I can’t pinpoint exactly when my battle with mental illness began, but I do know that by the time I was a teenager, it was in full swing.
I can also say that when I was fourteen, I started to question if I wanted to be alive anymore.
Though I haven’t been a teenager in some time, I can still remember what it felt like to be that young and to be struggling with mental illness. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever gone through.
I won’t claim to know exactly what you’re going through. I don’t know all the details and I don’t know what the outcome of all this will be. But as someone who was a teenager in the grips of mental illness, I wanted to write a letter to the folks who may be going through something like what I’ve been through.
Because, first of all, being a teenager struggling with a mental illness of some kind can be the loneliest feeling in the world.
Some of my friends told me I just wanted attention. Some of them told me I was “playing the victim.” Some of them told me I was crazy. Most people, though, told me that I was too young to know what mental illness was, too young to know what suffering was, too young to know my own reality.
I want to tell you that your suffering is real, and I believe you when you say that you are hurting.
There may be people in your life who are in denial, or who simply don’t understand what you’re going through. And I’m sorry that those people don’t get it. I want you to know that there are people who do get it, people like me and many others, too, who have lived through this to tell the tale.
As difficult as it is to face people who refuse to listen, refuse to hear you, refuse to acknowledge your struggle, I can promise you that there are people out there who understand.
When I was a teen, I started to experience deep, agonizing sadness. I didn’t know exactly where it came from. I just knew that I felt heavy and I felt hurt. Sometimes I cried for hours, and sometimes I cut myself. Sometimes I did both. And throughout these depressive episodes, I couldn’t explain why I was in so much pain. It seemed like pain had become my default setting.
And even though I felt all of this pain, I didn’t reach out for help for years. I didn’t want my parents to know what was happening to me, because I didn’t trust them. When I did have the guts to share, most people brushed it off, and told me I was being dramatic, or that I was too young to know what depression was like. A lot of people didn’t believe I could have depression if I didn’t fit their definition of what a depressed person looks like.
But we know ourselves. And we know when something is off. We may not be able to articulate or explain what’s happening inside, but as the experts on our own bodies and minds, we can tell when something isn’t right.
I want you to know that I believe you. Your pain is real, and no amount of denial from anybody else can change the fact that it’s really there.
Whether it is anxiety, depression, numbness, mood swings, whatever your struggle may be – I believe that it’s real, that it affects you, and that you aren’t making this up.
After one too many nights of self-harm, depression, and hopelessness, I decided to go to a teacher at school. She took me to a crisis counselor, who helped me find a therapist and other resources. The great thing about the crisis counselor was that she wasn’t required to call my parents, so I was able to talk to my parents in my own way, when I was truly ready.
Getting help was the best decision I ever made, though it didn’t feel like it at the time. I felt like I’d squeezed all the toothpaste out of the tube, and I’d never be able to put it back inside again. At least with my depression, I knew what to expect. It was predictable. But now I was going to have to learn to live my life another way. I was going to have to learn how to cope and get better. This was a big deal and it was scary.
But you know what? It was also worth it. Because eventually, I did start to get better. I also got a diagnosis – obsessive-compulsive disorder and complex PTSD – which helped me understand exactly what was going on. With a therapist and psychiatrist in my corner, and eventually family and friends, I was able to start putting the pieces of my life back together.
If I could say anything to teenagers with a mental health struggle, it’s that you don’t have to do this alone. You don’t have to suffer in silence. You have choices, even if it feels like those choices are too difficult, too scary, or too risky.
I am here to write this letter because I made those scary choices. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be alive to tell the tale. There is no doubt in my mind that, if I hadn’t gotten help when I did, I would have taken my own life.
When I was a teenager, I didn’t understand that the pain wasn’t going to be forever. Back then, I thought I would always be depressed, and that there wasn’t a future waiting for me on the other side of my illness.
But I was wrong. I pulled through. And I would like to believe that we all can pull through, especially if we look out for each other. I want you to know that I’m looking out for you. I want you to know that you are valuable and worthwhile. I want you to know that you belong here, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
Most of all, you need to know that your life can change at the drop of a hat. Everything you thought you knew could be proven wrong next week. Your life could change. Your life could change completely. And you deserve to stay alive to see it.
In the time since I was a teenager, I went to and graduated from college. I moved to California and became a writer. I got engaged to the love of my life. And along the way, I had the amazing privilege of touching hearts and changing lives in ways I never thought I would.
The amazing thing about our struggles is that we all have the potential to make something meaningful come out of them. Our journeys may not look identical, but I believe that we all have something special inside us that we can tap into to make this world just a little bit better.
So if you haven’t already, reach out. Keep searching for that someone who will understand, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Hang in there, and remember that the life you’re living as a teenager will likely not resemble the life you will live as an adult – you just have to hang in there.
I’m so glad that you’re here to read this letter – and I want you to be alive to write your own in five, ten years, even twenty.
I hope you know that I believe in you, and I want you to get through this. And even if it seems impossible, I hope you know that there are so many others who have struggled and have made it through. You can be one of them. And I believe that you will be.
Don’t be afraid to call a hotline if you need someone to talk to:
If you are feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
If you are planning on taking your own life, please call 911. I can’t lose you.
If you are an LGBTQ teen who needs someone to talk to, please call the Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386
Check out these great websites, specifically for teens and young adults:
Here are some other articles I’ve written about mental health:
So You’re Bipolar: Advice for the Newly Diagnosed (Useful advice for anyone with a mental health struggle, not just bipolar.)
Feel free to share more resources, ask questions, offer advice, or write your own open letter in the comments section!
Sam Dylan Finch is a freelance writer and queer activist, currently living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, a queer and feminist perspective on current events and politics. His twitter can be found, unsurprisingly, at @samdylanfinch.
Visit his official website: www.samdylanfinch.com