September Discussion: Mental Illness

When I was thirteen years old, things weren’t going so well for me at home. And at school, I was being bullied a lot. I was an honor roll student, so I was allowed to go out by myself into the courtyard during my lunch break–a privilege that few students enjoyed. There was a particular staircase that I would go hide behind to cry every day.

One day, my best frienemy said something a little crueler than usual at the lunch table. I left and went to the library, intent on shelving my books quickly (I was a school media aide) so that I could get to my safe hideaway. I entered the library and looked over at the shelf of non-fiction books to be put away and saw none for my section (the 700s), so I started to sign out. Then, out of nowhere, a boy appeared.

He was tall and skinny with wild, curly black hair and glasses. He looked a lot like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park  (who I thought was so dreamy.) But he also looked like a kid who I had probably seen a million times before but had never noticed. He told me his name was Roberto.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’ve got no books to shelve, so I’m leaving,” I said.

“Why don’t you shelve someone else’s books?”

“Because there are none.”

“There’s a whole shelf of fiction books over there.” He gestured to the other side of the library.

“I don’t know how to shelve fiction,” I said. Then he took my hands in his. He guided me to that side of the library, and he “showed” me. No boy had ever held my hand before.

It will surprise no one that we told each other our whole lives that lunch period. And the one the next day and the next day and the day after that. He told me that he had been abandoned in a basket when he was a baby. We squeezed ourselves between close stacks, our backs pressed together, to shelve books across from each other. He followed me to my locker and flirtatiously read my locker combination over my shoulder. He put his arms around me. His breath was warm on my cheek. A week after we first met, I went to bed and thought, “I can deal with anything now that I have Roberto.”

He never spoke to me again.

Another week passed, I finally gathered my courage and approached him again in the library. “So, you introduce yourself to me one day, and then a week later you just stop speaking to me altogether?” I said.

“Yupp,” he said.

A few days later, I was sitting in science class and another boy told me that some kid at his lunch table, “Robert or something,” was talking about what a “ho” I was. I called Roberto out in front of the buses that afternoon and screamed that if he ever said anything mean about me or any of my friends ever again, then I would kick his a**.

And then I was suicidal for awhile. Weeks, maybe months. It was all I could think of. Ways to do it, mostly. I’ve always had a practical streak. How deeply did you have to cut? Would a fall from my bedroom window be enough? Finally, one day near the end of eighth grade, I said to myself: “Pam, you can either do it, or you can change your life. But you can’t live like this anymore.”

I’m not sure why I chose to live. In hindsight, I see it as grace. At the time, I thought I was just too much of a coward to actually kill myself. But either way, I sat down with a journal (I still have this) and I made a list of all of the popular girls in the school. I wrote down why they seemed to be happy (clothes, hair, boys, grades, athletics etc. . . ) Then I added and subtracted that list from my soul. I intentionally changed myself that day to be like them so that I wouldn’t be miserable and picked on anymore. That’s what I had to do to go on living that day.

This wasn’t my only brush with mental illness growing up. I had been told as a child that my birth mother couldn’t raise me because she was bi-polar. The woman who did raise me struggled with severe depression that kept her in bed most days throughout my childhood and adolescence. I clearly remember my aunt’s suicide when I was five years old. And my cousin, her son, followed her when I was a sophomore in college.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because of Robin Williams, an actor whose work I’ve always enjoyed, whose presence in the world I have always respected and admired. He always acted characters who were full of life and integrity. People who struggled and grew and lived lives with quiet meaning, depth, and humor. And he mad us all laugh. So much. Since his death, I’ve discovered that he supported good causes, without any fanfare,  in his personal life, as well. From the outpouring of grief I witnessed on social media, I know that my sadness over his suicide is shared by many.

As an adult, I’ve learned that far more people than I ever would have guessed struggle with or have struggled with mental illnesses of one kind or another–not just depression. Sometimes it seems as though mental illness is even more prevalent in the writing community than in society at large. But whether or not that is the case, most folks seem to suffer in silence. When someone does tell a story about mental illness, it almost has the tone of a “coming out” story.

I’ve also noticed that while there are often clear signs that a child is living in an abusive home situation, it is often very challenging to tell that a child is struggling with serious mental health issues. Why is that?

Let’s have a discussion about mental illness this month.

  • Do you have a story about mental illness–your own or a loved one’s–that you’d be willing to share?
  • What signs do you use to tell that a child is struggling?
  • How have you helped kids who are depressed, OCD, dissociating . . .?
  • What counts as a “mental illness”?
  • How do we treat “mental illness” in our society, and how does this affect those kids who are suffering?
  • What resources do you know of for helping kids deal? What books–fiction and non–are particularly good at talking about mental health issues?

What do you think?

The lovely and talented Rachel Wilson, who received her MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts while I was in the program, will be on here later this month to talk about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and her debut novel Don’t Touch which will be released tomorrow. Please, stop by often this month to share your thoughts and glean wisdom from the other wise people in our midst. A copy of Don’t Touch will go to the person who comments most.


About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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19 Responses to September Discussion: Mental Illness

  1. annjacobus says:

    Great discussion to start, Pam! Mental health stories ARE like “coming out” stories. There’s stigma (although lessening) attached to both. We can’t help or support anyone if we can’t talk about it. And books that deal with any of these issues (depression, OCD, anxiety, suicidality, and more serious illnesses such as bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.) like Rachel’s DON’T TOUCH are a godsend for young readers experiencing similar problems themselves or in their families. Looking forward to the month’s posts!

  2. pamwatts says:

    Hi Ann, thanks for stopping by! I agree that we can’t support anyone if we can’t talk about it. I wonder if part of what escalates depression to suicidal feelings is partly the inability to talk about it? If more people talked about being depressed and there were more books about depression, would it be easier for someone really struggling to say something about their struggles and get help?

    • annjacobus says:

      YES! Being suicidal is complicated by many factors, but feeling isolated and helpless and hopeless is a huge part of it. Simply being able to talk to someone about it and feeling less alone can do a lot of good. I think the same goes for being able to read emotionally true stories about it, too. It’s a tough subject to get people talking about. Thanks for helping!

      • pamwatts says:

        It is a tough subject to get people talking about. It’s not fun to dwell on our darkest pains. When I was in high school I remember being forced to read Animal Farm, The Pearl, Lord of the Flies, and several other dark, unhappy books altogether, and I half thought my teacher wanted us to kill ourselves. But I’m going to be talking about the novel 13 Reasons Why later this month which is essentially a long suicide note. It seems like that novel could be used as a diving off point for a really important discussion with teens.

        So what’s the difference between the two?

  3. abwestrick says:

    Thank you, Pam. Just… thank you. For putting yourself out there. For digging deeply. For pushing us to discuss what feels awkward or ugly or uncomfortable or shameful. For naming truths rather than running away from them. For so much. Thank you.

  4. pamwatts says:

    You know, Anne, it’s actually a slow process for me to realize that I’m doing anything that makes people uncomfortable. I guess, I don’t know. Silence was a big part of my home growing up, and it felt like that silence was killing all of us. So I just can’t. I have a feeling that things would feel easier for me if I could, though. But I tell myself that what I do will help someone. I hope I’m right. But thank you for saying so, either way.

  5. L. Marie says:

    I’ve struggled with depression, so I appreciate your writing on this subject. It’s sad that we’re so quick to shame those who are depressed or we tell them things like “Snap out of it” as if a quick fix like that is possible. And as with Robin Williams, whom I miss, I’ve heard people get angry and say things like, “He should have tried harder” or “How selfish of him.” Things like that, without understanding (or even trying to understand) what he went through.

    • pamwatts says:

      Yes. It is sad. What IS depression? What did Robin Williams struggle with? My mom said that it was a chemical imbalance in the mind. That’s how she explained it. But my Mom lost her two daughters and her little sister in the same year. And that was when her depression seemed to start for me. She never talked about them, they were just this ghostly, constant presence.

      My mom said that it was a chemical imbalance and if anti-depressants had existed when her daughter was alive, then she would still be alive. But they were around when my cousin chose to take his life.

      I grapple with this. Was my depression just not as bad as some peoples’? Is that why I didn’t kill myself and why I didn’t ever take medication? Looking back, my depression has always seemed connected to really hard and inescapable situations in my life. But is that not the case for some people?

      • L. Marie says:

        I think it is a chemical imbalance. Anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds can help, but they need to be the right ones. I’m tried two different ones. Only one really helped.

        Good questions. It’s hard to say. Some struggle with other issues. Robin was struggling with the news that he had Parkinson’s and other things. Perhaps he thought these were hurdles he no longer had the strength to surmount.

  6. annjacobus says:

    The majority of people who are suicidal, are also depressed. But only a very small percentage of depressed people are suicidal. It’s a small subset (thankfully!). For the depressed, while it cannot be “snapped out of”, medication can make a big difference. A person can live with and deal with depression, but then a trauma or loss can push them to the breaking point where coping mechanisms that were working, don’t anymore.

    Substance abuse makes everything a lot worse. I imagine Williams struggled as long and hard as he could. Stigma and lots of misinformation are still attached to depression and all mental health issues. His death has opened up a lot of discussion about these issues though, and that’s so positive.

    I think we are more susceptible to depression when we have learned fewer skills from childhood for coping with stress, trauma and loss; perhaps have lower self-esteem; are perhaps more sensitive to begin with (artists?); or worse, suffered childhood traumas that will always make us more inclined to depression. I dealt with it on and off through my teens and early twenties, but was undiagnosed and untreated.

    Dark stories can have a cathartic and reassuring effect for some readers, but definitely are not for everyone. I’ve always been drawn to them. The extraordinary Lord of the Flies is about the darkness in all humans. 13 Reasons Why examines one young woman’s life and suicide which is probably easier for young readers to deal with : )

  7. pamwatts says:

    Yes. I think the reason that reading all of those dark stories was hard for me was that I was using dissociation (just mentally blocking traumatic things out of my mind) as my primary coping-mechanism. And that made it hard when I read things that were extremely dark. Interestingly enough, as an adult in the past few years, I have started to crave dark stories. I actually finished reading Lolita a few weeks ago, and I never thought I’d finish that book.

    I think attachment plays a role in depression and coping in general, as well. I think people who are secure in their primary attachments (know unconditionally that their parents are there for them and love them) deal with stress better in general, have lower anxiety, have higher self-esteem, and better other coping mechanisms to work around depression.

    And I agree that Robin Williams’ death has generated a lot of really positive discussions (like this one, for instance!)

  8. Thank you for taking on this important topic. I endured relentless bullying in middle and high school and never realized why I was different, or got taken advantage of frequently, or got fired from jobs until I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. And while Asperger’s, on the autism spectrum, is a developmental disorder, it isn’t uncommon for us to experience depression or anxiety because of repeated social isolation and/or failure. In fact, my Lego photography grew out of my efforts to cope with the severe anxiety growing out of a very difficult work situation..

    • pamwatts says:

      Thank you for stopping by, Lyn. Yes, isolation and bullying based on all sorts of differences is really really hard. It does make me wonder about the connection between creativity and pain, though. I know that my writing and my singing are both somehow born of the things that hurt. Singing soothes me and writing helps make sense of my life. I don’t know.

  9. This is such a fantastic discussion for this month. The month’s theme in general is just amazing and really important. This is such a lovely post. You’re amazing for sharing your story. I don’t know how someone can talk to someone one week, then stop the next. That’s just ridiculous. You’ve been through a lot and you seem to have grown stronger. 🙂 That’s no easy feat. Depression is so hard to overcome. I would know this very well.

    I don’t have a story to share exactly, but I have dealt with depression since middle school. I think if someone feels there is something wrong with them, they have extremely negative thoughts, their mind isn’t exactly all “there”, it counts as a mental illness.

    I think mental illness is something we kind of sweep under a rug really. The only time it ever seems to come out in the news is when someone’s committed a crime and it’s later found out. Like the accuser had a mental illness but no one really knew about it and they never received the help they needed.

    I think some kids try to get help, but the counselors and medications don’t help at times. It really affects them negatively because then they’re in a hole they can’t get out of.

    I don’t really have any resources. I will say that Perks of Being A Wallflower has a mental health undertone if the reader knows what they’re looking at closely. I do have a book I’m going to be reading soon (hopefully) called Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang, which involves a girl who attempted suicide one day after school. There are quite a few books coming out this month involving mental illness, suicide or self harm, Kiss Of Broken Glass and Don’t Touch being two as you mentioned. 🙂

    This post reminded me of the Suicide and Mental Illness theme read going on throughout September and October, at a blog called Resistance Is Futile, which you can find out about here,

    • pamwatts says:

      You’re right. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (which I’ve reviewed here) does have mental illness themes. And thank you for cluing me into what Resistance is Futile is doing this month!

      Depression is definitely something we sweep under the rug. When I was at Wellesley College 10 years ago, or so (good grief, is that possible?!) Wellesley and MIT were both experiencing a rash of suicides. The administrations of both schools responded at first by making it policy to expel students they suspected were dealing with depression. I mean, from a mental health standpoint, it was INSANE. MIT had been sued by the parents of a student who killed himself which was where they were coming from. But Wellesley did eventually take a much healthier approach to mental illness and hygiene in the coming years. First off, they took down all of those insane banners touting all of the famous women who had gone there and why they were more awesome than any of US would ever be. Because we really needed THAT reminder every time we stepped foot out of our dorm rooms, right?

      • Yeah, I’m actually re-reading Perks and it’s really interesting re-reading it knowing the mental health issues that Charlie has. You’re welcome. 🙂

        Haha, time flies, you know? Ten years, here and gone. It’s quite insane. Wow, that’s unbelievable. 😦 How in the world was expelling them supposed to help? That makes zero sense and probably just made the whole situation worst. And to suspend students just SUSPECTED of depression? Depression isn’t always so clear to see. Either way, that’s…ridiculous. I feel using insane in this context is, haha, uh, an interesting choice of words.

        It’s good they went about that a lot better. Oh no, comparison is awful. 😦 That ruins a person’s self esteem so fast and doesn’t help anything. It just makes people feel bad. That’s awful. So glad they got better with that though.

  10. pamwatts says:

    Oh, yeah. Woops. That was a strange word-choice. I think the administration’s perspective was that they literally couldn’t afford to have any more suicides, so they’d just get rid of anyone who might be suicidal. Of course, if someone was suicidal, being expelled from their (prestigious) college wasn’t going to make it any better. But then they wouldn’t be the school’s liability, anymore. But they have strengthened mental health awareness on the campus a great deal. There is a wonderful mental health resource and research center there, The Stone Center, and they make a big deal now of hosting mental health events, teaching students to take care of themselves when they are feeling stress, and having events with students where they share their mental health experiences with each other. I have to say that that’s one aspect of Wellesley College that I rather admire.

  11. Rachel says:

    Hi Pam! Sorry it took me a bit to get back to you about my Suicide and Mental Illness theme read – I’ve unfortunately been swamped and this has been my first day off in a long time. Of course you can use the lists and mention my event. I’m going to write some posts today, so I will steer people over to your blog as well. 🙂 I haven’t had time to read your blog yet, but it’s looking good. I love the decor, too. 😉 I’m about to have mine professionally redone was I switch to WordPress.

  12. pamwatts says:

    No worries, Rachel! Glad you stopped by!

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