This special section of The Express examines the struggles and realities of living with a mental illness. It features members of the SJHHS community who describe what it is really like living with different mental health issues. Our intent is to demystify and normalize conversations about this topic. We hope to help the process of destigmatizing these common challenges that affect millions of teens and adults today.
May 2, 2019
After a year of being in a relationship with her boyfriend, junior Sophie Weber, found that she was being treated in an unhealthy manner. This lead to a significant decrease in her mental health because she stayed in the relationship for roughly another year and eventually she developed generalized anxiety and OCD.
“Last school year… I was in a really unhealthy place which started to give me a lot of anxiety and that moved into the rest of my life,” said Sophie. “I started noticing really weird habits of getting anxiety over little things that aren’t normal.”
At first, it was just stress. But it eventually evolved into an obsession with certain things such as locking doors.
“I’d be falling asleep and I’d have to check if I locked the front door repeatedly and that’s not healthy,” said Sophie. She also became obsessed with perfection. “If I didn’t like my handwriting I’d have to throw away the paper, or if I didn’t like my outfit one day I’d have a horrible day.”
But things got progressively worse over the summer. Sophie got promoted at her job which included the responsibility of locking up; however with her newfound tendencies, this presented a big problem.
“One night I went to work and after everyone left I had to lock the door but I started bawling [because] I couldn’t stop walking back and forth to my car. No matter what I said, in my head I was like ‘the door’s not locked, I have to go back and check.’ That’s when it hit rock bottom, when I couldn’t control my tendencies,” said Sophie.
Once Sophie realized she needed help, she reached out to her mom who scheduled her an appointment with a therapist. “[Going to therapy] is super helpful to find out what the root of the issue is and to know what you’re dealing with,” said Sophie.
Therapy however, is not the only solution. “Whether it’s going to a doctor, a therapist, talking to people who have experienced the same thing, or going to a counselor at school, just to know what you are struggling with is super important,” said Sophie.
After being diagnosed, Sophie’s therapist recommended medication which Sophie believes works for some people, but that was not the case for her.
Instead, Sophie got out of her unhealthy relationship and decided to try something new. “I randomly decided to go to church when I got out of my relationship… and it sounds too simple, but I experienced an extreme drop in my anxiety after that,” said Sophie.
“The way I combated [my anxiety and OCD] was by having a relationship with Jesus and being in a community with people who care,” said Sophie. “Being surrounded by that is what I genuinely think cured me.”
Once she developed a relationship with Jesus, Sophie transformed and progressed so much more than she had during any therapy session. For her, “therapy and medication are a temporary solution but having a relationship with Jesus is forever,” said Sophie.
By replacing her old relationship with new friends and going to church, Sophie was able to find people she trusted. Now, when she is struggling, she reaches out to her friends and is able to find comfort in her new community.
“If I’m at school, I’ll put in headphones and listen to music that encourages me, or if I’m studying and I can’t stop thinking about how I’m going to fail a test, I just stop and read my bible or do a devotional,” said Sophie.
Now that Sophie is in a better place she is able to look back and be glad she removed herself from her unhealthy situation, but the reason she stayed in the relationship for so long after being in an unhealthy relationship was because she was scared to give up something so consistent in her life.
“If you know in the back of your head that something’s wrong, and it’s hurting you more than it’s helping you, then do something about it. I was so scared to step into a life without a certain person but once I did I felt so much better,” said Sophie.
Although what Sophie had to do was hard, the mental battle was not worth the relationship. “Don’t be afraid to question [things] because I got to a point where I was like, ‘I can’t even question this relationship because I know it’s the one thing that’s stable,’ but it wasn’t,” said Sophie. “If you are in a bad relationship or friend group, step out of it.”
Even though Sophie removed herself from the situation causing her anxiety and OCD she still struggles with people assuming things about her hardships. People often tell her she always seems stressed and anxious which concerns her because she doesn’t want her mental health issues to be what people remember about her.
“My mental health is not my identity… I might have been that [stressed] person a year ago but I’m not that person anymore and I don’t ever want to feel like I’m held back in my journey because of what people think,” said Sophie.
Sophie also struggles with having conversations in which people try to relate to her mental illness instead of simply listening to her story. “When people talk about it to relate and be trendy, it’s not ok,” said Sophie. “Self diagnosing is [also] not ok, it’s good to be aware but when you’re doing it to make conversation it diminishes the person who is really struggling with it.”
As Sophie has now overcome the hardest parts of her mental health issues, she helps those struggling with the same things and she is a testament to the fact that there is hope. “We are not defined by a mental health disorder a therapist diagnosed us with,” said Sophie and she constantly reminds everyone by showing how she has healed.
“People who are rooted in truth will tell you so much more about your identity than the world ever could. Find something that brings you forever peace, for me that’s Jesus. You can overcome [your mental health issues], and that doesn’t mean it goes away but you can find peace,” said Sophie.
Her OCD is not completely gone, nor will it ever be, but due to the steps she has taken and the help she has received, her mental health issues do not control her life. The community of supportive individuals that she has surrounded herself with now allow her to be her complete self.
Ultimately, Sophie wants to convey that seeking help works. “You’re not alone, we’re all broken, and there is always a solution,” said Sophie.
Kathy Boggio, a beloved teacher at SJHHS, is known for her positive attitude and big smile. However, at first glance, no one would be able to guess her past that has led to her struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Kathy is a survivor of the Las Vegas shooting that happened in October 2017. Following the shooting, she knew she needed to get help after reoccuring nightmares and flashbacks.
“When I would hear helicopters my heart would start racing, or if I hear somebody just bang a trash bag it would make me jump,” said Kathy.
Once she was officially diagnosed with PTSD, she started eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR). In this type of therapy, she would hold two things and watch two things as the objects in her hand vibrated. These actions allow patients to recall their experiences and better control feelings of stress and anxiety.
Kathy did this type of therapy a couple of times and didn’t see a difference, although she does question whether or not she would be worse off never having done the therapy to begin with.
“I expected [it to be] like how you take a pill when you have a headache, [and] the headache goes away. I was expecting to feel a difference, and I didn’t, so I kind of ditched that therapeutic technique,” said Kathy.
After the loss of a child back in 2015, Kathy and her husband sought help from a therapist who reminded the couple of the importance of balancing life. She advised that they needed to find joy and needed to continue doing things they both love.
“Both my husband and I love our lake house. It was obvious we needed to keep making that a priority, keep our lives still in that happy place,” said Kathy.
On Fridays, she gets off at lunch and goes to her house at Lake Havasu, her place to “regain sanity.”
“I don’t want to party at the lake, I medically need that time,” said Kathy.
In search for something to relieve stress, Kathy started to journal. She writes about her thoughts, experiences, and her feelings. Journaling is something she would strongly recommend to anyone going through something similar to her.
She continues to recount and talk about her past, as it helps her deal with the pain.
“I talk about it a lot, and one of the things that my original therapist said to do is to talk about it as though you’re explaining a movie you saw, so you can kind of disconnect from it a little bit so it’s not so emotionally challenging and it’s almost like a storyline of a movie. That way, I don’t repress it, I don’t try and stuff it and pretend it didn’t happen,” said Kathy.
One thing she has learned along the way is that some battles are harder than others. Survivors guilt, being one of those things.
“I just don’t think I’ll ever overcome [survivors guilt]. I’ll probably cope with it better, but the people that I saw… I saw a lot of people die around me, and they were so young. I’m just looking at these young kids, saying ‘why did I live?’ when I’m almost 50, and here [they] are in their 20’s, standing right next to me and [they] got shot and I didn’t. I know, rationally, that it’s not my fault. I didn’t choose where the bullet goes, but I still feel guilty that it happened to be that person’s time,” said Kathy.
Kathy is still in close contact with the people she was hiding with at the shooting, and the people that she was in the hospital with. She says having people in her life with the same experiences helps, and would encourage anyone going through something hard to seek people who have the same feelings.
After the shooting, the man that was in the hospital waiting room with her reached out to Kathy and after talking, he reminded her of all the human love she saw on that tragic night. It reminded her of all the selfless acts she witnessed that night and of all the good people in the world.
“I really focus on the gratitude of the fact that I survived and I can walk and I have my eyeballs. I know a girl that had her eyeball shot out. So I’m using gratitude and I’m using the perspective of seeing how many people were amazing that night, to help others, as opposed to the one evil person,” said Kathy.
One life lesson that she has learned after all this is time is that things don’t just get better overnight, but as time goes on, she is able to deal with her struggles more and more.
“I feel like I’m far enough out, just the journaling and talking about it, and owning it. Another thing is when I do feel a trigger and I feel my heart racing and I feel the panic attacks starting… I know why I’m breathing heavy. So I’m able to just label what it’s about and talk myself out of it. It’s all about self awareness,” says Kathy.
In life, Kathy believes that attitude is everything. She takes pride in the fact that she didn’t succumb to being the victim and that she owns how her PTSD affects her life.
“After losing a 25 year old, and then a year and a half later watching people [get shot], it would be very easy for me to say ‘okay I tap out’ and be this victim. Keeping an attitude of being grateful and looking at the positive side is key,” said Kathy.
Kathy reminds others that until you’ve walked in someone’s shoes, you shouldn’t judge them.
“Be open to the fact that it’s an experience you haven’t had and a feeling you don’t feel, so you can’t understand it, so just respect it. Instead of judging, respect that everyone has a different path and a different struggle,” said Kathy.
Sage Grove’s journey with mental illness started in seventh grade after a traumatic event. Since then, she has not only had to learn to manage living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Major Depressive Disorder, she has had to navigate stigmas, labeling, what it means to be a high school student with mental illnesses, and how she can help those who share her struggles.
In Sage’s experience with mental health, there is an abundance of ups and downs. She explains that when you have depression, you lose interest in many aspects of life, so sitting down to do work of any kind or getting out of bed to go to school are just a few small things that become great obstacles. “And then on top of those little struggles, the more daunting things like wanting to stay alive become difficult,” said Sage.
In order to manage her mental health, Sage does a culmination of things, which include exercising regularly, therapy, medication, and making sure she is always taking care of herself and her hygiene.
“A lot of people don’t talk about the lack of hygiene that happens when you do have depression or anxiety. You don’t really care about yourself, so taking a shower or brushing your teeth seems unimportant. It’s choosing to do those little things everyday in order to just keep going that makes a difference,” said Sage.
For Sage, talk therapy is extremely effective. However, her previous therapist could only see Sage once every six weeks due to scheduling issues, which was not enough. So, in order to get the help she needed, Sage started to see Susan Parmelee, a counselor from the Wellness and Prevention Center in San Clemente. Parmalee comes to SJHHS every Tuesday to talk with students. Sage met her at school because none of the other counselors could see her when needed.
Since Parmalee is donation based, Sage is able to go to her office in San Clemente whenever she needs to. “It’s probably the best resource I’ve ever had access to,” said Sage.
Sage also participates in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, which is therapy specifically for those with PTSD. According to Sage, “It’s like training your brain to rethink a situation. It is similar to hypnosis, but includes lights and noises. You describe a flashback that may be bothering you and the therapist will ask you to rethink the situation with new circumstances. This kind of therapy works really well for me.”
Many individuals that have depression, PTSD, or anxiety must take medications, but a lot of the time, these medications do not end up working efficiently. Because of this, many choose to stop taking their prescription all together, which can be dangerous.
However, depression is an issue of brain chemistry, and some medications are not going to work for certain people, so “you have to just keep trying and trying until you find one that works,” said Sage.
In modern society, there remains a stigma that surrounds mental health, which inhibits healthy dialogue. On both social media and in everyday conversation, society is encouraged to only reveal what is considered to be positive in our lives.
Many also turn to labeling individuals entirely based on their mental health issues, which results in many choosing to not talk about their mental illnesses at all because they don’t want one particular aspect of themselves to define them, especially one aspect they have been told is inherently bad or abnormal.
“I have come to realize more that mental health issues are not something to be ashamed of. No one asked to have mental illness, those are just things that happen. Even if the biggest part of your life is managing your mental illness, it’s not who you are,” said Sage.
Rencently, Sage has tried to elicit change within CUSD: “I recently went and spoke to the board of the district along with the Strength Over Silence Club. I explained my own experiences and said that we needed better mental health resources at our school. [Our full time counselors] are all amazing, but we need more for our 3,000 students at SJHHS,” said Sage.
In her experience, trying to gain access to a counselor at school has never been consistent, which can be extremely dangerous for any individual with mental health issues, depending on the severity of their condition.
“I’ve been turned away from their offices a few times. They will eventually call you out sometime that week, but that scares me. Some people need immediate help. The first time I went up to the office I was turned away, and was not called back up until later in the week. However, I went home that night and was in a really dark place, so I ended up having to call a suicide hotline, and that is what saved me. If I was someone else that didn’t know those resources were out there, it could be such a different story,” said Sage.
After speaking to the District Board, an investigation was launched into SJHHS. The following day, Sage was called out to speak to Principal Smalley and Mr. Jindra. They asked her questions regarding getting turned away from the counselor’s office. Sage told them about her experiences, as well as how she had taken other people up to the office to speak to someone when they were having an issue and they had also been turned away.
In order to help remedy the system at SJHHS, Sage presented the idea of a student survey at the front desk, which is now currently in use.
“Manny will give you the survey when you go up to the office. You will be told to fill it out and then mark why you are up there, what you are feeling, and how critical it is that you see someone. He then will take it back to the counselors and they will determine when you can be seen,” said Sage. This will ensure that everyone who needs to be seen will be given first priority access to the counselling services.
Sage also talked to the Liaison of Mental Health and Counseling at the district in early April, and the liaison said that she would be looking into her ideas in order to make a new mental health curriculum.
In Sage’s experience, suicidal ideation comes along with her depression. While thoughts like these are terrifying, and sometimes all consuming, “you just have to keep going. It definitely gets worse before it gets better, and that’s when a lot of people end their lives. When you’re at the bottom, it’s like you are surrounded by fog, and you are unable to see the possibility of things getting better. But when it does, you look back and wonder how you were ever there,” said Sage.
For the friends of those with mental health issues, Sage has some advice. For her, the worst thing you can do to someone who has depression or is experiencing suicidal thoughts is to merely shrug off their cries for help.
Sage begs us all to “be mindful, even if someone doesn’t seem like they are having a problem, just know that their brain may be experiencing something completely different from their face.”
On the other hand, Sage explains that one of the best things you can do is express how much you love and support a friend who is struggling with their mental health. “I was really in a bad place a couple of months ago, and when I’d say things like ‘I don’t want to be alive anymore,’ my friends would say how much they loved me and how much they would miss me if I was gone. When people say things like that, you may not believe them in the moment, but I think subconsciously it sinks in, and it helps you carry on.”
For Jason Kepple, anxiety has been a factor of life since before he was even a teenager.
He moved to Southern California from Washington in fifth grade, and being an introvert, felt scared to make friends. As the pressures of his life increased through middle school, he began to develop anxiety. While he didn’t exactly know what was causing him extreme stress, it became clear that he had a problem when he was in 7th grade.
One summer day, he experienced sharp and intense pains in his chest. They were so painful he had to go to the emergency room. After running countless scans and tests, the doctors were still unsure about the cause of his pains.
It was in the days coming that he realized it was his extreme anxiety building up over the few weeks before that caused his excruciating experience.
“It was horrible. That’s when I realized you could be physically damaged from mental illnesses. A decrease in your mental state can physically hurt you, which I didn’t realize. My condition of anxiety got so bad it physically hurt my body,” Jason said.
Jason also went through a period of his life where he experienced depression. He describes this as one of the darkest and most difficult times of his life.
“Dealing with depression is the worst feeling in your life. It’s very hard to get out of, something you can’t take lightly. It’s like this deep rut you’re stuck in, you feel like you’re calling for help but nobody’s really there,” Jason said.
It was after those experiences when he decided to actively work towards prioritizing his mental health. He began to talk to family, friends, and counselors, and tried to find simple ways he can improve his mental wellness.
“I found my passion in music. I taught myself how to play the piano, I really enjoy listening to albums. It calms me, listening to music, and disconnecting from the world for a few minutes is kind of how I try to deal with my anxiety today,” Jason said. Coping mechanisms such as these allow him to deal with anxiety everyday, and help prevent him from getting to the point where he experiences a panic attack similar to the one he had years before.
He now uses his experiences to improve his community. He joined Project SOS, a student group at SJHHS focused on providing more resources to teenagers dealing with mental health issues. With the club, he shares his story of dealing with anxiety and depression in the hopes of educating peers on the importance of prioritizing mental health, as well as ways to cope.
“Recently I’ve been sharing my story like I am now, as both a message of hope and almost as a warning. Where its like ‘look at this kid who survived the ER and a panic attack and he’s okay now, not damaged’ yet at the same time I want everyone to realize you can’t always hold in your feelings, even if you’re scared, you can’t hold everything in forever,” Jason said.
While anxiety is a part of his life, he doesn’t feel like it defines who he is. It’s just a part of the experiences that have made him the person he is today.
“I don’t want to be taken pity on…this is more just kind of something I’m going through…it doesn’t define who I am, it’s just there,” Jason said.
Throughout his experiences dealing with his mental health, the connections he has made at school, home, and otherwise have helped him deal with even the darkest times of his life. Friends and family provide him with the support he needs to get through difficult situations.
“I’ve gotten lucky because I have developed such a strong sense of friendship and connection with my family. My family definitely helps, they’re awesome, they support me in everything I do. Same with my friends, they’re always there for me. Always having someone you can count on is the biggest advantage in dealing with this,” Jason said.
He emphasizes the importance of forming connections with people in life, as those connections and healthy experiences can tremendously assist someone in their trials with mental health issues. While the initial step of reaching out to loved ones was scary and difficult for him, that decision ultimately is what most greatly benefitted him on his journey.
“Depression is like if you’re at the bottom of this giant rock wall, but there are no pegs on it so you wonder how you can climb it. Over time as you develop with friendships, connect with family and counselors, and then all the sudden these pegs start to form and you can start climbing the rock wall until eventually it feels like you can get out,” Jason said.
He reminds teenagers that while dealing with mental health may seem like a lonely journey, it is an aspect of life that millions of Americans have in common.
“You’re not alone in this world. Everyone knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone, who has gone through a mental illness or depression. It’s a universal connection that we don’t completely quite understand yet, but we’re getting there slowly.”