My symptoms started when I was ten years old. My heart would pound and I’d feel lightheaded. I would feel disoriented, like I was living in a fog or dream. I would be sweaty and shaky and feel as if I was going to faint. I knew these feelings weren’t normal, but I didn’t want anyone to know. I was embarrassed.
It wasn’t until my thirties that I was diagnosed with panic disorder and agoraphobia. Maybe if I’d learned more about mental health when I was a teenager, I would’ve received treatment much earlier. I could have been saved twenty years of struggling with mental illness in silence.
I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.
That’s why I became a presenter for NAMI Ending the Silence, an in-school presentation designed to teach middle and high school students about the signs and symptoms of mental illness. This conversation needs to be opened when people are young. Mental illness can be a difficult subject to discuss, but if kids are taught not to feel embarrassed or ashamed to talk about mental health, there could be less stigma for the next generation.
When presenting, I discuss the warning signs of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide. I explain what to do if someone notices those warning signs in themselves or a friend. I share my story. I also share my daughter’s story.
My daughter Talee was in fourth grade when she had a panic attack at school. She was so terrified it would happen again that she couldn’t make herself walk into a classroom. She was afraid of being afraid and logically, she knew she shouldn’t be. She was frustrated that she couldn’t stop her symptoms, but she still missed two weeks of school.
I knew how important it was to get her treatment. I didn’t want Talee to struggle as long as I had. Talee and I were both prescribed antidepressants to correct our imbalanced serotonin. With medication and positive coping strategies—like eating healthy, exercising and getting enough sleep—we had fewer panic attacks and could resume our lives.
Teaching Young People
When I first stand in front of classrooms, I’m always nervous because I’m not sure how teenagers are going to react. But once my words begin to flow, and I notice how engaged the students become, my nerves disappear. They listen intently, curious to know what the challenges are when dealing with a mental health condition. They’re always happy to hear that my experiences have made me a stronger person and that I’m no longer ashamed of having anxiety and panic attacks.
The message I try to leave with teens is that they are not alone. Millions of people around the world live with mental illness. Recovery is possible and help is available. They only need to speak up, end the silence, and get help—the sooner, the better.
Jenny Marie is a mental health advocate and blogger. Jenny is married and has two daughters. Her blog, Peace from Panic, can be found at https://peacefrompanic.wordpress.com/