Cross Section: For mental health, it’s time to talk solutions

When I was a high school student, studying on the AP track at Ohio’s top public school, I heard two stories about plagiarism. First, that it is an accident a lot of the time. Second, that when it happens, you can get into serious trouble. In fact, I remember the perils of plagiarism being drilled into my head as early as elementary school. Throughout my education, we heard horror stories of students who plagiarized, who were caught, whose lives were turned around by one act of cheating. It felt like one of the worst things a student could do.

It didn’t matter to me that accidental and deliberate plagiarism are most of the time extremely different. When I learned that plagiarism often happens unintentionally, it became a constant fear that wheedled into my brain for almost all of high school. I was scared of a lot of things: failure, clearly, but also messing up — and to me those were completely disparate. Messing up connoted something more sinister: If failure is a result, then messing up is something rooted in a person’s character.

Worst of all, it seemed that failure was apparently something one could not predict; even despite hard work and being respectful to adults and being proactive, it could happen. And then what did that mean? Well, then, it must be the student’s fault. It must be because they are lazy. That they did not try hard enough. That they didn’t care. Or maybe, they were just never good enough in the first place.

Last week, The New York Times published a feature-length article about adolescent anxiety — “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” — and I was reminded of mental health awareness’ meaning to me in the first place: high school. I felt my heart rate go up as I read the headline, only because the article seemed like something that would collect “laugh” emojis on Facebook, that would make the case for teenage anxiety without getting the point that these kids were real people instead of numbers within a growing social phenomenon.

But unlike most articles written by adults about adolescents, this one surprised me. It focused on treatment rather than the symptoms of anxiety itself — humanizing what anxiety means to high school students, highlighting the hope that exists in learning how to unlearn rigorous self-standards. Like me, the main subject of the article,  whose name is Jake, feared failure. The article’s focus seemed to be the failures young people don’t see coming, but in retrospect, these little failures meant nothing. They were not a reflection of merit, or hard work, but of circumstance, high standards and a system that measured success but not its cost.

In high school, I suffered. I pushed myself far too hard. Still, it’s hard to look back and measure that hard work with anything but pride. I feel the lasting effects of the mindset I used to make it through: I’m still an over-achiever, I still overschedule my days until they are filled with internships and classes and extracurriculars. I wish I had sought out treatment sooner, that it’s okay to sit back and relax.

One thing about the Times’ article that did give me pause was the race of its teenage subjects. Almost all of them are white. Which makes sense because it’s profiling kids, specifically, who were sent to Mountain Valley, a center — according to the article — that “costs $910 a day.” I am not white, and as I wrote in my piece last week, mental health awareness across all races and ethnicities is paramount toward humanizing all people in general.

From my own experience, Asian American youth are imbued with a heavy need to emulate the “model minority” stereotype — fighting for success comes with an immense cost to our mental health. That does not mean it’s necessarily family-based pressure we are experiencing — the typical tiger-mom story — because that is a stereotype that in itself only makes the problem worse. Last year, I took an immigration class where we learned that — buying into the model minority stereotype — teachers themselves will expect more of Asian American students, adding pressure to their lives. Maybe this happened to me. But it’s also clear that I felt, for a long time, that I absolutely had to conform to the image the world wanted for me.

Some people use this stereotype to view our younger generation as inherently weak-minded; to be a trait of an older generation to characterize millennials as softened, or snowflakes, or what have you. But the thing about anxiety is that it is, at its best, a constant weight sitting in the back of one’s head; at its worst, it is utterly debilitating. Still, as more people become aware of adolescent anxiety, they are starting to realize that such an epidemic needs to be reckoned with instead of seen as a stereotype without a solution.

Zoe Cheng is a junior majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Cross Section,” runs every Tuesday.