July 21, 2019

Mental illness grows among young adults

Young adults with diagnosed mental illnesses increased by 46 percent according to a new study by the American Psychological Association.

Jeremiah Palko never knows when it will hit him. The crushing pain in his chest, the sudden panic that washes over him. Palko describes his anxiety as nothing other than chaos.

Nineteen-year-old Palko is among a growing group of young adults with diagnosed mental illnesses. Their numbers increased by 46 percent from 2008 to 2017, according to a study from The American Psychological Association (APA) published in March.

Some days are better than others, Palko said. His anxiety can spring up on him in any situation: school, work, birthday parties. He’ll feel good, but then his thoughts wander to where he doesn’t want them to go.

Palko said his depression feels like an inescapable, dark pit.

Graphic by Rachel Regan

“I feel like I have weights on me,” Palko said. “It feels like I’m clawing my way out. It hurts. You know those horror movie scenes when people keep clawing and clawing and their nails are bleeding? It kind of feels like that sometimes.”  

Patrick Stack worked for 31 years in the counseling and life development office at Webster University.

Stack said he doesn’t believe mental illness has become more prevalent among young adults. Rather, he feels students of college age and younger are less fazed by stigmas on mental health diagnoses.

“I believe that the younger generation has done a great service for the world,” Stack said. “They’re not making a distinction between physical health and emotional health.”

Webster freshman Ellie Spinney attributes the surge in young adults with mental illnesses to increased awareness.

Spinney, 18, was diagnosed with chronic depression when she was 13 and attention deficit disorder (ADD) at 10 years old.  

“I definitely think it’s less silenced,” Spinney said. “There used to be a negative stigma around it, but nowadays it’s not just all in our heads.”

The counseling profession attracted Stack during his 20s when he decided to see a therapist.

Ryan Liberati, an assistant professor of professional counseling at Webster, became interested in counseling after he sought professional help.

“In my first couple years of college, I got some help for my own anxiety and my own kind of stress and it helped me at the time,” Liberati said.

Stack said he’s never been diagnosed with a mental illness. A depression or anxiety diagnosis doesn’t mean someone is mentally ill according to Stack. He defined mental illness as someone’s brain not working correctly due to physiological or emotional issues that cause an ongoing problem.

Most people who experience depression have dysthymia, or reactional/situational depression. There’s a far larger amount of people who experience dysthymia than biological depression, Stack said. These people feel depressed due to certain outside causes, not because of something wrong with their body.

Liberati said depression slows everything down and delays reactions in the brain. A depressed person processes decisions slower, has trouble with focusing and memory.

The APA defines depression as a serious medical illness that negatively affects how one feels, thinks and acts.

Graphic by Rachel Regan

Stack said depression can be treated with talk therapy, or in the case of biological depression, psychotropic medicine.

Spinney takes antidepressants every night.

“When I run out of a prescription, it gets really bad,” Spinney said.

The greatest help with her depression is medication, Spinney said. Although, sometimes she has to let the darkness pass. Some days the depression is easier to get rid of. Other days she, “just has to feel bad.”

“I just kind of spiral,” Spinney said. “I feel like a sponge that’s absorbed a lot of heavy paint.”

On her worst days, the depression consumes her thoughts. Her brain feels gray when she hits her lowest point. Her vision blurs and all she can hear is static.

“I can’t not think about sad things,” Spinney said. “I think about it over and over and over again.”

Liberati said the first step to counseling depression is to identify what causes the sadness.

I’m helping them realize what’s causing their stress or sadness, and then helping them address that,” Liberati said.

In high school, Spinney struggled with an impulse-control disorder that caused her to pull out her hair.

She said her disorder plagued her the most during her sophomore year of high school. Her sister moved away and her schoolmates bullied her in school.

The bald spots became harder to hide.

Spinney said she doesn’t pull her hair out as often as she did in high school, but now her biggest enemy is her chronic depression

Stack said technology may play a role in a person’s well being.

“There’s an irony I think is happening in the world,” Stack said. “Technology has allowed us to become more connected with one another, but at the same time, it’s caused a distance.”

The APA’s  study found the greatest spike in diagnosed mental illness occurred in 2011, around the same time social media gained in popularity. This suggested the increased use of digital media affected the amount of mood disorders and suicide-related issues.

From 2007 to 2015, the number of children admitted to the emergency room for suicidal attempts doubled according to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Researchers sampled 300,000 ER visits from children ages five to 18

Liberati said technology poses one of many new stressors to young adults.

“There’s a lot more going on in the world that’s stressful and upsetting,” Liberati said. “There’s a lot more pressure now to succeed and to do something and to make something of yourself.”

Webster sophomore Alaska Schrum said she felt suicidal impulses at 12, the same year her doctors diagnosed her with depression and anxiety.

Schrum said she thought social media played a role in mental illness.

People who spend more time on social media and less time with others face-to-face lower their well-being according to the APA’s study.

“Not to sound like an old man who hates technology, but when you’re scrolling through Instagram and see all your friends are there and you’re not, it makes you feel left out,” Schrum said. “I think a lot of young people feel lonely and less connected.”

The therapy Schrum received helped her, but she later regressed and cut her arms at age 13.

“It’s really hard to explain why someone would cut themself,” Schrum said. “You just get in this frame of mind where you feel like you need a physical pain to make an emotional pain go away, or to make it noticeable to other people so they’ll understand.”

Schrum’s scars healed but her mind didn’t mend completely, she said.

She said she believes she’ll never relapse back to the self harm she did at 13. However, she doesn’t feel released from the weight of mental illness.

Graphic by Rachel Regan

“It also feels like every day I’m walking through water and everyone else is not,” Schrum said. “Sometimes when I feel alone, even if I’m surrounded by a group of people or I’m thinking about something a lot, it starts to feel overwhelming. I’ve got no one.”

Schrum said her anxiety alleviates when she talks to her mom. Loneliness brings in “the bad thoughts.”

“She helps me because I know that I have someone who I can talk to if I’m feeling lonely,” Schrum said. “At the same time, I can’t get super deep with her about my mental illness because she doesn’t really understand it.”

Palko’s mom didn’t believe in his mental illness. His mom told him he was being dramatic or over emotional, Palko said.

When Palko was 18 years old, he went to the doctor for his depression. He told the doctor about the pit and the doctor started him on medication.

Stack said anyone who feels like they have anxiety or depression should talk to a professional licensed therapist. He said therapy helped him with his struggles.

Webster’s Student Counseling and Life Development office on Garden Avenue offers free counseling sessions for emergencies or by appointment. Their page can be found on webster.edu/student-counseling.

Despite the misery her mental illness brought her, Schrum said her depression and anxiety formed her identity in some positive ways.

“It shaped who I am a lot, because I think that it made me a stronger and more resilient person,” Schrum said. “I think that it also made me a kinder person because I think when someone does something, well maybe there’s something going on that’s making them act this way.”

Schrum advises people to go and talk to someone if they struggle with mental health.

“They should reach out to a professional and get help,” Schrum said. “They shouldn’t assume that it’s always going to be bad because there’s no way you could ever know that.”

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