Carolina’s post marks National Mental Health Awareness Week, which is observed to create awareness and educate the public on mental health.
“That girl was so desperate to lose weight. She was so desperate that she started starving herself and purging her food and working out like a crazy person.”
This was the conversation I was hardly paying attention to last week when I went for lunch with some acquaintances of mine. Most people on the table responded with “omg ew” and “what a freak.” I hadn’t paid attention to all of the conversation, so I wasn’t sure whom they were talking about. Were they talking about me?
Five years ago my long and rocky battle with eating disorders began. However, no one at that table knew any of that. No one at that table knew I’ve been hospitalized and treated for both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa several times in my life. No one at that table knew I’ve spent every Thursday afternoon for the past 5 years speaking with my therapist so that I’m able to one day, I hope, fully recover from my struggle with eating disorders.
Because of my own experience, I informed myself about eating disorders. Along with other mental illnesses, eating disorders are not something you develop from a “choice” you made. Genetic traits, brain chemistry, environmental exposure, and negative life experiences can all be influencing factors. Mental illnesses don’t discriminate and can affect people of any race, religion, income. . .and age.
According to NAMI Facts and Numbers, 1 in 10 children in the United States live with a serious mental or emotional disorder. Since 1980, suicide has doubled among young black males in America. And over 50 percent of students with a mental disorder aged 14 and older dropout of high school.
Despite these alarming statistics, the issue of mental health remains a taboo subject among many communities. This taboo can highly influence how people struggling with mental illnesses cope with them. And there is reason to believe that the challenges are even more pronounced among youth in our nation’s lowest-income communities.
Many low-income students don’t have access to supportive structures to diagnose and treat early indicators of mental illness. Treatment for eating disorders, for example, is specialized and long-term—and therefore expensive. The average inpatient treatment costs $30,000 per month and lasts at least 3 months. That's a huge barrier for any family, but virtually impossible for a teenager growing up in a low-income community.
We can help make a difference. We need to eliminate the stigma of mental illnesses, and help our students feel confident in knowing that they won’t be left alone, won’t be ignored, and won’t be judged if they’re struggling with a mental health issue. This needs to start in schools. The faster we’re able to eliminate the unfair stigma that surrounds the “mental health topic,” the more opportunity we give to those who want to seek treatment in a safe and open environment.
The lack of awareness and education about mental health issues is incredibly harmful for our society. Quite frankly, I’m tired of having to explain myself to people who ask me insensible and uninformed questions such as, “Why don’t you just eat like a normal person instead of being so extreme?” This type of question has haunted me every day for the past 5 years, and I know I’m not alone. These questions need to be urgently addressed in our schools, our classrooms, our homes, so that we’re able to change the conversation to a better informed one.
While I still have a long way to go on my road to recovery from eating disorders, I’m proud to say that having such a supportive and loving family and undergoing such a strong treatment is what saved my life. However, not everyone has access to such strong support.
It’s urgent for schools and education leaders to take a stand in providing a safe-zone environment for mental health conversations. In the same way that schools teach us about sexual health, home ed and other non-academic, yet important, life lessons, they need to inform students about mental health. Helping to connect students to supportive resources to diagnose and treat their illness will ultimately have a positive effect on their ability to achieve in the classroom.
I never chose to have a mental illness, but I do choose everyday to be a mental health advocate. It’s the least I can do to help others during my own path to recovery.