Throughout my short career in mental health, I have come across so many stories like the one below* – stories of youth who have suffered from intense feelings. The details of the stories change, but the overall theme is the same. These youth do not know how to deal with these intense emotions alone, they don’t know who to tell, or even how to tell them if someone were to ask. But these stories are not just about the suffering. They are also about what happens after and how their life is impacted in a positive way from what they went through.
She can’t remember when the feelings started. Her parents have always said she was an anxious child, but there were some anxieties that couldn’t be calmed by her parents. The first time she had a panic attack was fifth grade during a long division test. She couldn’t remember a step but she had this vision of who she was and the type of student she was – not being able to remember something that would get her to the answer did not match up to idea that she had of herself. She freaked – that feeling, the intense fear that she felt, the feeling that her world was over.
That cycle of anxiety continued throughout middle and high school, culminating in depression and anxiety which led her to suicidal thoughts and self-harming behaviors. Her parents had no idea what to do. I imagine they were terrified and only wanted her to be better. Her mom urging her to pray harder and be closer to God as that is what she thought would help her. Other people in her life had no idea because she was good at hiding it – she was the captain of her high school cheerleading team, in all AP classes, and popular among her peers. Finally her mom got her into therapy – it helped but was a little too late to really control the issues that she was experiencing. Her senior year of high school, she switched schools and had plans of applying for early admissions to college – one college, her dream. She had no back up plans because she was sure that it would happen for her.
She was devastated. Again. Everything came crashing down for her, but again no one knew. She didn’t think she wanted anyone to know. Again she had this idea of who she was and wasn’t going to let anyone see something different. It was the beginning of winter break when she received the rejection letter and shrugged it off. But she began spiraling after that. Some people may have known something was going on, but it didn’t matter because no one asked her.
Second week back at school for her spring semester and she couldn’t bear the weight of her feelings anymore. She had made a plan. She knew exactly how things were going to end. She went to her therapy appointment that afternoon after school. She finally told someone everything. Thankfully her therapist called her mom immediately and sent her to an inpatient facility where she would be safe. No one actually wants to die when they are having those kinds of thoughts. She told because she wanted to be free of those feelings and the life-ending thoughts she was having.
That afternoon and night was probably the longest period of time in her life. Her mom was devastated and it came out in anger. She was scared – she didn’t know what was going to happen. She sat in the small intake room for what seemed like hours – alone. Why they thought it was a good idea for someone with serious suicidal ideations to be alone? Knowing what I know now, I definitely would never leave a youth in her level of distress (or any level of distress) alone.
She finally made it to the adolescent psychiatric unit. It was past midnight. She was exhausted. They stripped her of her clothes to check for any contraband. Drug tested her. Treated her like a criminal. She felt like she had done something wrong – like she was being punished. She spent that night in her new room sobbing. The rest of her experience there is a blur. New medications were introduced to her system – some worked and some made the emotional distress so much worse. She was released after a couple of weeks and then readmitted two days later when they realized the medications weren’t reacting well in a less structured environment.
She finally made it back to school to finish out the rest of her school year about six weeks later. The next year she went to college, her second choice. She will most likely remain in therapy for the majority of her college experience. It might take a while for the suicidal thoughts to fully subside. She may have to deal with other mental health challenges going through her life but hopefully she will have the tools to get her through those situations and she won’t find herself in the same place she was in earlier in her life. This youth will be able to help others that were in her same situation and help them voice the issues that they have going on their lives – at the very least getting someone out of a dark place and at the very most saving lives. Her ability to gain the courage to make it out alive will give courage to others to speak out.
Some of these things wouldn’t have happened in the same manner for any of the youth that experience similar situations if they were able to discuss the challenges they were facing in an open accepting environment or if they were given the language at an early (at any) age to be able to verbalize the intensity that was going on inside. This is why the reduction of stigma for mental and emotional health issues is so important to me. This story is why I got into the field – why I felt the pull of the career path. There are so many programs that I work with in the agency to reduce this stigma – mental health screenings for middle and high school aged youth, in-home intensive therapy, mental health awareness groups for youth. The successes I see out of those programs are what keep me coming back and wanting to do more, make more of an impact in a bigger way in the lives of the youth that I come back into. I have now moved into a position where I get to mentor and support others in their work with and I feel like this is one of the greatest things that I can do to grow my level of impact. In providing the support and guidance to these individuals, the reach can be greater – we can move more youth to places of health and by doing so move families and communities into places of acceptance.
* At Tennessee Voices for Children we respect everyone who comes to us for help – and many are working toward a fresh start in life. So while their stories are true, client names and images may have been changed to protect their privacy. Thank you for understanding.
Anna Claire Lowder is the Clinical Director for Tennessee Voices for Children. Prior to this role, Anna Claire has held various roles in the agency since 2013 including Program Manager for the Youth Screen and Youth M.O.V.E. programs and Youth and Family Therapist in the Family Connections program. She earned her B.S. in Psychology from Belmont University and Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy from Trevecca Nazarene University. She is currently a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Tennessee. She has a passion for mentoring student and newly graduated therapists to develop their clinical and professional skills. When not at TVC, she is active with the Junior League of Nashville, Nashville Junior Chamber, and the Tennessee Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. In her spare time, she enjoys doing yoga and cooking.