No laughing matter: "Harmless" jokes about mental illness and depression cut deep for many

Editor’s note: ThreeSixty Journalism has changed the names of teen sources in this story for privacy reasons.

Nobody likes being the butt of a joke or have a snide comment made about them, but teens with mental illness so often are without the perpetrator even knowing.

Daniel, a sophomore from Minneapolis, has been diagnosed with a form of autism called Asperger Syndrome. Throughout Daniel’s life, he has endured jeers from fellow teens. With each insult, his self-esteem and courage has been slowly chipped away.

Now when someone tells him to “shut up” in class or the captains in physical education argue over which one ends up with him on a team, he stays silent. When he does work up the courage to say something, all he gets is more mockery.

“They usually don’t understand what I’m saying. They just laugh,” Daniel said.

It usually takes another student to stop the onslaught, otherwise it continues for the whole period.

“If one person is being picked on and nobody stands up, then they keep on being picked on. They just keep picking on them. If you aren’t getting backlash and just laughs, why would you stop?” Daniel said.

Laura Weber, manager of Crisis Connection, a nonprofit agency in Richfield that provides 24/7 telephone support and text messaging for Minnesota residents, believes that teenagers don’t fully grasp what marks they leave on their victims. It’s why the Crisis service provides teens with an option to connect with an adult in a way that they’re comfortable and used to.

“When teens bully, ostracize and directly threaten peers who are already feeling that they have no voice, power or help, it can lead to (a) feeling that they have no hope and no options to change their life,” Weber said.

Kiara, a sophomore from St. Paul, is diagnosed with bipolar disorder (type two) and struggles with depression.

“The depression obviously plays a huge role in my life because you get on this high and it’s like, crazy. I’m getting all these things done and I’m super motivated. It’s doing all my schoolwork and getting super good grades and then you crash. My grades will drop from A-pluses to D’s. And then there’s not being able to get out of bed and not wanting to do any work,” Kiara said.

The most common misconception about bipolar disorder is that you’ll be perfectly fine one second, and in an instant, you’ll slip into madness. Kiara doesn’t tell anyone except her close friends because she doesn’t want to be labeled as someone who has no control over her emotions.

“I don’t usually tell people I’m bipolar because … they just assume you’re crazy and you can’t control your emotions,” Kiara said.

She also believes that other students at her St. Paul school pretend that they have depression to get out of class. When Kiara needs to take a break, her teachers don’t believe her due to the sheer number of students that use mental illness as an excuse. Kiara’s struggles are negated.

“It just really invalidates me. It’s really invalidating when people say, “I’m so depressed. I can’t do class. I just need to take a break,” to teachers. Then when I actually need that, or when I need to be able to leave and go talk to a counselor or whatever because of what’s going on, teachers don’t trust that (my) experience is real. They just think I’m being dramatic or playing it up it as something bigger than it is,” she said.

Teenagers don’t have enough familiarity to know how to handle people that are different than them, Kiara said. She feels that if her peers were more empathetic, students like her—who aren’t forthcoming about their personal problems or can’t control their behavior in public—wouldn’t feel so trapped.

“Just try to understand where people are coming from. They’re not necessarily going to say it straight to you, like, ‘I have anxiety or I have depression.’ But just try to care for your classmates. If it seems like something’s off, tune into that, trust your gut, and try to be there,” Kiara said.

Weber advises that teens tap into their perceptive powers, because oftentimes, they’re much better at spotting those “on the edge” than adults. However, they don’t have the capacity to know how to help.

“The biggest misconception is that they can’t do anything to help a peer themselves. That’s not true. Teens can offer to talk with a peer about their depression, try to just listen, and offer to stay with them until they feel safe. They can offer to talk with a parent or school counselor with the peer so they’re not alone. They can give peer counseling information and suggest they get help,” Weber said.

“Teens can (also) participate in educational courses that are taught on their school campuses. One course is QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer). Another is Teen Education Program. These courses teach teens the basics about mental illness, what signs to watch out for, and how to help others if needed. It’s like teaching teens the CPR of mental health, and it has been successful in increasing the helping behaviors in teens.”

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