One thousand words later, my keyboard was soaked in tears as I finished writing out the details of How Chris and I Broke Up. He’d sent a “Dear Jane” letter from boot camp to tell me that he was proposing to someone else. As an 18-year-old with severe depression, I was already having trouble coping with my first year of college. Now, the person to whom I’d lost my virginity was dumping me via a hastily scrawled letter.
We’d previously broken up after high school graduation, when he said he was enlisting. I didn’t think a long-distance relationship would work. During the few months between that emotional night and his departure for Texas, he’d hooked up with a girl named Shasta, like the soda. On my birthday, she called me to demand that I “stay away from her man.” I later learned that she was hitting him.
Just before he left for boot camp, he called and said he wanted us to get back together. We’d make it work, we agreed. And so we began a letter-writing campaign that shifted from adorable professions of love to the one that I stared at in shock as I read the name of his intended.
I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder at the age of 12 and endured an intense treatment program that helped get my life back on track. Yet my compulsive hand-washing and crippling germophobia gave way to panic attacks, extreme fatigue, and general malaise. A psychologist diagnosed me with general depression. As I entered my freshman year of college, I was suffering on a daily basis.
The Dear Jane letter sent me into deep despair, exacerbated by my condition. I quickly forgot what joy felt like, and I desperately sought relief from my psychologist. The occasional one-hour sessions didn’t cut it, so I poured my heart out on an Internet forum dedicated to people suffering from depression, hoping for advice, comfort, offers to hex Chris, any of it. And in response, I received:
“You kids always think it’s the end of the world, but it’s not.”
“Once you’re older and more mature, you’ll realize that this is no big deal.”
“You’re too young to be in pain. Just enjoy your youth while you have it.”
Random people on the Internet weren’t the only ones dismissive of my pain. Even the ostensible experts in mental health seemed reluctant to admit I actually had a problem. Were I in my 30s, getting a letter saying that my boyfriend was proposing to someone else would be occasion for sympathy, but because I was young, I was met with smiling, shaking heads and murmurs of “Oh my sweet summer child, when you’re older you won’t care.” No one seemed to care that the letter had triggered a medical condition: severe depression. I bounced among psychiatrists who were eager to hand out drugs, but only with a slight shake of their head and tiny smile, as though they were humoring me. “This sounds like normal teen stress, but I’ll give you something to take the edge off,” one said, admitting that they were medicating me despite not believing I had any condition that warranted pharmaceuticals.
Although people with invisible disabilities, which includes mental illness, often experience skepticism, condescension, or outright disbelief at our claims of pain, young people have it especially bad.
I’ve had multiple doctors laugh when I list out my symptoms and tell them what I’ve already been diagnosed with. ‘You’re too young to be that sick’, is usually what they say. Then I say, if I’m too young to be that sick then why do babies get cancer?
— Niffler9, Reddit
Customer: “Young lady, what are you doing sitting on the job?”
Me: “I’m in a wheelchair.”
Customer: “Why? Were you texting behind the wheel or something?”
Me: “I — ”
Customer: “Don’t give me that crap. I know how your generation is. My son’s in prison, and I guess people these days don’t know how to raise kids.”
(The customer rants some more about how millennials don’t take responsibility for their actions and how her son is a good boy.)
Me: “I have cerebral palsy.”
— Anonymous submission, NotAlwaysRight.com
I was diagnosed with IBS when I was 12 years old and high school was an absolute nightmare with it. People think it’s just diarrhoea but it’s honestly so much more. So many different things trigger it too, for me it’s mainly anxiety. When I’m anxious I get crippling stomach pains that can make me bed bound as well as; diarrhoea, feeling nauseous, cramps and my stomach makes embarrassing gurgling noises that sounds like farts.
One particularly bad day I went to the assistant principle [sic] as he was the only member of staff (on shift) who could send kids home. I begged with him that I was poorly and needed to go home and he told me “you don’t look ill”. I tried explaining you can’t physically see IBS. He wasn’t having it and called me a “liar”. I ran out crying and was bright red in the face from explaining it to him.
— omoseenya, Reddit
When young people have mental health issues, the dismissal of their concerns and pain combines with an unfortunate, and unwarranted, attitude that they’re not experiencing “real” problems. Even medical professionals are quick to assume that unpopularity, social anxiety, or simply immaturity are the reasons, rather than a serotonin balance.
Psychiatrist: *shaking my hand* “So, how old are you?”
Me: “I’m turning 20 next month.”
Psychiatrist: *laughs* “20? You’re far too young to have any problems! Why are you even here?”
Me: “Young or not, I actually do have a lot of symptoms I’m worried about.”
(I hand her a list I’d made of symptoms I’d been struggling with, including some rather severe ones. She sets it aside after barely glancing at it.)
Psychiatrist: “Why don’t you just tell me about yourself? Do you have a boyfriend?”
Me: “Um… no, I don’t?”
Psychiatrist: “Why don’t we talk about that. It might be causing some of your ‘issues.’”
It was only downhill from there. She dismissed all my symptoms, including my suicidal ideation and dissociation, as nothing more than school stress or lacking a boyfriend.
— Anonymous, NotAlwaysRight.com
[The tech] asked me what I took the medication for so she could write it down, so I told her I take it for depression and anxiety. Her response was one that I think about often, that I wish I would have had some great come back for, but was left speechless.
“You’re too young to have depression!”
— Paige, The Mighty
I am 11 years old. My dad committed suicide when I was 8. As he was a stay-at-home dad, I had so much experience with playing with him and talking in general. I haven’t really talked to many people or made relationships with anyone following that event. Seemingly every week some adult is telling me that I’m too young to be depressed, like damn when did they make an age cap.
— boeys, Reddit
When I approached my school counselor in tears about the smear campaign that my former best friend ran against me, she responded that she had “students with actual problems to deal with.” She ignored my concerns about my critically low self-esteem and severe depression. She ignored the warning signs that I was a young person at risk of suicide. To her, bullying wasn’t an “actual” problem.
During my research on bullying, I noticed an alarming trend as I spoke with parents, teachers, and principals: the attitude that bullying was just part of school, just “kids being kids.” I’ve heard the little chuckles as adults recall how one of their students was “just so upset” that they were being cyberbullied, or how “kids these days are so sensitive.” Even if that’s the case, that’s no reason to refuse help to kids who are in pain. Occasionally, adults have had to face the facts that bullying can be deadly. Fact is, bullying is a crime in most states, and longitudinal studies have shown a verifiable link between being bullied and poor mental health. It doesn’t matter if the bullying occurs in a way that you find silly.
The attitude that people under a certain age are “immature” stems from the cultural perception that children are not fully formed. Biologically, there’s something to be said for this: children’s skeletons are still growing, their hormonal levels are fluctuating, and their brains are undergoing myelination, which helps synapses fire faster. However, there is no biological basis for maturity; rather, as anthropologist Barbara Rogoff notes in her book The Cultural Nature of Human Development, maturity is defined and prioritized differently in every society. In many Western societies, a combination of intellectual ability and social skills are usually taken as signs of being “grown up,” and yet we slap an arbitrary age (usually 17 or 18) on the dividing line between youth and adult, and with it a promise of whether or not we’ll consider their concerns worthy.
Even then, as the endless rage against millennials demonstrates, young people are mocked as sensitive, frivolous, and self-absorbed. It’s hard to know at what age our concerns will be taken seriously. In my experience, once I got out of college, my visits with mental health professionals went better, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago, in my early 30s, that I was finally properly diagnosed and got doctors who listened to me rather than dismissing my problems as “stress” or “being young.”
Looking back on my teens and twenties and seeing how people my age feel qualified to comment on the validity of young people’s pain, I realize that not much has changed since I struggled to have my concerns heard.
Many (young) people are self-diagnosing their unwillingness to cope with life as depression, then use their “depression” as an excuse to continue being lazy. From there, it’s easier for them to become actually depressed as their life falls apart from years of not trying.
— BIG_IDEA, Reddit
I understand the cognitive dissonance: we don’t want to believe that our precious, innocent youth are suffering. And it’s easy to chalk their pain up to immaturity. On occasion, their concerns seem frivolous, but even if we don’t understand why something is a big deal, we do our youth a massive disservice if we simply laugh it off. And if the young person is suicidal, we enable their death by dismissing their pain.
It’s been 15 years since Chris sent that letter, and I have yet to think of it as anything except an awful thing to do. Should my daughter — or anyone I know — ever receive a letter like that, I would be heartbroken for her and not scoff at her pain. Who am I to assume that I know how someone else feels? If it feels like the end of the world, it could become the end of the world for someone struggling with suicidal ideation.
When we categorize and rank others’ pain according to arbitrary standards, we miss out on an important opportunity to demonstrate compassion or effectively intervene in a dangerous situation. And we prove that we’re selfishly involved with our own alleged maturity, which we fallaciously attribute to our sheer dumb luck of having made it to age 30. And that, ironically, is a sign of immaturity. Being able to demonstrate emotional intelligence and compassion for others is the hallmark of maturity in many cultures, says Rogoff. If you were fortunate enough to never have experienced heartbreak or depression, or any debilitating illness that caused suffering, it still falls upon you to empathize with other people. No matter how “young” they are.
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Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in anthropology from the University of Florida, where she studied the relationships among media, culture, and bullying.