Guest Opinion: Unmasking the truth: Beyond the stigma of mental illness | March 18, 2016 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 18, 2016

Guest Opinion: Unmasking the truth: Beyond the stigma of mental illness

by a Palo Alto high school student

When I was first diagnosed with depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I was 12 years old. At first, I thought my episodes of panic were simply a part of puberty. Shortness of breath, blurry vision, nausea and the overall feeling of overwhelming anxiety are just a few of the symptoms I experienced during regular panic attacks.

This story contains 992 words.

Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.

If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.

Log in     Subscribe


Posted by Sarah1000
a resident of Los Altos
on Mar 18, 2016 at 1:44 pm

I am honored to be the first to comment. Thank you SO much for sharing your story so that others might seek help. Sending you love and strength.

Posted by Donna
a resident of Los Altos
on Mar 18, 2016 at 2:39 pm

We need more kids stepping up to tell their story, anonymous or not. This is the only way both the students and their families will find the way to cope. We need empathetic community support. Thank you for stepping up and continuing this important dialogue.

Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 18, 2016 at 2:54 pm

March 18

Dear Writer (and Fellow Onliners),

Yes, yes, YES, to the last sentence: this column WILL nourish the entire community.

The way you've communicated how lonely depression and anxiety can be is remarkable. So is the steadfast way you've fought this lonely battle day after day--in terrible isolation, but unrelentingly.

And now, making a gift of your struggle (and your writing ability) to all of Palo Alto--to parents, educators, therapists, but even more importantly to your peers, and most importantly of all to those peers who've been locked in the same "solitary confinement" as you--is something that I hope will give you a quiet inner glow and feeling of pride and accomplishment for days and weeks and months to come.

How courageous you are!


Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)
Campaign Coordinator
Save the 2,008 -- creating a more hopeful life for Palo Alto's high-schoolers

Posted by Trudy
a resident of Los Altos
on Mar 18, 2016 at 3:21 pm

Thank you so much for sharing your story. You are helping others so they don't feel alone. You are so brave. I wish you the very best!

Posted by patty
a resident of Los Altos
on Mar 18, 2016 at 3:24 pm

Recognition and the sharing of your depression are 2 huge steps in a healthy direction. You are a courageous one! You are doing the good work for yourself while helping others suffering from similar symptoms. I hope these connections within your support network will help to lift you up.

Posted by Ellen Wheeler
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 18, 2016 at 3:33 pm

THANK YOU for your bravery and unselfishness in sharing your personal story. You did a great service today. Many others will benefit from your post.

Posted by Grateful
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 18, 2016 at 4:13 pm

I don't know where to start and the only reasonable place is to say thank you and congratulations on expressing such clarity about a common and difficult challenge.

Not sure how you are able to communicate your thoughts and experiences to well but you have a gift.

Your expressive nature with touch anyone within reach of this article and it deserves to go viral. All of us have friends and family with some level of anxiety or depression. It's a gift that you took the time and thoughtful way of addressing this treatable issue.

Since most people May not take the time to comment, let me assure you that you have positively affected numbers of people of every age group

Wishing you all the best !

Posted by Been There
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 18, 2016 at 5:17 pm

Dear Guest Opinion Writer, please consider checking for Bipolar. I am Bipolar and like you it showed up first in high school Most bipolar patients are not misdiagnosed for about 10 years. Some bipolar, like mine, switches between depressed and anxious. Bummer, I don't get that manic high, I get anxious instead. Lucky me. Now, with an excellent psychiatrist, I'm fine. A misdiagnosis of depressed instead of bipolar caused them to give me the wrong drugs, making things worse, not better. Consider asking your parents to do a bipolar screening with Po Wang, he's at Stanford, but also in private practice. Just throwing that out there.

Posted by Mary K
a resident of another community
on Mar 18, 2016 at 6:07 pm

Community: Pleasanton-East Bay
Yes thank you for sharing your personal story! I agree too your story should go viral. So many no matter how young or how old suffer from this illness. A courageous and brave person, as yourself, just made a huge difference! I feel deep in my heart you have the desire and you will conquer this disease. With your intelligence and demeanor I too strongly believe you will be a leader in this era and will continue to change the lives of many by giving them hope and knowing they are not alone. May God continue to watch over you!

Posted by Greatgrandma Marietta
a resident of another community
on Mar 18, 2016 at 8:57 pm

Thank you for your helpful message to encourage others. You are not alone, and I appreciate your concern in reaching out to all of us! Hugs sent.

Posted by Ian Rice
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 18, 2016 at 11:05 pm

That's my girl! Love this girl

Posted by Harold A. Maio
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 19, 2016 at 7:40 am

----Because of the stigma around mental illness

Is not quite accurate, this is:

----Because I believed in the stigma around mental illnesses...

The belief has to be taught. Rape/stigma was taught for generations until the Women's Movement told us to stop.

Editors need to get beyond the belief.

Posted by Tiffany
a resident of another community
on Mar 19, 2016 at 10:04 am

Your story is so touching. The summation "we do not need to celebrate mental illness but we do not need to be ashamed of it either" really struck a chord with me. Sending you thanks and reassurance that you are not alone, that there are adults listening and working to change the perceptions we have and the society that informs and reinforces them.

Posted by Susan Bird
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 19, 2016 at 11:37 am

I am so proud of you for sharing and helping to lead the charge in changing the mental health Stigma !! What a great example you are for so many others. Your story is so touching and your willingness to share is so inspiring.

Posted by Stanford Prof
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 20, 2016 at 12:14 pm

You are not alone. I completely understand the sense of isolation and hopelessness you've felt as I stood in similar shoes many years ago when I was in HS. Fortunately, you have the strong support of your parents and what sounds like excellent psychiatric care, both of which I lacked at your age. Please be aware that you may need to take antidepressant medication for the foreseeable future as major depression is a chronic disease (much like diabetes) and those of us who have our first bout in adolescence are at a high risk for subsequent episodes unless stabilized with medication.

Posted by Jennifer Allen
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 20, 2016 at 10:58 pm

THANK YOU for sharing your story! Change starts with one voice. Everyone has a story. Your honesty and openess to share yours helps with lessening the stigma of mental health issues in our communities. Best wishes to you on your journey!

Posted by For understanding
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 20, 2016 at 11:47 pm

Thank you for your touching essay. You are not alone, and you have surely helped others through your courage and wonderful writing. You really speak truth that needs to be aired more.

I think the stigma of mental illness will remain as long as there is so much ignorance and dismissiveness/stigma/patronizing in/from the medical profession over any chronic illness involving fatigue and other chronic symptoms like pain. I'm not saying there aren't wonderful doctors, but medicine as a whole does not have a good handle on fatigue-dominated chronic illness, and in practice there is still a lot of unhelpful, or even ignorant and harmful behaviors and practices. Worse, the medical profession as a whole really has no appreciation or inkling of the problem.

There really is no major knowledge set when it comes to chronic illness - deep understanding of what daily life is like, what are the health and life challenges and crises. Most doctors really have no idea of what chronic illness is in real life for patients because the education is hospital-based, and patients with these kinds of chronic symptoms who intersect with the medical education or practice are often viewed through a degrading lens. People are regularly labeled as mentally ill in degrading ways as a kind of trash can when their symptoms are not seen as deserving of being taken seriously. It's very difficult for anyone WITH mental illness to then be taken seriously and get help with dignity. I've seen studies that people with mental illness have a lot of trouble getting proper diagnosis and treatment for physical illness relative to the general public, and that people with chronic physical health problems - which often causes depression - equally have difficulty being treated with dignity or getting appropriate mental health care.

I really think blowing away the stigma of mental illness will happen when the medical profession brings their understanding of chronic illness of all kinds into the 21st century and out of the dark ages (or, perhaps more precisely, the Victorean era - and it begins with even recognizing that). How can the general public be expected to understand when there is still so much uninformed, degrading subtext among physicians?

I nevertheless have a great deal of hope in medical breakthroughs for diseases impacting the brain in the coming years. I hope the science makes the need for a sea change in attitude moot.

Posted by MidtownMom
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 21, 2016 at 6:34 am

Parents and grandparents of the next generation, have an opportunity to make our children understand that there should not be a stigma against mental illness. I grew up in an environment where any kind of mental illness ( depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia ) were lumped into a single bucket. It was kept hush hush and every attempt was made to keep it away from even the neighbor knowing about it ..

Mental illness is like any other illness. People don't hide diabetes. Friends and family, support the dietary restrictions of a diabetic and similarly friends and family support the physical limitation of a kid / person with a disability. Mental illness needs to fall in the same category - it needs to be supported by the society ! In most cases, its treated like any other illness - with medication. Like any other illnesses, it needs support from friends and family. Hopefully, due to all the awareness begin raised, the next generations will no longer have a stigma against it

Posted by For Understanding
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 21, 2016 at 8:07 am

@Midtown Mom,
I agree that support is so important. Unfortunately, the situation with most chronic illness is not one of support. There is a phenomenon for physical illness, too, called "passing" in which people try to cover what their real life is really like, and pretend they are far more well than in reality. You can never really be yourself because of all the stigma and judgmental attitudes, even among people who think they are nice, and it's hard work to keep up the pretense. (For many of us that was the metaphor of the movie Frozen - when that song Let It Go came on, I sat there in uncontrollable - silent - weeping in the theater. I later saw an interview with John Lasseter in which he said in creating Frozen, he realized with that song that it was about his son with diabetes.)

Our schools really don't support kids with physical illness. Thinking in particular of a kid with kidney disease and attention issues, the school was really unwilling to do simple things that were necessary for the kid's safety, like just work overt water breaks into the kid's schedule. Asthma and allergies are really common, too, and yet many teachers not only don't support the students, they express an opinion about kids with symptoms akin to the stigma this essay hopes to dispel. They might seem sympathetic to a few pets, but in general, the stigma amplifies other poor attitudes. There was an article about how terrible our district was for a kid who had Crohn's awhile back - that's pretty much the case for anyone I know whose kids have needed accommodations even now.

It gets back to the point I mentioned before: people with chronic illness of any kind are painted with that same stigma, because of what amounts to ignorance and antiquated understanding of those illnesses as - for lack of a better way to express it (attempting to express both the ignorance about real life with those conditions AND stigma against mental illness) - mostly in people's heads. That goes for the medical profession, from almost an utter lack of understanding any diseases involving fatigue, etc,, it's like an almost total void in the knowledge set because of the focus of the medical education. In some ways it's even worse, because someone with such symptoms might be told they are depressed yet not given proper help for depression either, the stigma is pretty strong.

Even people with very obvious physical disability still face pretty major discrimination and stigma, too, though. Things are better today than before, but our society still has a long way to go. Articles like this one are true lights in the darkness. Thanks again to the writer for sharing.

Posted by Robin
a resident of another community
on Mar 21, 2016 at 2:07 pm

This article hit so close to home. Thank you for sharing your story. I hope that it inspires others, as it has for me, to not be ashamed of speaking out about mental health. Mental health is just as important as physical health.

Posted by crescent park
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 22, 2016 at 10:32 am

You are not alone. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

Posted by Lauren John
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 22, 2016 at 10:41 am

I hope that your posting and the community response to it has been healing for you. Your post was healing for me--so thank you. You appear to have talent as a writer, and I hope that you develop it in the years to come. Hiding who you are and what you feel increases anxiety whether you are depressed or gay or perceive yourself or are perceived by others to be different in anyway. I have certainly felt this in the course of 58 years, but things improved with time and open-ness and finding a loving community. So so glad that you got a response from Gunn High School where this message really needs to be heard.

Posted by IronEagle
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Mar 22, 2016 at 11:03 am

I had depression and anxiety and inferiority complexes while growing up. My family went through 2 divorces. I was one of the smallest shortest boys every year in school and got teased alot to. I always felt different. I would sometimes run out of classrooms overwhelmed. I had a little counseling but I didnt want to go that route, I was stubborn and kept keeping on and dealing with it on my own (using the wrong remedies). After high school i got into drinking/drugs, got 3 DUI's, and some 'accidental' pregnancies. After an almost fatal motorcycle accident/third DUI, I heard a different voice in my head. This one I believe, was God. The Judge told me to go to AA, I met a sponsor, in addition to working the steps of AA with him, he invited me to church. PBC in Palo ALto. I felt different there, and the people were different. I would cry uncontrollably in the back at first. I knew it was real. 14 years later I have three beautiful kids, and my anxiety and depression and 'felling differentness', have little or no effect in my life. I have a relationship with Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit he promised with belief in him has changed and strengthened me. I have no doubt of this. I feel like I have armor on, and I am worthy. Now, instead of being self-absorbed and trying to 'fix' myself because of my feelings/voices in my head (lies), I do anything I can at any time to help other people.

Posted by Support
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 22, 2016 at 11:35 am

There is an fabulous organization called Erika's Lighthouse that originated in an affluent Chicago suburb and their mantra is "Get depression out of the darkness". They have many programs/support groups etc for teenagers (in schools) and have made huge strides in destigmatizing teen depression. Check out their website - maybe you can get some of their programs started in this area.

Posted by Son's story
a resident of another community
on Mar 22, 2016 at 12:00 pm

My son was diagnosed with early onset schizophrenia at age 12. It was then that we went into "hiding"--his medication, his prognosis, his behavior from family, friends, and of course the school community. While I became an advocate for mental health, I could not reveal why. He is the one who has to live with this disease and it is not for me to share or reveal the illness. I know he will be pre-judged and possibly "feared" by those who don't know anything about this illness and the range of behaviors that are possible. Fortunately he is very hi functioning but he still has to hide his mental illness even from many doctors--if the diagnosis is in his chart, they don't believe anything he tells them about any other type of issue.

So, it is very important that you told "your story" because you live with this every day and you can control how and when to talk openly about it.

Posted by Caroline V.
a resident of Portola Valley
on Mar 22, 2016 at 12:26 pm

Caroline V. is a registered user.

Thank you for starting this conversation....I would like to continue your conversation. Please keep in mind that depression and anxiety are a characteristic of how you feel. Depression and anxiety only become a medical condition and is referred to as a mental illness after the symptoms meet certain criteria, which have to be diagnosed by a certified healthcare professional with the proper expertise. I am happy to hear that you the current medication and treatment with several doctors is helping you. It is important to keep expressing your feelings because sharing your feelings is an important part of the healing process, As you might already know, it is not always easy to express such feelings with words. Once you can it is very deliberating because only then other people might start to understand how you actually feel. As you said it so well in your article - everyone's experience is unique ....
Depression and anxiety are complex because they can have a genetic component, an emotional component, or even triggered by a serious of events and unresolved issues that lead to a state of emotional imbalance. It is very important to try to find out what caused you to feel depressed and/or anxious.
I became depressed and had anxiety attacks because I was subjected to academic and workplace "mobbing". Mobbing is group bullying starting with one person harassing you, humiliating you in public, and spreading rumors that are not true. That person then recruits others to harass, to intimidate, to humiliate you even more this time by a group of people. They will go as far as writing defamatory statements that are false and unsubstantiated. Mobbing causes severe emotional distress and if not stopped will cause psychological, physiological, and even physical side effects. Mobbing will cause depression, post traumatic stress and will even lead to suicide if not stopped. Mobbing is group bullying used intentionally and over time with the ultimate goal to push someone out of the group because you do not fit within the group norm. Yes it is happening in our schools and it is not only promoted by students. My experience of mobbing was promoted by faculty, staff and administrators at San Jose State and the CSU administration in collaboration with healthcare providers in Bay Area hospitals settings. Mobbing is now wide spread in education, healthcare settings, non-profit organizations and even among government jobs, but nobody knows what mobbing is and our administration is covering it up with the help of law enforcement, elected and appointed officials, so abusive people get away with it.
It is important to emphasize our crisis in mental health, but it is even more important to find out what is causing our mental health issues. California laws prohibit bullying,harassment, intimidation, discrimination, sexual assault, and retaliation. Our schools are required to report this type of misconduct in order to receive funding, but instead they cover it up. We have a mental health crisis in the Bay Area. It is complex and we have been talking about it for a long time. It is time we take action. It is time we start with our schools and stop those who intentionally harm our feelings, intentionally harm our lives, and intentionally cause depression and trigger anxiety.
Thank you again for starting the conversation. Best wishes during your recovery. I hope your doctors will cure your depression and anxiety, and please do not forget...keep expressing your feelings - We are human. We need to express our feelings in good and bad times.

Posted by Kay
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 22, 2016 at 3:00 pm

Thank you for telling your story. Friday, 3/18 was the day I sent my son off to an intervention out of state. As a mother of a son in middle school going through similar experiences to what you described, I am saving your guess opinion and passing it on to people involved with my son. It is hard to capture what anxiety disorder with depression actually looks and feels like. At school, the "mask" that you wore makes it very hard to really understand what is going on. As a parent, I still don't completely "get it" but am seeking out help for my son. I am very curious what boarding school you went to and if you think it helped. Also, was the school district PAUSD equipped to offer the right kinds of services or did you get lumped together with kids with other disabilities? Was there group therapy with similar anxiety disorder kids? Was it difficult to get an IEP? How long did that take? As you can tell by my questions we are following the same type of path you described. Nevertheless, I am relieved to hear that you are feeling happier in your life now. Best of luck to you!!

Posted by friend of Palo Alto
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 27, 2016 at 7:06 am

Thank you for sharing your story. The first step to fixing a problem is to admit there is a problem. It is even better to share with others so that more options can be considered or suggested. You communicate very well. That is no surprise since you have attended some of the best schools in the country.
When I worked at Jordan, I recognized that the students were more mature and intelligent than many adults, including myself.
The students addressed and confronted the issue and reality of bullying by taking action and speaking up for those who were being picked on.
In the same manner, I believe more students will step up and communicate their thoughts and feelings because you were brave enough to do so.
Teachers and other professionals can help by thinking of strategies to help those with mental issues, but I think the best way is for students to support and encourage their peers.
So thank you for sharing and for caring. Know that the community and many others truly care about you and others who struggle with mental issues. This is not a nice world, so we could all use more caring and encouragement.

Posted by Whole child
a resident of another community
on Apr 6, 2016 at 4:56 pm

"Today, one in four teens suffers from some form of a mental illness, so I'm clearly not alone"

Another significant portion of our teens suffer from family dysfunction such as emotional or physical abuse, financial stress and more. My family falls in this second bucket.

My plea is for schools, administrators and teachers to acknowledge that mental illness and family problems are COMMON in the human condition, in Palo Alto, as much as in other high achieving AND less achieving schools.

With that in mind, we are setting up probably half the kids to fail, or at least feel like failures, with the stress and huge expectations that are put on them.
Homework loads of 3-4 hours a night?
Many APs, sports, clubs and volunteering all at once?
No time for chores, sleep, self-care and family time?

All kids are individuals, and yet the schools are driving to produce a factory product of high-achieving college applicants, without any recognition and support for the whole child.

Posted by For understanding
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 7, 2016 at 9:35 am

@Whole child,

You bring up a really important point, which is that children are part of families, and families have needs and lives, and that school has a significant impact on those lives. One thing I found is that the attitude of the schools here places huge burdens on entire families, not just kids in isolation - that the time after school was not the sacrosanct domain of the child and the family, but instead to be available first for school demands. It's not just hours and hours of homework, but the regular and unpredictable demands placed on family time. If there are dysfunctions of any kind, or burdens the parents and children are dealing with - illness, illness in the family, personal loss, financial or work pressures - having control of their own lives, time, and mental focus is essential for dealing with those pressures. Those things are normal parts of life, and never having any breathing space from the demands of school can make it impossible to deal with them in a healthy way.

The irony is that the school district seems to think that the answer is to dumb down school, while still doing nothing about the unpredictable intrusion of school busywork into home life. Decades ago, homework was the way schools made up a bad education in school to the smarter kids, but today the case for homework at all is falling apart. I can think of no studies that look at the impact on the whole child and the lost opportunities of families and children who have no control of their limited time after school, only studies narrowly looking at things like whether certain kinds of test scores are marginally better when there is homework. (Better for the school, but at what cost to the child and the family?) There was a story about an AP science teacher at Gunn who found the students actually did just as well on their AP tests and were more engaged when he stopped giving homework. But no one listens to that because they don't have to.

In our own situation, we felt we could not be open with schools about real life pressures because they either did not care or would use it as an opportunity to put more pressure out of personal pettiness, meanness, or for their own purposes like leveraging a result in a special ed situation. (It happened, I am not speculating.) People in the district can be very ruthless about pushing on parents regardless of what families are going through if the district people want something their way or look down on the parents or the kids. There really is no refuge for families from that.

Maybe helping dispel the stigma and providing support means we have to create some kind of balancing advocate for children, answerable to the community or the families only, and not under control of district politics or so intimate with the district people as the board. A place where the author of this essay could bring it and know someone who truly cares would respond with real help to change things.

I wish you the best with your family. If only there were family supports, too, because as you so beautifully pointed out, children are a part of families and the world. You seem to have a healthy outlook about the imperfections of life, though, I hope you are able to get your point across to make your own and others' lives better.

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox.