How the "teen angst" stereotype prevented me from recognizing my mental illness
For Mental Health Awareness Month, HelloGiggles is publishing “The Support You Deserve,” an essay series exploring the different barriers, stigmas, and myths blocking our access to effective mental health care.
On an average afternoon in the mid-2000s, you could usually find me lying on my bed and staring up at the ceiling, the gloomy tones of Bright Eyes or My Chemical Romance’s angrily pinging off the blades of my ceiling fan overhead. Maybe I’d be crying, maybe I’d be staring into space, maybe I’d be unable to will myself to stand. In many ways, I was the very picture of “teen angst.”
I wouldn’t have described myself as unhappy in high school. I had good friends. I participated enthusiastically in extracurricular activities like dance. I did well in school, and I read voraciously. I even liked hanging out with my parents. But sometimes, on long summer days when my friends were busy, or on Sunday nights after dinner, an indescribable emptiness would descend over me, like a thick black curtain. You wouldn’t have noticed a change in me. I didn’t act out, drink, do drugs, or skip school. I was a “good kid.” Besides, from what I’d learned in health class, depression was “always obvious.” It was self harm, wearing long-sleeves on hot summer days, plummeting grades, withdrawing from all social activity.
If my sadness was manageable, it couldn’t be mental illness. Teens are supposed to be moody, right?
“Yes, adolescents are in a stage of development, as are we all, and they’re going through a lot of it. But that does not mean moodiness and that does not equate to ‘turbulent years,’” explains Dr. Raychelle Cassada Lohmann, a licensed counselor whose work on teen depression has appeared in Psychology Today. “Physiologically, adolescents are going through a lot of changes…Our job as adults is to help create a growth opportunity for them as they go through those changes and not just roll our eyes and chalk it up to being adolescents, but realize that if they’re extremely moody, if we start to see behavioral changes, that’s not [just] adolescence.”
The stereotype of the angsty teen—prevalent in movies, books, and television shows as far-reaching as The Catcher in the Rye and My So-Called Life—made an impression on me. It told me that my nauseating stress over grades and my drop-of-the-hat dark moods were normal and expected of someone my age, and would be fleeting.
I remember failing to explain t0 the adults in my life how deep these feelings ran. When I attempted, I was often told to stop allowing my emotions to control me.
Media and well-meaning adults tell young people that mood swings and inexplicable sadness or anger are normal parts of adolescent development. But shrugging off someone’s complicated emotions just because they are young can be extremely harmful. I know that I fully expected to grow out of my despondence someday. But as I moved from high school to college and, eventually, the great beyond of adulthood, my sadness and anxiety didn’t dissipate.
Despite the fact that I had great friends, a wonderful partner, and the beginnings of my dream writing career, the symptoms I’d experienced for as long as I could remember continued to get worse. Free from the structure and confines of childhood, I became so anxious, I could hardly function. I cried almost daily at the slightest sign of work stress. I invented elaborate paranoid fantasies about all the ways my life could go wrong that kept me awake night after night.
The “teen angst” that was supposed to vanish like Cinderella’s ball gown at the stroke of midnight on my 20th birthday stayed with me throughout my early and mid-twenties.
Something was clearly very wrong, but I didn’t have the tools to understand what was happening to me. I clung to the idea that mental illness came for other people, and I could not be one of them because I was fine. I was just worried that everyone I loved was dying of incurable cancer, and that I must’ve left the stove on, and, also, I was a failure who would never amount to anything, and that maybe I was an alien because I was still suffering from tidal mood swings at 25 years old even though everyone promised me they would vanish with puberty.
As it turns out, there was a simple explanation for my struggles. My “teen angst” had likely always been the result of generalized anxiety disorder and moderate depression, twin illnesses that haunted my brain like the blue-clad Shining sisters.
The angsty teenager image often prevents kids like me, or their parents and teachers, from recognizing a deeper issue. According to Psychology Today, “11% of teenagers have a diagnosable depressive disorder,” yet only about one in five receive treatment. There’s no easy way for a 15 or 16-year-old to explain that everything is kind of okay; they just feel anxious, sad, and weird a lot of the time. Throughout my adolescence, there were long stretches when things were just a little off. These feelings didn’t ruin my life, but they certainly got in the way.
I remember it most clearly manifesting in an acute envy of any of my peers who appeared normal, who didn’t seem to get unshakably depressed for no other reason than that it was Sunday and tomorrow was Monday, and, well, what would happen then? Of course, you never really know what goes on in another person’s mind, and it’s possible that those same people suffered in ways I did not imagine at the time—they probably thought I had my life together, too, and, in many ways, I still did.
But even teens with more severe depression run the risk of having their symptoms fly under the radar of “teen angst” if parents and caregivers don’t recognize the warning signs. Dr. Lohmann recommends looking out for “any marked change in activity that starts to affect everyday functioning,” such as changes in sleep patterns or eating habits, deteriorating hygiene, and the use of drugs and alcohol.
I was lucky—the adults in my life, for the most part, took my feelings seriously. But, even so, I internalized the message from greater society that teenagers’ moods don’t matter because they’ll “grow out of it someday.” This attitude ignores reality, and prevents people like me from getting the help they deserve.