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by Eva Salvatierra

      The number of adolescents hospitalized for experiencing suicidal thoughts or actions has doubled over the past decade. Months into quarantine, it hardly crossed my mind that I was depressed until my psychiatrist informed me of the fact. Amidst a global pandemic, the epidemic of teen mental illness spreads fatally. 

This reality evaded me, perhaps willingly. At least for a little. 

Truth be told, upon the cancellation of school and surge of local panic, I basked in falsely perceived liberation. Carefully molded forecasts disintegrated. Everything I thought I knew, from memories of spring, splintered and melted before my eyes. As glaringly obvious as it seemed, I could not have predicted then how a public health crisis and shelter in place ordinance would aggravate my mental health weeks later.

      I had the time and space to tap into my creative outlets previously delayed by the rapture of educational priorities. My introverted tendencies clawed their way back out from the layers of dust I arranged as survival mechanisms. I convinced myself to believe I was a constant machine of execution; that there could never be a drought from the art seeping out my pores.

      I was wrong. 

      My thoughts had been released from the plug keeping them at bay; that is, the looming anguish of assignments and exams. So they swam and became opaque fluid crowding every nerve of my brain. I had time to sit and examine and fail to understand my speculations. Days entailing episodes with such spirals of abstractions I struggled to describe. Horrible pain behind my eyes and angry confusion when my body felt exhausted rather than motivated. 

      Without the perpetual social anxiety of high school in real life, that area of my disorder diminished, but the intrinsic triggers were instantly amplified. Months oozed by in a long blur. I would describe the first few weeks of summer as falling headfirst into wet sand. Abrupt, strangely suffocating and uncomfortable. 

      My obsessive tendencies created an illusion in which I believed that by checking off task after task I would remain anchored and in control. I built up an armor of excessive productivity. Exercise, something I need to maintain my mental health, morphed into a game of manipulation aimed against myself. Every hour of every day was taken far too seriously; sitting still proved a strife. I found myself thinking about what I felt rather than feeling or existing fully inside my own body. I mastered the skill of small talk while simultaneously pushing the people out closest to me. Many afternoons I had long periods of anxiety attacks or the sensation of untethered consciousness. After one six-hour episode in particular, I woke up the next day at 1:17 pm. I hadn’t slept past 9 am in months. 

      The alarms blared when the concept of driving anywhere to watch the sunset or go to the beach seemed horribly tiring and breakdown-inducing. My mom came home one night to me telling my best friend and boyfriend, during a social distance hangout I organized, that they needed to leave because I simply could not deal with talking about anything or being around anyone. Stability hung on a pendulum that could, at any given moment, swing to either side and destroy me. 

Direct action was taken, and my mom and I phoned my psychiatrist shortly after. He concluded that the medication I had been on for four years was not doing its job anymore to handle my depressive states, and they were promptly switched. 

      The concept of being medicated for mental illness bears a dark cloud of stigma; one that I have often experienced myself. At eleven I feared losing a part of myself to the anxiety pills; an unease I rediscovered five years later. Empathy, patience, and compassion exhibited by the mental health professionals, my family members and friends closest to me made each day of the transition less lonely. It's still an ongoing process.

      Quite honestly, changing meds or going on them for the first time may not be a painless development. To recognize the chemicals in your brain are reorienting and understand you are not culpable to the side effects is a difficult endeavor. Not everyone suffering from a mental disorder has been able to access the same resources and support systems, especially now, further establishing this gaping injustice.

      Speaking broadly, it’s impossible to constantly absorb the weight of this universal phenomenon. The rest of the world and I have woken up for months now ladened with the knowledge: I am living through a global pandemic. And the burden this presents for me is entirely different from doctors, nurses, journalists, low-income workers, my extroverted mother, the homeless population, my best friend, Black and Brown communities systematically targeted for worsened living conditions, my fifth-grade sister devastated at the absence of her promotion and class celebrations, in addition to my peers. 

Regardless, we all have mental health as we do physical health. COVID-19 has influenced our environmental factors tremendously, resulting in a mixture of outcomes for our various mental struggles. In this atmosphere of angst, we must recognize ourselves and the members in our community as individuals confronting difficulties unseen by the eye. Throughout our lifetime, mental illness has been romanticized, fetishized, demonized, and ignored, with treatment services still too expensive for many to attain. Although we may never understand how the inner workings of another mind feels, what we can do is build an environment of validation and open-mindedness, and awareness for an epidemic affecting us all. 



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