She sat cross-legged on the flooring, blocking the doorway. “I’m not moving until you promise me that you will call them.”
The flyer for the teen mental health resource center felt heavy in my hands as I methodically processed the questions bombarding my mind:
“Why had she given me this flyer?” I knew the answer to that. She cared about her students. She taught us how to sing together, but more importantly she taught us to look out for each other, to care for each other. My teacher wanted me to get the help I needed— apparently so much so that she was willing to block my path of escape until I agreed to call this mental health hotline.
“Why had I confessed to my class about my struggle with cutting?” The answer to that question was also easy. Though internally I wanted to tear myself apart for the “stupidity” of sharing my secret with my classmates in the women’s choir, I knew my confession was motivated by the hope that I could change the trajectory of my life. I wanted to find a way out of depression more than I wanted to keep hiding my compulsive self-injury. I wanted an end to secrets, an end to shame. I wanted my classmates to look me in the eye and accept me for who I was, not for girl who I pretended to be.
“What am I going to do now?” That was the question for which there wasn’t an easy answer.
My hands were sweating now as tried to figure out how to make my case. I knew that although the mental health screening was being offered as a free resource; the visits to the doctor’s office, the medications, and the counseling needed to treat my depression would be expensive. I did not think I was worth it. I did not want to be a burden to my parents.
I began to mentally berate myself, “If only you weren’t so selfish Sarah, you could stop cutting yourself on your own. You could stop feeling depressed and focus on helping your family.”
“Sarah,” my teacher called my name— mercifully interrupting the internal cacophony of my self-loathing, “I am not moving until you agree to call the mental health resource line. Just give them a call. See what they have to say.”
I trembled and my eyes filled with tears as I nodded, “Okay. I will. I promise.”
“Okay then,” she said and I could see sadness in her eyes as well, “Let me know how you are tomorrow. I believe in you. You are going to make it through this. You need to get treatment.”
“I know,” I said my voice wavering. I felt tired– too tired to protest that I was not worth the inevitable expense involved with treatment. So I left having resolved to keep my promise to the one person who cared enough to confront me with the truth.
14 years later I still think about that day my teacher intervened for my mental health. The trajectory of my life at 16 was bleak and all the obstacles that I predicted in accessing mental health care did come to pass. It was expensive and mental illness continued to be viewed by my family as (at least partially) a moral failure, but I did not want to break my promise to my teacher.
The very fact that she had cared enough to take the time to talk with me after class chipped a hole in this lie that I had come to believe. I had believed I wasn’t worth anyone’s time or effort– especially now that I was covered in scars, but my teacher’s actions said to me —“I still think you are worth it Sarah.” It mattered to me that my teacher took the time to talk to me about mental health and that she believed I could get better. Even though I wasn’t sure I believed that for myself, her faith kindled in me a hope that refused to give up. Seeing myself as someone who mattered to others was a beginning, a small internal shift that paved the way for the hard work of learning to think kind thoughts about myself.
These days I remember my teacher when I think about how many people live with depression during this season. In one conversation my teacher communicated to me that she saw how much I was struggling and that she believed there was hope for me. Like her I want to be available to the people in my life who are facing mental illness right now. I want to take the time to see them, to listen. I want to offer the hope that mental illness is treatable and the truth that their life is worth fighting for. In our culture where often it is easier to turn a blind eye to mental illness it is an act of bravery to reach out and start the conversation about the importance of mental health. I know firsthand how much it often matters.