The challenges presented by the prevalence of mental illness in society are numerous and complex. Victoria St. Jean, a senior at Pilgrim High School, is trying to make a difference by opening a door to conversation about the subject – from people who personally experience varying degrees of mental illnesses or disorders themselves.
“I think this is a topic that needs to be talked about more in society, because even though it’s 2019, with a lot of people it’s a touchy subject and they really don’t seem to want to talk about it,” St. Jean said. “It’s like any other disorder. Just because you can’t always see it on the outside, doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter as much.”
St. Jean has set up a speaking event at the main branch of the Warwick Public Library on Friday, March 29 from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., where a panel of six people with varying mental illnesses will make themselves available to answer questions and share their own personal stories to try and lessen the stigma surrounding such illnesses and contribute to a better understanding.
She began the initiative as part of her senior project after having a similar experience in her health class at school. More so, however, St. Jean was inspired to break down walls surrounding mental illness – and its continuing stigma, especially among teenagers – because of her own personal fight with anxiety and depression.
St. Jean talked about how her anxiety had prevented her from being involved at school, from doing extracurricular activities and how it presented itself in frustrating ways throughout her life. She talked about how it took a year and a half to get her driver’s license, because something as simple as scheduling a driving lesson could trigger a full-blown panic attack, let alone the thought of getting behind the wheel for the first time.
The anxiety would cause her brain to run constantly and always landed on worst-case scenarios, which sapped her energy and destroyed her will to participate in anything – leading to depressive episodes. She explained how she sought to keep her challenges hidden from her peers, for fear of being ostracized or looked down upon.
“I was scared to talk about it,” she said. “I didn’t talk about it to a lot of people, and even if I did talk to my friends about it, sometimes I felt like they looked at me as broken – someone who needed to be fixed. And I didn’t want to be looked at that way.”
Mental illness, as is the case for many individuals, is often genetically predisposed – and such was the case for St. Jean. Her mother suffers from a similar combination of anxiety and depression, while her youngest sister was recently diagnosed with autism.
Her mother suggested that St. Jean might consider going on medication, although she made it clear that would be her choice, and her choice alone. Initially fearing what the medication might do to her, St. Jean eventually realized she needed to try to take control of her illness using any help she could get.
“For the longest time I didn’t want to go on medication because I was afraid of what people might think, I was afraid it was going to change who I was – I didn’t want to depend on that,” she said. “But for the longest time I wasn’t living my life to the fullest. I was letting the anxiety and depression rule what I did. I finally said I can’t live like this anymore. I need to go out, I need to be a teenager and have fun.”
Life after medication has been drastically different for St. Jean. She is more active in school, she talks happily about going on dates with her boyfriend – even to public, crowded places that likely would have triggered her anxiety before.
“I was having fun, and I felt like a real teenager that didn’t have any added issues,” she said. “I could finally take a step back and breathe. I didn’t have to be constantly, constantly worrying.”
St. Jean’s story is not uncommon. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 6.8 million adults suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, while another 15 million American adults suffer from social anxiety disorder. Fewer than half of these afflicted individuals seek treatment.
Among teenagers, the rate of anxiety skyrockets – with as many as one out of every three teens suffering from the disorder, and recent studies have shown that anxiety can begin in children much younger, even among elementary-age students. Studies have shown that only between 60 and 80 percent of teenagers affected seek treatment for their maladies.
St. Jean believes that simply putting the issue out there and getting people to discuss it – with six people, including herself, who have some form of mental illness to answer questions and share their own personal stories – can have a positive impact.
“I think maybe people aren’t apt to talk about it because maybe they think they’re going to be labeled as weird or strange or won’t be in the ‘it’ group,” she said. “I want to make it okay to talk about it. I think a big part of this is finding the right treatment. People with mental illness, where it leads them to such violent acts, I think they didn’t get the right help. No one really took the time to ask them if they were okay. They needed help.”
St. Jean’s understanding of her own illness has led her full circle. She is thankful for the positive effect medication has had, but she also does not wish away her disorder entirely.
“I’ll always have anxiety and it will always be a part of who I am,” she said. “I wouldn’t say I wish I don’t have it, because it’s a big part of me. Even though I don’t love the constant worrying and I don’t love the days that are worse than others, it’s still a part of what makes me who I am. Everyone has their quirks, and imperfections are okay. I think that’s important for people to understand, especially people my age.”