TW: brief mentions of self harm
CW: very brief mentions of dissociation, hallucinations, and intrusive thoughts
You don’t need to involve your family in your mental health journey, there are many other options.
You must have heard it before, when adults say “if you are struggling, reach out to a trusted adult”. What they don’t actually address is how difficult that really is. Mental health struggles are super alienating experiences that most high school kids tend to feel embarrassed about. Whether that is rational or not, it stops most of us from actually taking that step to “reach out”.
There are two main issues we have with asking for help; we think it means telling our parents what is going on inside of our heads, and it is incredibly emotionally vulnerable to step forward and tell someone you are struggling internally (in any way). So telling us we have to ask for help when we need it and never really elaborating is rather ineffective. We never hear what our options actually are.
I have a bunch of serious mental health issues. They started when I was ten. The first time I “reached out” was when I was seventeen. It took me almost a decade to follow the advice of the adults in my life. That’s almost a decade of mental torment that I, being a child, had no idea how to cope with. Yet I decided I would rather internalize all of it than speak to a single other soul about anything. To let you in on how bad my mental health was, without me “reaching out”, I am going to list some of the most prominent struggles I’ve gone through on my own:
-major depressive episodes starting at a young age (so bad I never showered or brushed my hair, and I was self harming at the age of 10)
-extreme social anxiety
-generalized anxiety to the point where my resting heart rate was around 130 bpm every time I got checked
-panic attacks that somehow went unnoticed by others
A little later on (9th grade +)
-my depression became seasonal, still pretty severe
-social anxiety got the slightest bit better, generalized became worse
All that and I never “reached out” because no one told me how to. I come from a family that doesn’t understand mental health issues and believes in a lot of stigma around different disorders. I couldn’t go to any of them about my struggles, and I didn’t think I could go to anybody else without my family being told or eventually finding out. It wasn’t until I emailed my school's social worker a year ago and asked her about confidentiality that I discovered that there were options for people in my situation.
Do know that I am from Canada, and a few things about my experience may be different depending on where you live. Hopefully you discover those pieces by following some of my advice.
The first step is to change your way of thinking about asking for help. If you are unsure of an adults willingness to support you, or how they may respond, keep in mind that you don’t have to connect with them about your actual struggles right away.
You can reach out about reaching out.
Pick your trusted adult, preferably a social worker because they are professionally trained to support you without parent-involvement. When you choose and eventually approach them, just ask if you can talk to them about your mental health, and make sure to clarify that you want confidentiality. It sounds hard, but it really is that simple; just open the conversation up. Again, this is way easier if you have a social worker at your school, because you can simply say you want to know the boundaries of their confidentiality rules and they have to tell you, and then you’re set to actually tell them what you’re struggling with (as long as it doesn’t exceed said boundaries). I have spoken to both my social worker and a few of my favourite teachers, and my family has never once been contacted. Just so you’re aware, the boundaries for a social worker are normally only self-harm related, for safety reasons, and I don’t suggest pushing them. It’s better to call/text a crisis line if you need private support.
Remember that you are in complete control here. This is a situation where you actually do get to call the shots when speaking to an adult. You get to decide what you do and don’t tell them, depending on your needs. Take full advantage of your power in that moment. If they ask a question you don’t feel comfortable answering, it is in your power to say that. Something that encouraged me to finally ask for support was understanding that I can withhold all of the information I want to. After talking about confidentiality, it’s time to test the waters. Start as small as you want, and see how they respond. I was super wary and vague when I first started talking to my school’s social worker, and now I consider her a friend (I know, super embarrassing). Basically, you don’t owe any more information than you’re comfortable giving in order to receive support.
Also, if you have severe social anxiety like me, you can do all of this over email if that’s what you want. I connected that way with my school social worker for months. Once I got comfortable emailing back and forth with her for so long, I finally agreed to meet her in person. I even asked her to meet me outside of the guidance room (there are so many offices in there and I didn’t want to knock on the wrong door) and she did! Again, you are in charge, communicate in whatever way works best for you.
Another reason a school social worker is best if you have one is that they usually have other resources to offer you. I said no to any external resources because it was stepping out of my comfort zone at the time, but there are more free mental health resources for teens than they tell us! From my understanding, unless you need a ride there, you are set to go by yourself. My social worker even offered to call in advance to make me feel more comfortable with going. I still didn’t go because of my anxiety, so that is the extent of my knowledge there, but I do know that school social workers have great connections to many free, accessible, confidential resources.
If you have a family doctor and live somewhere where there is free healthcare (I don’t know if you guys have to pay for general visits), they keep confidentiality from other family members as well. My social worker told me about that because some of my anxiety issues are physical rather than mental, making them only treatable with medication. I tell you this because social workers offer CBT based support and for disorders like that, they can’t fully help. Whether or not you have a disorder that requires medication, doctors can also offer you mental health resources without your family knowing.
For my trans friends, my gender therapist (recommended by my family doctor, if you need one) also sent me a bunch of different mental health resources. Mine had a connection with a social worker that I am able to see for free, with confidentiality rules that actually allow me to discuss thoughts of self-harm privately (make sure to ask about that if you connect with one though). Research different gender clinics/centers in your general area and see what they offer!
As a mentally ill high school student, we are told too often to just ask for help, and not told enough what will happen once we do. I hope this article eased your mind a little. Opening up about your mental health is not a death sentence, although it tends to feel that way. If you don’t want your parents involved, they don’t have to be. If you don’t want to get completely vulnerable right away, start small. You just need to learn what supports and resources are available to you, and use them in the most beneficial way for you.
You don’t have to do this on your own, there are options.