If you’re a teen or preteen and are currently struggling with your thoughts and behaviors right now, you may be worried that you’re mentally ill and deeply desire to get some relief from these feelings. If you are between the ages of 10 and 18, it is important to know that your brain is going through one of the most severe and extreme changes that it will go through in your life. Symptoms of all sorts of mental illnesses are present in many teenagers and preteens. You may believe that you have more than one mental illness. This may be true, but it probably is not. Basically, if you’re already going through puberty, your brain is utterly overwhelmed. This effect is more severe for some people than others so you may feel that you are not coping as well as your peers. This is still within the realm of normal development. Developing into an adult is painful, and it’s okay to feel that pain. It gets easier. This is good news because it means it is likely that after a few years of misery you will heal and level out, and not be stuck dealing with mental illnesses for the rest of your life, which is the optimal outcome for this awful and miserable situation.
At this point, you may feel that your concerns are being dismissed and you may even be furious with me for suggesting that you are not mentally ill. You have every right to feel that way. I’m sure the symptoms you are experiencing are troubling and hurt tremendously. I also know that these feelings can lead to suicidal behavior. I have attempted suicide twice, and I know first-hand how much a person has to hurt to get to that place. You are probably in a lot of pain. I am not trying to downplay your struggle or your suffering in the least. The pain felt in adolescence and teenage years can be so severe that it takes lives. What you are experiencing is a serious and perhaps even debilitating problem. What I want you to understand is that even extreme misery can be a normal part of life, and I want you to know that your symptoms now do not necessarily doom you to a life with mental illness, even if what you feel is currently severe. You may make a full recovery after several years.
Regardless of diagnosis, whether you are mentally ill or not, you will need some ammunition to battle the awful things you are feeling and experiencing right now. Learning coping skills for tough situations will be crucial.
If you are going to get professional help of any sort, you will eventually have to bite the bullet and tell your parents. Many young people with mental illness or mental illness symptoms feel they cannot tell their parents because they will be a disappointment or be punished in some way for what they feel. This trend comes from the unspoken ideas we have about rites of passage: you feel you cannot tell your parents anything involving sex or drugs, which are rites of passage, because your parents will disapprove, be worried, or punish you. Things like cutting, thoughts of suicide, depression, and mental illness all get lumped psychologically into the “rite of passage” bundle of taboo things you can’t talk about. This misconception of the idea and purpose of parents can be very damaging because children do not reach out to their parents about their pain, even when their parents are the people who love them most in the world and want them to be healthy and happy. I promise you that you will not be a disappointment to your parents for having strong feelings with which you struggle. You’re on your way to becoming an adult, and what you feel is a crucial part of that experience. Tell your parents. They want to help, they just might not know how; even if the solution seems very clear to you, you have to tell them what you need.
You can involve a teacher or relative in telling your parents if you do not feel like you can do it by yourself. Tell a teacher, relative, guidance counselor, or other trusted adult about how you are struggling, and that you need help telling your parents that you want professional help. Ask this adult to set up a meeting with your parents at which you can also be present. Before you tell your parents (which I hope you will), make sure you have a concrete request, such as “I’m really struggling with my feelings and I need help. Can you please help me get a therapist and/or psychiatrist?” Make sure you know what you’re trying to ask for. Your parents love you, but they are going to screw up sometimes. This may be a situation where they absolutely do not know what to do to help you so you will have to tell them exactly how you want to be helped. It is very possible that they have witnessed some of your symptoms and they are hoping that you’re going through a phase that will sort itself out. They may have seen your pain and chosen not to step in. This is usually the path taken by parents who do not have a clue what to do or say to make you feel better. Parents are flawed human beings like anyone else, but I’m sure they love you and will try to help if they are shown how.
You may or may not benefit from a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist can diagnose mental illness and prescribe medication. If you do choose to see a psychiatrist, you will have to take on the very large and adult responsibility of being a patient. You will be your best and only advocate as the patient, so you will be responsible for keeping written notes on your symptoms, your triggers, all your medicines, drug or alcohol use (be honest), side effects, and any other information you think may be relevant. You may only see your doctor for ten minutes a month, so every sentence that you present to your doctor must be relevant to your treatment. Go over your notes with your doctor at every appointment. A psychiatrist usually does not do talk-therapy and focuses instead on medicating you. Talk-therapy can be sought from other kinds of professionals. You are responsible for giving your psychiatrist the most complete and accurate picture of your mental state that you can, and your mental health is on the line. Finding the right medication can take several trial-and-error experiments, and the drugs that do not work correctly for you can cause seriously uncomfortable side effects, so you’ll want to take notes as you go along so that you can rule out the “duds” as quickly as possible. This will reduce your suffering along the way to your optimal medication. It can take a while to find the right drug(s), but if you truly need it, the work of getting there cannot be avoided and will pay off big time.
A side note: if you ever feel suicidal, you must call and tell your doctor right away, because medication could be causing that feeling, and that’s a dangerous place to be psychologically. If you tell your doctor that you are having thoughts of suicide but do not have a plan and will not act on your urges, you will not be hospitalized, so don’t ever withhold thoughts of suicide from your doctor out of fear of being “locked up”. That is completely antithetical to the purpose of treatment. If you are having sincere thoughts of suicide and you do have a plan that you want to act on, seize any moment of doubt in your plan and tell an adult immediately. Telling your best friend or someone your own age will not save your life. If you want help and refuse to ask an adult you know for help, call 911 or go to the nearest Emergency Room and tell them you are going to kill yourself. They will monitor you to keep you safe until they can get you into the nearest psychiatric facility. You can save your friends and family from decades or even a lifetime of pain by turning yourself over to someone else’s care for a brief time. In a hospital, you will see a psychiatrist every day (in most places) to have your medication monitored and fine-tuned until it is correct and you feel better. Going to the hospital is not fun and can even be scary, but it is the fastest way to get your medication right, and the fastest way to start your life over. Hospitals are there for a reason. If you’re sure you’re going to kill yourself anyway, why not go to the hospital for a while first? You’ll be dead forever after that, so you can give life one last week to see if maybe your whole trajectory can turn around. If you feel suicidal right now, call the crisis line: 1-800-273-8255. I promise that no one will show up at your door to take you away if you call. Just talk to them.
Regardless of your symptoms or diagnosis, you can benefit from a therapist. Therapy can help anyone as long as that person can trust the professional with whom they’re working. In therapy, you can set goals like “Make triggering thoughts less disturbing”, “cope with episodes of strong feelings”, “make interacting with other people more enjoyable”, or even simply “reduce suffering”. You can learn coping skills to deal with the feelings and symptoms you’re having. Many of the skills I have learned in therapy have to do with mindfulness, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), so googling any of those terms coupled with the word “practices” will yield coping tools you can learn, use, and turn into helpful and comforting lifelong skills. The internet is a great place to start learning skills. Feeling better is hard work, but a little bit of work every day will add up to a happier you. Any coping skills you learn now, you can take with you into your adult life, and you may wind up being very peaceful, satisfied, and well-adjusted because of them.
I wish you the best on your journey. You are dealing with a very adult problem, and I know it’s difficult. Please be kind to yourself and remember that you can do hard things.
By Emily Harrington, The Goldfish Painter
I am not a doctor or any sort of mental health professional. I am a psychiatric patient with multiple mental illnesses that I have survived for 12 years now. My secondhand knowledge comes from doctors, psychologists, therapists, books, college courses in psychology, and the internet. My firsthand knowledge comes from the feelings, experiences, thoughts, symptoms, problems, and solutions that I have lived through. I know myself well, but again, I am not a professional. The information on this site is not a replacement for getting an actual diagnosis or professional help. Coping skills are fantastic, and I hope you learn some here and that they help you, but please seek and continue real medical treatment if you are struggling with mental illness. I wish you the best. You can do hard things.