How I Finally Got Mental Health Help

It took a while to find the right adults to support me.

by Sonobia James

Toward the end of 7th grade I started to get suicidal thoughts and I was self-harming. I felt an overwhelming sadness and I was stressed and anxious.

Many of these feelings were related to my school environment, which I found toxic. The school was mostly Hispanic and the lack of diversity made it hard for me to feel comfortable. I was one of only three Black students.

I was bullied by other kids, and I even felt bullied by many of the teachers. They acted a lot like the kids, choosing favorites while excluding others, and they spoke badly about some students. When they witnessed bullying they turned a blind eye.

The classes were chaotic and loud, and the teachers could not control the students. They lashed out and sometimes made students cry. I wanted to transfer. Just walking up to the school building every morning gave me anxiety attacks.

In 7th grade I was put in the honors class. I was ahead in my assignments and the material was easy for me, but the stress of staying on top of everything was a lot. Between keeping my grades up, dealing with a group of students that tormented me, and having no support from my teachers, sometimes I felt so overwhelmed I just didn’t show up.

I felt tired, but not like I just needed a good night’s rest. It was more of a mental tiredness. I decided I would try to talk to my guidance counselor. I wanted and needed help.

But my counselor couldn’t make the time to meet with me. When I’d see him in the hall, he’d call out, “I’m just really busy with other students. As soon as I can touch base with you I will.” I couldn’t blame him; there was only one guidance counselor for each grade.

A few times I waited outside the counselor’s office, but he was either with someone else or he was elsewhere, and I had to get to class eventually.

“Teenagers Just Feel Sad Sometimes.”

I also spoke to my pediatrician about my depression and suicidal thoughts. He was a tall White man who couldn’t see without his glasses.

He always smiled and joked around, but when I told him I felt depressed he got a serious look on his face. “Teenagers sometimes feel sad, this doesn’t mean you’re depressed,” he said.

“Sometimes I feel like the room is spinning and my chest tightens and I can’t breathe or move,” I explained. “It’s unbearable.” I felt like I was practically begging.

But he didn’t address anything I said. Instead he talked about my vitals and measurements. When I left, I questioned if I was being dramatic and if the doctor was right. Perhaps I was only feeling sad. But deep down I knew something was wrong.

A Counselor’s Poor Judgment

My pediatrician didn’t know that I was self-harming. I had been doing it for at least a year before I finally got a meeting with my guidance counselor. But it wasn’t one I had scheduled. I had been in chorus and had my sleeves rolled up after washing my hands. I had forgotten to roll them back down to hide my cuts. Toward the end of the day I got called out of class by the guidance counselor.

When I walked into his office, I got flustered. A student who had often bullied me and a friend of hers were there. I sat down and the girl started talking about how seeing my cuts had upset her. Then the counselor asked me to explain my behavior.

He said it as if I had cut just to upset my classmate. “We don’t get it, why would you do this?” the girl asked. I looked to the counselor for help and he gave me a look that said, “Answer the question.”

“I started feeling sad last year. It’s really a mixture of things.” As anxious as I was, I knew it was unprofessional of the guidance counselor to make me talk about my private feelings in front of these girls. I said as little as I could.

The girl told me I was selfish. I felt cornered and confused. Shouldn’t the guidance counselor be more concerned about me? Why was this girl’s distress over seeing my cuts the priority here? I was also afraid because these two girls were bullies and although they had never physically hurt me, they were part of a group that constantly gave me trouble.

Mom’s in Denial

After the girls left, the counselor told me he had to call my mom to tell her I was cutting.

“Please don’t,” I begged.

He told me it was school protocol. If a student mentioned wanting to hurt themselves or others, he had to inform the parent.

The counselor put her on speaker and greeted her in a jokey manner. “Hey!”

He laughed. He beat around the bush for a while until he finally said, “Anyway, it’s come to my attention that your daughter has been cutting herself with razor blades.”

My mother told him he had the wrong girl. I could almost hear her heart sink through the phone. I feel like there had to be a better way to communicate these things to parents.

“Not my daughter,” my mom said. After a long pause, she said, “Let me talk to her.” The counselor handed me the phone and I took a deep and shaky breath and put the receiver to my ear.

It felt like my mom took forever to speak. She told me to come home right away, but the guidance counselor told her I couldn’t leave until the bell rang. So I went back to class.

“Why Didn’t You Tell Me?”

When I got off the bus that afternoon, my older brother was waiting for me. He was with his friends acting tough, but when we got home he cried. My mom had told him what had happened.

My mom was quiet at first. She didn’t look at me. She just stared at the patterns on the marble kitchen counter.

Then she said, “Why are you doing this to yourself? Why didn’t you tell me?” These questions were hard for me to answer. I was afraid that my mom wouldn’t understand, and that she would turn out to be another adult I couldn’t rely on. So I just stood there.

She called the hospital because the counselor had told her I was suicidal. But the hospital said they couldn’t admit me if it wasn’t an emergency. They said if she called an ambulance, that’s how I could be admitted. So my mom called 911 and we waited.

Finally Getting Help

I was admitted to the hospital and stayed there for one month. Everything was routine and orderly. I didn’t have to worry about anything but feeling better. I felt safe and cared for. When you have depression, it gets difficult to take care of yourself. Being hospitalized made it so nurses, doctors, and psychologists were paying attention to me 24/7.

I also went to school in the hospital. My favorite teachers were Ms. Cohen who taught art, Mr. Fenherty who taught history, and my science teacher who went by Mr. G.

This school was the opposite of my middle school. The teachers, staff, and students were friendly and caring. The hospital provided services that helped students improve their mental health, and I felt understood and heard. I was a straight A student again for the first time in a year. I felt like I might finally be OK.

I was eating again, showering regularly, and overall just caring about myself.

I even made friends with other patients and staff. But I missed my brother, who was too young to visit me. I knew that I had to get better to see him again.

Eventually the psychologist decided I was healthy enough to go home. I was feeling the way I hadn’t felt in a long time: happy.

After going home, I still attended the school at the hospital. It offered the same mental health support I got when I was an inpatient (someone who stays in the hospital) when I became an outpatient (someone who only comes in for appointments).

So in addition to my classes, I had access to my psychiatrist, nurse, social worker, and psychologist. This was helpful because the adjustment to the outside isn’t always smooth. Part of me still needed to be kept an eye on.

Proud to Speak Up

Eventually, though, I was expected to return to my old school. Thinking about that riddled me with anxiety. I told my mom about the distress I felt. She spoke to my psychiatrist and they decided it would be best if I stayed at the hospital school until the end of the year. The following year, I’d be starting high school in a new school. I was proud of myself for speaking up, being heard, and getting what I needed.

Still, the adjustment to high school was hard and I hated my new school at first. For the first two years there were no adults to talk to who had the kind of experience dealing with mental health issues that I needed. There were some minor incidents, but I powered through and felt OK.

For example, when I was being bullied, I reported it to the guidance counselor. When it escalated, I reported it again. This time there was a mediation and the threat of suspension if these girls didn’t stop. They did.

During my sophomore year, my school hired a social worker. I had sessions with her about once a week. She helped me realize my self-worth and helped me through a lot. But she left the school in June and she has not been replaced. I was devastated at first, but eventually I realized that her lessons would stick with me through my final years of high school.

I had an amazing junior year. I remained optimistic and positive, using a mixture of the skills I learned at the hospital and from the school social worker. Even when bad things happened, like losing some close friends, I was able to tap into my existing support systems and build new friendships.

Even though I was dismissed by certain adults at first, I didn’t stop trying to get help. I’m glad I was persistent.

Discussion Questions

  1. How could the adults in S.J.’s life have been more supportive?
  2. What role does S.J.’s persistence play in getting her the help that she needs?
  3. Why do you think S.J. didn’t give up? What helped her be persistent?

The hospital school provided services that helped students improve their mental health, and I felt understood and heard. I was a straight A student again for the first time in a year. I felt like I might finally be OK.
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