Depression can be an isolating illness. Despite progress in knowledge, stigma reduction, and treatment options, it is not uncommon for someone struggling with depression—or that person’s family and friends—to feel alone. The goal of this blog series is to break through that isolation and connect the various people who play a role in any person’s depression: the person themselves, a parent or caregiver, a school counselor, a clinician, and individuals who work in policy and advocacy.
Though these specific individuals can only share their own journeys, each story is part of a larger narrative that illuminates what the entire worlds of depression and treatment can look like. The ultimate goal of this project is to share individual stories with a larger audience and to allow each stakeholder the chance to give advice to those who occupy different spaces in the journey and struggle of depression.
Each interviewee was given the choice to have their story told with their name or to remain anonymous. Those who remain anonymous have chosen to do so in order to protect the confidentiality of their friends and family whose lives intertwine with their struggles. In those cases, the interviewee’s name will be replaced with a random initial.
We welcome your thoughts and comments in our comment section! And, of course, thank you so very much to all of the brave individuals who so generously and vulnerably shared their stories with us.
Karen is a school counselor and is one of the staff sponsors for the Erika’s Lighthouse Teen Club at Evanston Township High School (ETHS) in Evanston, IL. She first interacted with depression personally. She says that she always struggled with depression, but because people didn’t talk about it, it was written off as the moodiness that comes with “being a girl.” Karen was in a bad car accident that caused a brain injury which she believes triggered her depression. Without conversations and resources, Karen struggled for a long time and has worked hard to get a place where she can use her experiences to help others. It’s a set of experiences she says she would never wish on anyone, but it has made her better at her job and has given her an important level of understanding.
Karen was a Physical Education teacher for quite a while and says that during that time she was moved by the vulnerability she saw in her students. She says she saw them “at their most raw” when they were asked to do things like swim in front of their peers or come together to support each other through tough team building challenges. Karen also led health class and spent time teaching her students about mental health. She feels, she says, like she had always been a counselor. She just needed a degree to back up that expertise and experience, so she went back to get a Master’s degree in counseling.
Now, she is immersed in the world of mental health every day when she helps her students and their parents deal with what it means to need therapy, medication, and/or hospitalization. Though she does not always choose to disclose her own struggles, she is open about the fact that she has depression and lets the knowledge she has gained through the years guide and inform the students and parents with whom she works. Her role here varies based on the student and the situation, but she always aims to be open, caring, and easy to talk to. Sometimes, this means riding with a student in an ambulance if they have to be hospitalized; sometimes it is about letting students sit in her office to do school work if a typical classroom setting is too overwhelming; other times, it is about advocating for a student’s right to mental health care and explaining the necessity to parents who are reluctant to access help. Karen’s support can also just mean listening and empathizing with her students that depression is really, really hard, with both good days and bad days, but that one day at a time, students can get better.
The same way that a good therapist meets her client where they are, it is important to meet parents where they are in their understanding of mental health and working with them to help their children and provide information. However, because there is student confidentiality, it takes a lot of patience and care to navigate that boundary. This also means understanding the cultural norms and concerns of a student and their parents so that Karen can help the student engage in that conversation in a way which is effective for the student and helpful for their parents.
At ETHS, there is a movement towards more coordinated care within the high school which means that there are more resources in place to help students who need help or who are returning from in-patient treatment. There is now a clinician whose job it is to help students re-enter into the high school after being hospitalized; Karen calls this role an unfortunate necessity which is at the forefront of changing the ways in which the school can play an active role in the care of students struggling with mental illness. For students at ETHS who have been hospitalized, there is a full re-entry plan that is created and instituted by the hospital and the school. This means figuring out what information teachers are going to be given and if students want to create a signal for times when they might need to leave the room and access supports within the school. ETHS has a “red pass” procedure in place, where students can use their pass to visit the nurse, counselors, or social workers if they need a break from class.
Though disclosure is always up to the student, Karen feels like the more information teachers and other supportive adults in the building have, the more safeguards can be put in place to keep students happy and safe. By creating a safe school environment, students who need extra support can still access their education. Karen also discussed the process of getting official paperwork in place that formalize accommodations for students. She often has to help parents navigate the forms and figure out what kinds of choices will be best for their children. This coordinated care also means that the mental health professionals can all work together to provide the best possible service, instead of relegating some tasks to the social workers and others to the counselors.
Mental health, Karen says, is a priority of ETHS and of the community at large. Wellness is one of the school’s major goals both for students and for faculty and staff. She has found wellness for herself—a process she actively engages in every day—and has been transformative both to ETHS and to the Erika’s Lighthouse Teen Club there in breaking down stigma, advocating for students, and showing that a life with depression can still include a lot of compassion and caring.
What Karen wants you to know…
What should a young adult/child know? Recognize that what you are going through is tough and your feelings about your experience are valid; you might have a bad time and good time within five minutes of one another and that’s okay. You are not alone: there are people here who want to be there for you and help you.
What would you want a parent to know? You can be a model of strength and empowerment for your children—they can see how to advocate for themselves and how to be there for another person selflessly and without judgment. Trust your child, be willing to hear what they need to tell you, and know that even if your child takes a step back know that you can move forward again.
What would you want another school counselor/social worker to know? We all took this job because we want to make a difference in the lives of the students we work with; sometimes this means thinking out-of-the-box to figure out what one specific student needs. Be open and empowering unconditionally.
What would you want a doctor/therapist/clinician to know? Find ways to push your clients safely. If you’ve been to a lot of therapists, you know how to be a client and move through therapy without digging too deeply into what is happening internally so you need to know how to help examine those things that need to be talked about but are easy to avoid.
What would you want a policy maker/advocate to know? Try to find ways to understand individual needs as they relate to policy. Also, make mental health care a part of more insurance policies so that people can access the care that they need with a therapist they connect to and can afford.
Story #4 of this blog series will be posted in a few short weeks! For more depression resources for schools, visit the school section of our website.