The Silent Emergency

The look into the daily struggle of teens who are battling with mental health disorders

Maya Shub ’20 spends her time at school talking with friends, studying for tests and participating in extracurriculars such as varsity poms. Few people would ever suspect that Shub also faces an internal struggle: her battle with mental health disorders. 

Shub, who was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, is not alone in this struggle. In fact, roughly 20 percent of teenagers will experience depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia or another similar disorder during their lifetimes.

Contributing Causes 

According to the Mayo Clinic, mental illness is primarily caused by genetics, brain chemistry and exposure to stressors before birth.

However, Sydney Krebs ’20, who has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, believes that external pressures can also contribute to mental health issues. While she acknowledges the benefits of living in this community, she also believes that environmental pressure played a big role in her mental health issues. Both Krebs and Shub point to the emphasis on academics, extracurriculars and test scores that create this pressure.

“When you’ve been raised hearing that getting anything below an ‘A’ means you are dumb, it’s hard to not take it to heart,” Shub said. 


Government and American History teacher Peter Anderson also recognizes how students often take on heavy course loads in order to keep up with parental and peer pressures to succeed. He feels that students are not finding enough time to balance their overall wellbeing in addition to their academics and extracurriculars, regardless of the rigor of their course load. 

“I know students that are very bright that have chosen to take a less rigorous course load to prioritize their mental health, but that’s few and far between at Stevenson,” Anderson said. “If you show any sign of ambition, the student culture seems to emphasize doing more.” 

Body Image

In some cases, certain mental illnesses can evolve into other disorders. This was the case for Katie ’19, who suffers from body dysmorphia, or the obsessive focus on a perceived flaw in appearance. However, Katie also attributes her body image issues to what she was seeing in the media. 

“All of the women you see online, that is not who they really are,” Katie said. “It’s very important to understand that what we see as perfect is an unrealistic expectation.”

Katie is not alone in her desire to be thinner. According to the national 2017 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 47.1 percent of high schoolers are attempting to lose weight despite only 15.6 percent being actually overweight.

As a result, Katie and many others resort to unhealthy weight loss methods. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2017 more than 2.2 million students aged 13-18 suffered from anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reports that without treatment or help, up to 20 percent of those with a serious eating disorder could die.

Katie, however, is making efforts to improve her mental and physical health. She is taking steps that include getting professional help, focusing on healthy eating and exercise, spending time with family and reading. 

“Don’t compare yourself to other people,” Katie said. “We’re all perfect the way we are.”

Substance Abuse Disorder

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there is a high correlation between mental illness and substance abuse. Jack ’19 has struggled with mental health on account of his feelings of isolation, which has led him to seek alcohol and drugs in order to cope with his depression and anxiety. 

“I think my start was pretty typical,” Jack said. “I tried weed one night and then after that, it was just very difficult for me to stay sober. I thought way too much, became very critical of myself and, at times, suicidal.” He later received in-patient care and formal treatment. 

According to Jack, marijuana became a gateway drug to a dependence on painkillers. While he found the effects calming at first, his reliance on drugs and alcohol ultimately increased his struggles with mental illness as his thoughts regarding suicide worsened. 

Jack finally found himself seeking help from his social worker, recognizing that drugs and alcohol were making his situation worse. 

“If a kid shows up [to school] high multiple times, I don’t think it’s a full-on disciplinary issue at this point,” Jack said. “I think that someone needs to talk to them since there are legitimate reasons why people use drugs.” 

Stevenson’s Response

In 2014, Stevenson administered the annual Illinois Youth Survey. When 14 percent of Stevenson students admitted to seriously considering suicide in the year prior to the survey, officials felt that action was necessary. “The survey helped us to be more proactive with students,” social worker Sarah LaFrancis said. 

In response, Stevenson implemented changes to spread awareness, such as the Signs of Suicide (SOS) program for juniors and freshmen. SOS aims to educate students about mental health disorders in order to get them the proper treatment and support they need. 

In addition, Stevenson is continuing to interweave social and emotional learning (SEL) into its curriculum by teaching students how to set goals, identify emotions and employ proper decision-making. 

“Changes in our curriculum have led our teachers to focus more on the skills needed to cope with stress and mental health issues rather than just teaching what mental health is,” health teacher Chad Dauphin said.

Furthermore,Stevenson has implemented many new programs in the past years to relieve pressure within the school environment. 

LaFrancis has helped to organize events in the College Career Center such as comfort dogs and cookie decorating. This allows students to learn how to take breaks from their schedules and to find time for themselves.

According to Anderson, there are many administrative efforts tied to improving mental health at Stevenson that often go unnoticed by students. 

For example, the school’s past initiatives in starting school at 8:30 a.m. everyday and working with Sodexo to provide healthy eating options for students are subtle changes that are associated with improving a student’s overall wellbeing. 

“In the six years that I’ve been here, mental health concerns have increased immeasurably based off what I have seen in my classroom,” Anderson said. “I think that there is an increased recognition that there needs to be proactive steps and ongoing questions that we, as a faculty and administration, can continue to wonder about like how much homework is reasonable or whether it is wise to have as many AP classes.”

Krebs and Shub both agree that Stevenson is making strong efforts to address mental health. However, they believe that the school could be doing more to identify mental health disorders.

Krebs and Shub believe that mental health awareness should emphasize real-life stories and foster conversations with students about the issue. They believe that statistics or hypothetical stories will not cause students to change. Hearing an individual’s experience will have the greatest impact.

“I think we are taking the right steps to address it,” Krebs said. “I don’t know how one can properly address mental health, but they are definitely trying.”


Getting Help

While mental health continues to impact many students, with the proper support, coping skills and personal motivation, students have found ways to cope with and even overcome mental health struggles. 

“A lot of times we don’t like addressing problems because if we address a problem, it means it’s there,” Krebs said. 

Krebs believes that the first step in getting better is to have the strength to reach out and ask for help.  

For students like Shub and Krebs, who struggled with mental health at a young age, it can be difficult asking for help as they felt alone in the beginning. Yet Shub feels that it is the most important part of the healing process for many students. 

“In seventh grade, nobody else around me was having those thoughts,” Shub said. “I tried to hide my mental illness because I felt embarrassed and even ashamed. I now realize that this is me, it’s my life and yes, depression and anxiety affect me, but I’m still me.”

In order for more students to feel comfortable in taking this first step, the administration is attempting to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness in order to have open discussions about mental health. According to LaFrancis, with each generation, conversations regarding mental health have been more prevalent and more common within society. 

LaFrancis believes that Stevenson wants students to come forward with their problems and seek assistance. She feels that only through conversation can mental health be fully addressed. 

Shub also believes that there are still more conversations that need to be had in order to promote understanding about mental health disorders. 

“I think what people don’t realize with mental illness is that it’s how your brain is wired, it’s how your chemicals are imbalanced,” Shub said. “Just like nobody blames you for not having 20/20 vision, you are not at fault for your mental illness. It does not mean you are weak.”

Shub believes that not only is self-care and prevention important, but knowing when to seek help from a professional. 

According to the 2016 Illinois Youth Survey, in Lake County, 18 percent of tenth graders reported that they do not have a trustworthy adult to talk to about important things in their lives.

Additionally, Dauphin believes that taking care of one’s mental health is important for every student, not only those who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. He feels that everyone should learn how to find balance in life, ways to relieve stress and how to find emotional support.

According to Anderson, Stevenson is unique as each student has a student support team, which consists of their dean, counselor, social worker and psychologist, to turn to whenever a student may feel the need to reach out to a trustworthy adult. 

As a teacher, Anderson tries to build communities within his classroom so that his students not only feel comfortable being open with him but also with their peers. 

This sentiment is shared by Shub, who encourages students to recognize that they are not as alone as they feel. 

“You need to remember that this doesn’t define you, you are so much more than an illness,” Shub said. “It’s a struggle that you go through, and it makes you that much stronger.”