All alone: Inside the lives of two depressed students

All+alone%3A+Inside+the+lives+of+two+depressed+students

FARES CHEHABI
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

CLAYTON MARSH
LEAD FEATURES EDITOR

While many students are currently enjoying their high school experience, they tend to forget that there’s an opposite side to the scale. A poll conducted by The Standard in April 2012 found that approximately four percent of the High School student body self-identify themselves with clinical depression. The figure, Counselor Liane Thakur says, is not abnormal. “In terms of depression, we’re probably on par with any other private day school and on par with teens in general,” she said. However, more than 27 percent of students think that clinical depression is a serious issue at ASL.

The topic of depression and suicide was added to the High School Health curriculum last year in an attempt to educate students on the ACT (acknowledge, care, and treatment) method of suicide prevention. “If we can start working with kids sooner rather than later when they’re feeling badly, then that does help,” Thakur said.

Health Teacher Joy Marchese was glad to play up the depth of the school’s support system for discontented students. “I think that the school has a very good support system in place and each division of the school has a health counselor. That’s amazing,” she said. “Most schools do not have that.”

Principal Paul Richards highlighted the fine line between stress and depression. “One of the most important things is to separate stress from depression, because they’re actually quite different,” he said. “If you think about depression as a condition, the culture at a place like ASL can either make it better or worse, and you could argue that the stress culture makes it worse. It’s not that [stress] causes depression, it exacerbates it.”

Nonetheless, Richards is adamant that a change in mindset for stressed students can make the world of difference. “We can’t create a stress-free school, that’s impossible,” he said. “But we can try to empower kids to realize there is a lot more that they can control than they think. Once you make the student more assertive and more active in their own life, it makes a big difference with stress.” A subcommittee involving both administrators and faculty that discuss methods to decrease students’ stress meets once a cycle.

According to the poll, students’ happiness takes a big dip in junior year. On a scale of one to 10 (with 10 being the happiest), juniors’ average happiness rates remarkably low at 6.39, while every other grade’s averages rate above 7. Thakur is, however, already thinking about the issue. “We could do some work with the juniors on stress reduction and positive thinking at the very beginning of the year when they’re beginning to pick up on and think about [academic] pressures,” she said.

The poll suggests that depression is hard to keep in the dark: Over 60 percent of students know someone that is or has been diagnosed with clinical depression.

Marchese stressed that clinical depression is the easiest mental to disorder to treat, despite its commonness. “Although it can be common, it is the easiest mental illness to treat,” she said. “And that’s the important thing to know.”

Stephanie had come to a point in her life where life didn’t seem worth living. She had overdosed on Advil. Cut herself. Binge drunk. She had resorted to self-harm during her more dire times. Getting out of bed had become impossible and her best days were spent simply in her room, all alone.

Home was the only place she felt comfortable to truly be herself, free from the constant pressures of everyday life. “Waking up in the morning was the worst part of the day. It’s still almost impossible to drag myself out of bed. I had no energy to do anything, and nothing seemed to matter anymore,” Stephanie said.

Stephanie’s depression had no definitive starting point. It wasn’t something that developed overnight, but rather a battle she is still fighting to overcome. Even as a child, Stephanie had trouble facing the prospect of going to school. “Growing up, I was so confused and upset and angry. Not until eighth grade did I realize that I had an actual issue,” she said.

Her illness stemmed from a complete lack of self-esteem. “I’ve never been comfortable with myself, and I’ve always felt inadequate, ugly and socially awkward,” she said. “At my lowest point, it was as if I wouldn’t care if I suddenly died.”

The prospect of suicide was a very real thought for Stephanie. She inflicted self-harm upon herself, overdosing on Advil and cutting herself during her most perilous times. “I have definitely thought about suicide. Depression is when you don’t care about living, but I don’t think I have the guts or courage to actually kill myself,” she said.

Stephanie also attempted to soothe her pain through the consumption of alcohol. “I have a bit of a drinking problem as a result of the need to escape from reality, which is another form of self-harm.” She has experimented with a variety of antidepressants in an attempt to improve her mood, none of which had any real effect. Some have even made her feel worse.

Stephanie believes her experience at ASL has only made her depression worse. In fact, she believes getting away from the pressures she faced at school is the sole reason for an improvement in her general mood and outlook.

“Everyone at ASL is skinny, rich, entitled, happy and judgmental. I think if I was at a public school in the states, surrounded by more mediocre and relaxed people, I would be better off,” she said. “Your worth is basically measured by the amount of interest boys show in you.”

Stephanie didn’t approach the school regarding her depression until she began missing large amounts of classesWW. She felt embarrassed with herself and the way she felt. “The stigma around depression made it very hard to talk to people about,” she said. However, Stephanie believes her teachers were extremely supportive, having developed meaningful friendships with some of them along the way. At one point, Stephanie’s schedule was readjusted so she would have no more than two classes a day in an effort to make her life at school more manageable. “I think they do as much as they can. In my experience, I received a lot of support from the administration, who ensured that all my teachers understood exactly what I was really going through,” she said.

Stephanie also believes her illness has had had a very negative impact on her family. She thinks all the fighting between her parents and herself was just a cycle, a cycle that at times, seemed endless.The occasional “up” occurred every so often, but Stephanie’s life was dominated by “downs,” often leaving her with a feeling of hopelessness.

“I’ve made some changes in my life, but things haven’t really improved. I generally still feel the same way, and years of therapy never did anything for me. It was just me ranting about how horrible everything was,” she said. While Stephanie hasn’t recovered from her depression, she has worked on her outlook of life and changed the way she interacts with people. “I’m definitely a better person now. My experience has helped me mature in a lot of ways, even as hard as it has been to deal with at times.”

Stephanie knows that she is not alone. She believes that every person on this planet goes through a period of depression at some point in their life. “True depression is losing the will to live. I still feel completely inadequate and horrible about myself, but I still have hope. Being patient and knowing things will change is important.” Stephanie doesn’t see herself suddenly recovering, but knows that improvement is on its way. Light is very much at the end of her dark tunnel.

Kate found herself sitting on the floor, sobbing heavily into her mother’s lap. The window was wide open, dangerously so. At the time, the idea of ending her own life was a very real possibility. Indeed, her flirtation with committing suicide was recurring, and disturbing and morose on each occasion. These instances happened during her freshman year, when she took time away from school to recuperate from the draining disease.

During her darkest days, when she was absent from school, tutors visited Kate at home in an attempt to help her catch up on missed schoolwork. Otherwise, her time spent away from school was anything but active. “I wouldn’t do anything,” she said. “The word ‘numb’ is a perfect word to describe how I felt. I would lay in bed all day and I’d barely talk to my closest friends. Each day felt like a minute. Time passed, and I’d be lying in my bed for half an hour thinking it was five minutes. I was just really dull and emotionless.”

When Kate did finally return to school, it was partially out of fear for being held back a year. “I was still very ill when I came back to school, but I couldn’t miss any more days,” she said. Yet, she also knew that was coming back to stronger, healthier surroundings than before. “I think it was a matter that more people knew and that more people could help me, like my friends. Going back and knowing I had a stronger support system was more comfortable.” Still, so as not be overwhelmed with school work, she was given a readjusted schedule that did not include all of her classes previously.

Counselor Liane Thakur was instrumental, Kate said, in her bid to recover. “I thought that especially Mrs. Thakur was really helpful in the sense that she was always there for me and her door was always open,” she said. “And even now when I’m having a tough time, she knows what’s going on and she knows my story.”

Kate’s downward spiral into depression was not solely down to one factor. For starters, it ran in the family. “Well, it is a very genetic disease,” she said. “My grandfather had post-war depression and I know my aunt had depression, so it was kind of in the family.”

In addition to genetic reasons, she also feels that the social environment at ASL seemed anything but welcoming as a new student. Arriving at the school in the eighth grade, she did not feel comfortable from the beginning. “I think that ASL really lacked a sense of welcoming or kindness,” she said. “I think that’s due to the fact that students move so often. So, in a subconscious sense, students might not want to get attached and they put up this barrier where they don’t let others in.” Such a barrier was by no means helpful in Kate’s attempt to make friends; she said it took around six months for her to make a friend in the eighth grade.

Depression has, however, stuck around for Kate. “I still have thoughts about [depression], but I just know how to react and how to really be proactive about it,” she said. “There are always still moments of doubt. I am still sick, I still have those days, but I feel now that I have so much more confidence, that I’ve overcome so much, that I really feel that I could help some other people. It is liberating to be comfortable in your own skin.” Kate currently attends therapy sessions once a week and is still taking medication.

One of the most difficult parts of Kate’s recovery was accepting the fact that she had depression. “I think one of my really hard things to overcome was acceptance, that I had this disease and saying the words: ‘I have depression’,” she said. “I think I really had to overcome some milestones in saying that.” Indeed, her acceptance has resulted in her turning for the better, in the long run. “I’m never quite myself, but I have had the experience to really relate to other people and in a sense I’m almost thankful that I had such a reality check. It really helps me put in perspective how to approach things.”

Kate does – after enduring such a traumatic period in her life that involved “six to eight psychiatrists” – have words of advice for those going through a similar situation in their lives: “I think that no matter how low or lonely you feel right now, there are people who love you and people who are looking out for you. Fate put you in this world for a reason, and it’s not your choice to take yourself out of it. At my lowest points, I never thought I’d be sitting at school and learning and laughing with my friends. With dedication, you can really pursue anything.”

clayton_marsh@asl.org
fares_chehabi@asl.org