Adult advocates add to stigma of teenage depression

New York Times News ServiceMay 26, 2014 

— Most of our closest friends didn’t know that we struggled with depression. It just wasn’t something we discussed with our high school classmates. We found that we both had taken Prozac only when one of us caught a glimpse of a prescription bottle in a suitcase during a journalism conference. For the first time, we openly discussed our feelings and our use of antidepressants with someone who could relate. We took a risk sharing our experiences with depression, but in our honesty, we found a support system. We knew we had to take the idea further.

In the United States, for people between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death. Untreated depression is one of the leading causes of suicide. According to the National Comorbidity Survey: Adolescent Supplement, 11 percent of adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18.

We were not alone. We wondered why, with so many teenagers dealing with depression, it was still addressed in such impersonal ways.

As editors at our high school newspaper, we decided to fight against the stigma and proposed devoting a whole edition to personal stories from our peers suffering from mental illness. We wanted honesty with no anonymity.


We knew that discussing mental health in this way would be edgy, even for our progressive community in Michigan. But we were shocked when the school administration would not allow us to publish the articles.

With the help of other journalism students, we interviewed teenagers from around our school district who shared stories of depression, eating disorders, homelessness, prescription abuse, insomnia and anxiety. Many discussed their personal struggles for the first time. All agreed to attach their full names – no anonymity or pseudonyms. Following online recommendations of the Student Press Law Center, we asked parents of each student to sign consent forms for the articles.

As we were putting the stories together, the head of our school called us into her office to tell us about a former college football player from our area who had struggled with depression and would be willing to let us interview him. We wondered why she was proposing this story since he wasn’t a current high school student. We declined her suggestion. We didn’t want to replace these deeply personal articles about our peers with a piece about someone removed from the students. After we asked her about her suggestion, she told us that she couldn’t support our moving forward with the articles.

From an administrative perspective, this made some sense. It is her job to protect the students to the best of her ability. She believed that the well-being of those who shared their experiences – and most important, their names – would be put at risk because of potential bullying. She also mentioned that she had consulted a mental health professional, who told her that reading about their own depression could trigger a recurrence in some students and that those who committed to telling their stories might regret it later.


Our school has a very tolerant atmosphere, and it even has a depression awareness group, so this response seemed uncharacteristic. We were surprised that the administration and adults who advocate mental health awareness were the ones standing in the way of it. By telling us that students could not talk openly about struggles, they reinforced the very stigma we were trying to eliminate.

The feeling of being alone is closely linked to depression. Though there are professionals to talk to, it doesn’t compare to sharing your experiences with a peer who has faced similar struggles. And, most important to us, no one afflicted with a mental illness should have to believe that it’s something he should feel obliged to hide in the first place. If someone has an illness such as diabetes, she is not discouraged from speaking about it. Depression does not indicate mental weakness. It is a disorder, often a flaw of biology, not one of character.

By interviewing these teenagers for our newspaper, we tried – and failed – to start small in the fight against stigma. Unfortunately, we’ve learned this won’t be easy. It seems those who are charged with advocating our well-being aren’t ready yet to let us have an open and honest dialogue about depression.

The New York Times

Madeline Halpert, a junior, and Eva Rosenfeld, a sophomore, are managing editors at their high school newspaper in Michigan.

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