I often talk about teenage mental health in these blogs, and how the restrictions affect it, but I don’t think I’ve really explained the problems we have, so I’m going to do that here. At the risk of sounding clichéd, this is probably going to be the hardest thing I’ve written here, although not really for any emotional reasons. More because this is an incredibly difficult subject.
People often assume the mental health problems teenagers have are just “being a teenager”. There’s no such thing as “being a teenager”. If we’re grumpy there’s a reason. We might be terrified of how to make it through the next day, or too sad to fake a smile anymore. We’re never just grumpy. (Unless we’ve just woken up). And grumpiness isn’t the problem. It will be how the problems of depression and anxieties, or more often both, manifest themselves.
People often think we’re too young to feel these things, or that we’re just being dramatic. That’s not true. My school has a counsellor who helps people with these problems. She sees loads of people a day and never has a free period. Three of my friends go to her. If we were just being dramatic, or not able to feel these things, she wouldn’t be employed. But as it is, she has to deal with loads of breakdowns every day (the most prominent object in her office is the humungous box of tissues) and she now talks to everyone like they’re on the verge of one.
There’s a number of reasons for these problems that I’ve heard from my friends, most of which I don’t want to write so publicly. So I’ll just say that the biggest problem is: COOL. I know, that doesn’t sound very terrible. But this is the main reason for the problems with depression and anxieties and ones that don’t even have names. There’s a continual pressure on teenagers to be “cool” or whatever it’s called. Basically to be the same as everyone else. Everyone is terrified of being cool, terrified of not being cool, sad about not being able to be anything but cool and terrified and sad about not knowing how to stop it. Coolness is the reason why teenagers speak a whole different language, walk about in clothes that barely qualify as clothes (what’s the point of crop tops?), put their hoods up so often that my friend once took hers down to avoid being recognised by bullies, bully people, spray graffiti, behave antisocially and do whatever Kevin and his fellow stereotypical teenagers do. And not one of them enjoys it. And it didn’t come from technology- it’s been around since time began.
I’m one of the uncool weirdos at school, but I’d never change because I know it would just be awful. My uncool friend says it’s like a zombie apocalypse. Everyone is pretending in some way at school. Some people are pretending to be happy or relaxed when they’re not. Some people are pretending to be tough. Almost everyone is pretending to be someone they’re not. Roll up, roll up. Welcome to secondary school, the greatest show on earth! I can kind of see why someone had the idea for High School Musical. I detest High School Musical, but my school did it a couple of years ago and I had to sit through a preview in assembly. It was so like a normal school- people strutting around, showing off their coolness, girls doing that thing where they stick one leg out really far. They do that all the time to be cool and it’s so strange. I don’t know how many times I’ve accidentally stomped on a rogue foot.
But it was so different too. None of the cool people were really insecure or worried about what other people thought of them. Uncool people made no appearance. And what’s with all the weird names? Who is called Sharpay? I’m not sure if that’s better or worse than my name, April. They all did very well, even the poor boy with a singing role and a changing voice, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the girls with their legs out or the boys strutting about or any of the others trying to be cool because they all just looked so scared. I wish I could have told them that no one cares whether or not they’re cool apart from them. But instead we’re all just stuck in this zombie apocalypse full of handbags, hoodies, instagram, selfies in mirrors, drinks, panic, tears, terror, school counsellor, and of course, coronavirus restrictions.
With mental health in teenagers being a total disaster since the dawn of time, it goes without saying that removing school, friends, hobbies, the right to breathe freely, the ability to not be hated for being able to spread disease like all humans and the ability to be treated as a human instead of a virus would make it even worse. Even I figured that out, and I’m stupid enough to apologise for walking into a wall.
The one good thing about the fact these problems are so common is that everyone helps their friends who are going through it, often because they understand what it’s like. It’s not that we all go about helping each other because that would be weird, we more secretively talk to each other about it and help each other sort it. Everyone will openly say if they have a mental problem, but they will only tell a few friends the reasons why, or how it really feels. Our friends help in a way our families can’t because we’re at that stage where we grow away from our family and more towards them. Being away from our friends caused enough mental health problems like depression as it was, and the fact we couldn’t talk to them made it worse. I know from experience that you can’t help someone much over text.
And there’s other problems too. I have a friend who I’ve known for six years. We go to the same school, we’ve shared tents, got lost on a hike and ended up getting un-lost with the help of some social workers who ran so fast we nearly died keeping up with them, taken it in turns to frighten each other to death, been put in charge of a bonkers little kid and spent so much time insulting each other that people sometimes think we hate each other. She would always be the happiest person in any given setting, and I would either be annoying her or laughing like a hyena. But over the last two years she’s really struggled with her mental health and the covid restrictions made it a lot worse. I’m not even sure when I last saw her smiling to be honest.
There’s a tiny age gap between us, but the gap is big enough for her to be in another year group, which means we’re not allowed to go about together in school. Or talk to each other, even to just say hello. Or smile or wave at each other. And, worst of all, I’m not allowed to attempt to help her with her problems, no matter how upset she is. Needless to say, this doesn’t stop me, but the teachers do everything possible to keep year groups apart, the result being that I’ve barely seen her, or my other friends in different years, since last March.
School is a living hell, to the point where previously happy people without mental health problems now have to stay off or be taken out during the day. The teachers are the problem- not all of them, but a very specific group. If someone commits a terrible crime like taking their mask off to breathe, hugging someone, speaking to someone in another year- they crowd round them, press in on them and scream in their face. When they’ve done this to me I’ve recognised it as the way bullies have spoken to me, often the same bullies the teachers told me not to listen to. So I don’t listen to them. But enough people do to create a horrible, tense, miserable, smothering atmosphere in school which is why people are leaving. Mental health has never been worse in the school, and at least one friend breaks down every week. And if there’s ever any happiness, the teachers swoop in to stop that too, like Miss Hannigan, or a Dementor. One teacher told so many people off for having fun that another teacher made her stop. There’s just barely any fun left in school and it feels like a prison, like a punishment. And what are we being punished for? The fact we breathe?
Mental health is just as important as physical health, if not more. (Oh no, I sound like Prince Harry). As I’ve said before, we have a vaccine and less cases. The NHS has a much lower risk of being overwhelmed. Coronavirus doesn’t affect teenagers’ physical health, so why do we have to destroy our mental health anymore?