite; it feels like I have only learned to hide myself, painting over my emotions like a wall.
See, my problem is I don’t fix things, I just try to repaint.
Cover em up like it never happened. Now in eighth grade, when I am asked to express my opinions, I shut all the doors in my mind. I don’t say a word, for the fear I will get judged or laughed at. As well as myself, so many others do the same. Instead of being taught to communicate, we have been taught to be silent, fake, and “normal”. We have been taught to dismiss others emotions for the fear of having to express our own. Instead of releasing all our emotions, we keep them locked behind closed doors, no matter how hard they knock. They sit inside our minds, silently destroying us. Making us feel alone, separated, and trapped with no hope of escape. We have been taught that asking for help is weak, that all we are doing is complaining or wanting attention, when really this is our call for help.
And these walls ain’t blank, I just don’t want to see it.
But why not? I’m in here so I might as well read ‘em. Instead of learning how to hide our feelings and act normal, we should have been learning how to express ourselves, how to share opinions and ideas, and most importantly, how to ask for help. When we were learning to be ashamed of our differences and how to hide them, we should have been learning how to embrace them. While we were learning to judge and dismiss others for fear of being judged ourselves, we should have been learning to accept each other as we are; even with the broken windows, cobwebs, and loose floorboards. If we had learned how to ask, share, and accept, the world we live in would be so much more united. Those feelings of loneliness, judgement, and fear that consume us as young adults would not be so harsh. If we can learn to erase the stigma around expressing emotions, and begin to ask for help as well as share our own experiences with others, it will give us all an escape from the mansion of our minds.
Congratulations, you'll always have a room in my mind. The question is, will I ever clean the walls off in time?
Mia Flegal, Pennichuck Middle School, Nashua, NH
I know how anxiety feels. I know it can be the worst feeling in the world. I know that sometimes I feel like I am trapped in this spinning cycle. I usually get anxiety towards the nighttime, probably because everything is shutting down and sometimes I don’t know what can happen during the night. Sometimes I feel this weird feeling in my stomach even hours before I start to worry and spin into this mindset of irrationality. Usually what I do to help myself in the middle of the night, or even when I am just going to sleep, is to just try and calm myself down. I know that sometimes this is very hard for people who struggle with anxiety, including myself. But as much as it stinks to admit it, I AM in control of my my brain.
Let’s start off with a scenario that actually happened to me a couple of nights ago that could really happen to anyone. Picture this, you are sleeping over at a friend’s house, when you find yourself tossing and turning in bed because you just can’t seem to get comfortable. You try to go back to sleep, but you can’t because your normal sound drowning fan isn’t on, so you hear every single noise that occurs inside and outside of the house. You try to text your mom; she doesn’t answer. What do you do? What I did was spiral into a fit of non-realistic, dark, and scary thoughts. It wasn’t good for me and my mind. I tried to remember what my mom said other times: I was safe and in control. Close my eyes. Wiggle my fingers and toes. Relax every part of my body. Count my breaths. If you are in this situation, you could try sleep meditation by just googling “Sleep Meditations for Kids” on YouTube. Much like the Sleep Meditation, you could also try some form of focusing that takes your mind off of all of the thoughts that are occurring within your brain. For example, if there is any fan or sound maker that produces light, white noise around you, try turning that on. Close your eyes and see if you can hear if there is a slight change in pitch within it. Usually you will eventually drift off to sleep. One thing that helps me the most is to pop in my earbuds, and listen to my favorite songs at the moment. Again, this helps to get your mind off of everything and refocuses your brain.
I went to California for ten days during the summer with my grandmother after I was in NYC with my sister and parents. I was nervous a lot of the time, but I was too distracted to really feel the anxiety sneaking up on me. Now the reality starts to kick in. I have never been away from my parents for this long. My breathing starts staggering, and my heart starts racing. My vision gets blurry, and my head starts pounding. I slowly sit down on the couch and feel the wet tears slowly fall down my face onto my nose and drip off onto the ground. My mom notices me and asks me what’s wrong. I tell her that I don’t want to go anymore and that I’m feeling very anxious. The thing about anxiety is that it is the thing that makes you study for a test and be hesitant about going down a huge water-slide; but it can also be the reason you miss out on things that could be life changing opportunities. I knew that California would be amazing, but my brain was also telling me that I wasn’t strong enough to go all the way across the country and leave my parents in New Hampshire. My mom, being the amazing mom that she is pretty much, said that it was my choice but left an undertone of “but you will really disappoint your cousins.” So I decided to go because I knew that it would be an amazing experience that I didn’t want to miss out on, despite what my anxious brain was telling me..
During my adventures in California, I wrote some things in my journal so that I could get all of my emotions out onto pieces of paper. This is what I came up with. “...The goodbye at the airport was hard because I’ve never been this far away for this long...” (from my house and my parents.) “I feel like crawling into a closet and crying until the ten days are over. It’s 7:40 a.m. here right now, which means it is 10:40 a.m. in Nashua. No one is up... I didn’t get much sleep last night and ended up sleeping with Nani which I’ll probably do again. I want my mom. I want her to hold my hand and tell me everything will all be fine. I want her here. I want her. I need her. She told me writing is a good escape. I agree...Being here without my mom is the scariest thing ever. My anxiety gets worse and worse as my mind starts to wander off the pages of the book. I’m shaking. I’m scared. I’m nauseous. I’m afraid. I am helpless.”
I am not helpless though. YOU are not helpless. I am learning how to deal with my anxiety. I now know I can take back control by using some of my coping strategies. I now know I can get help. I now know if I talk to someone, it helps. You can too and you can help others as well by sharing your personal stories. All you have to remember is that IT WILL END. YOU CAN DO THIS.
Surviving Trauma and Mental Illness
Living with diagnosed depression, anxiety, PTSD, and bipolar disorder as well as borderline personality disorder is not easy. Although two illnesses on my list are similar, I was labeled by both due to the fact my symptoms are so much alike; it was hard to tell the difference. When I first let people know, some thought I was begging for attention rather than being truthful, which wasn’t the case. I used to fake my happiness; when I wanted to cry, I would suck it up and smile like nothing had happened. It is a hard thing to do, wanting to cry but cannot, being afraid to show emotions and wondering if people would prosecute me for actually doing it. Even though it seems easy when you see others do it, it is actually a really big struggle. It is probably one of the hardest things to do. Bottling up these emotions is a big no no; the more one hides it and fakes everything makes life harder to finally release those emotions. The idea that nobody will believe you or understand what it going on is the worst.These mental illnesses usually stem from either what happened in the past or through a chemical imbalance in the brain, meaning a person is born with it, or, like me, suffered tremendous trauma.
I grew up with a rough childhood, enduring many spells of homelessness. When I was a baby I was taken from my parents due to those circumstances. My great grandparents took care of me for about 3-4 years, and when my parents where in the right conditions I went back to them. Even recently, my family just got through with being homeless, and we now currently live in an apartment. But that isn’t what did the major damage. My father was an abusive person. He wasn’t a drunk or anything; he was just abusive. He would constantly beat me down with his words as well as his hands. I remember there was a time where I didn’t clean my room to his liking and he kicked me out of the house. We were living in a bad neighborhood in Roxbury at the time, and I was 10. I walked down the street, and my mom made me come back. When I got back inside, my father hit my mother because of it.
Another memory I have is when he came home one night expecting our rooms to be cleaned. My brother cleaned his, but there was still things under his bed. My father dragged him out of bed and started kicking him until my brother started cleaning under his bed. My father never hit my little sister, the youngest; he slapped her once and immediately regretted it and never put his hands on her again. The worst memories, though, happened when he raped me, only me. The first time it happened my door was open because I was scared of the dark and wanted to hall light to shine into my room for when I slept. I was half asleep when he came into my room. He made me perform oral sex, and he told me it is what happens when daddies have a favorite child and that is their treat. He told me to never tell anybody or he’d hurt me. I was about 7 years old. I don’t remember anything really good that happened at that age, only what he did. As years passed he started to perform vaginal penetration. I still remember how heavy he was, and I have nightmares every night. He would make me give him a handjob whenever we were in the living room with others, but it would be under a blanket. He would always make sure I sat with him. This happened until I was 12 years old. I came out about it because my sister was just about the age where it started happening to me. I was scared it would happen to her. Ever since he’s been in jail, and he actually gets out in March, which has been causing me a lot of stress.
There’s a huge stigma when it comes to mental health. People tend to beautify and misconstrue mental illness as if it was something one can just call a phase or get attention for. Mental illness is way more than just a trend. If anything, it isn’t a trend whatsoever. It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain, which can also be triggered by trauma, something I can’t control. Being a part of the stigma is probably one of the hardest things, especially when it feels as if you are being a burden or if people think you are faking it, all because people romanticize it. Certain mental illnesses can cause a motivation deficiency and what I mean by this is with depression; for example, one tends to lose most motivation for anything and/or everything. For example, this essay has been pretty hard for me to write, but I am slowly trying to get myself to do this because of the benefits of the fact that people will get to hear my story and understand that these things can happen to anybody.
These traumatic experiences I’ve been through have caused different mental illnesses. I know the struggles. Staying in therapy is really hard when one’s family has to move around so much and sometimes doesn’t have a home base. I understand how it feels to be in pain everyday. It’s been getting worse due to the fact that my father will be released from jail soon. The stress, anxiety, and depression has really been kicking in, but I know I can get through it. Mental illness has become a big problem and it continues to affect many of our youth today and we need more awareness. Youth struggle with mental illness every day, but one day everyone will see that this isn’t the end-- we are all strong, we can get through it!