The semicolon represents more than a punctuation mark, but a movement to bring awareness to mental health issues. It brings together the stories of survivors in celebrating hope of recovery from depression, suicide, addiction and more. The following stories are a few of many.
An emotional rollercoaster. Snowballing thoughts. A relentless source of insecurity.
For senior Sarah Goldberg, mental illness is not new. It first took form in her early school years, when she was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and ADHD.
“I’ve been in therapy since I was in third grade,” Goldberg said. “I freaked out over things a lot more than other friends. [I was] worried about everything all the time… I wasn’t able to focus much in class.”
After the diagnosis, Goldberg sought out professional help from psychologists and psychiatrists, who taught her coping mechanisms for anxiety and prescribed medication to help with her attentiveness.
“Medication doesn’t make it so that [ADHD] goes away completely, but it just makes it so that it’s much more minimized. That’s why I need to both have extensive therapy and medication. I learned a lot of techniques [in dealing with anxiety], things to stop that process in its tracks,” Goldberg said.
However, in graduating from middle school, Goldberg faced changes in the school setting. First, she no longer had the accomodation to leave the classroom to walk around the school, and instead, she was to seek student resources directly in times of high stress. Additionally, her transition to high school led to heightened stress and pressure to succeed academically.
“I kind of freaked out a little bit,” Goldberg said. “I felt really insecure about the fact that I had to use all of these accommodations, even though I had a mental disorder. After that, I fell into a little bit of a depression spiral. Anxiety sometimes can take the form of depression. It’s not depression per se, but it certainly fills in a lot of boxes.”
These particular depressive symptoms brought out the worst of her thoughts.
“I started having thoughts of ‘I want to go to sleep forever,’” Goldberg said. “That thought process, while it might not seem like it’s suicidal thinking, it is, technically. I talked to my therapist and she was very worried. I was able to recognize this was not something good, and I was able to walk out of it.”
Taking her therapist’s suggestions, Goldberg then turned to winter guard as a support system.
“Joining marching band has helped me through my anxiety. I was not good at taking criticism, but I have this amazing instructor [who] made me realize that people who are giving me feedback in my life are not saying, ‘I hate you,’ [but] they are saying, ‘I care about [you] and I want you to do better,’” Goldberg said.
In embracing the mix of techniques from her counselor, therapist and guard instructor, Goldberg began to forge a path of success with her illness. Now, she turns to the Jefferson community to bring validation and rally support for those facing similar adversities.
“I really think of myself as someone who has come a long way, [but] when I see the atmosphere that TJ has right now, it kind of makes me really sad. There’s all these people who don’t have the same access [or] the same resources that I do. I feel that we need to spread awareness and we need to say, ‘It’s okay if you’re struggling because you can succeed, even if you feel like you’re at the bottom of the pit, you [can] crawl out’,” Goldberg said.
“Depression is like trying to wade through water instead of walking on land. It’s like having your glasses fog, but not being able to unfog [them]. You’re stuck in this kind of situation.”
Diagnosed with major depressive episodes as a sophomore, senior Cameron Curtis describes his depression as messy and inconsistent. It comes in the form of episodes and symptoms that increase with stress.
“My story with depression [is]… not entirely because of TJ, but they have been exacerbated by TJ,” Curtis said. “I came in without the same academic footing a lot of people had so I was trying to play catch-up for most of my freshman year. My situation got a bit complicated because my parents were going through a separation at that point.”
As pressure from school increased and family dynamics changed, Curtis found himself withdrawing from his activities and academic pursuits.
“The difficulty about depression is that oftentimes the symptoms and the causes overlap. Being depressed gives you that mental cloud, and you end up doing worse on tests and quizzes and academic projects, which can oftentimes only exacerbate the depression which exacerbates the grades. It’s [a] positive feedback loop in the worst possible way,” Curtis said.
Those symptoms lingered. They fed into a spiral until, eventually, his mother led him to seek treatment with a psychologist and psychiatrist.
“A big turning point for me was when I finally got my mind around the whole idea that [depression] is not a moral failing, but this is a disease like any other. It makes it a lot easier to discuss, a lot easier to diagnose, [and] a lot easier to engage with,” Curtis said.
Since then, Curtis has received regular treatment and therapy. In going through this process, he relays a message of hope and courage in emphasizing that mental illness is not a personal failure, but a disease worth creating a conversation around.
“If you suffer from depression, you are not alone,” Curtis said. “Depression is very unique and personal sort of thing. My case will not be indicative of most others, but it is a story.”
Looking back to their experiences at TJ, alumni Nora Thompson (Class of 2017), Elizabeth Sherrock (Class of 2018), and Eke Wokocha (Class of 2016) share their stories with mental health and provides outlooks in coping with stress for current and prospective students.
There’s nothing you can do. You’re stuck. Jefferson alum Nora Thompson has a clear memory of feeling this way when she first realized she had anxiety.
“I have such a vivid memory of finding myself just sitting on my bathroom floor crying and not being able to move,” Thompson said. “I hadn’t ever experienced something so physical before. Realizing that there’s nothing I could do about it, that really terrified me.”
Thompson later came to learn that what she experienced was a symptom of a mental illness. She sought help, and ended high school with a therapist that had a big impact on her. A metaphor her therapist used for mental health was a reference to the ancient Japanese culture of creating pots.
“When the pots broke, instead of throwing away the pots or trying to fit them back perfectly, they would mend the pots with gold to sort of showcase the flaws and realize that the pot is still beautiful,” Thompson said. “That resonated with me a lot, like learning to live with this mental illness, as opposed to trying to forget that it exists or wash it all away completely.”
Since she herself was reluctant to start, Thompson encourages people to be patient when seeking therapy. She also acknowledges that not every therapist will be the best fit for you.
“It’s okay to not like your therapist. They’re there to help you, and if they’re not providing services that you want, it’s definitely okay to leave,” Thompson said.
Her message to those who see someone else struggling with mental illness, is to believe and support them.
“To anyone that feels like [mental illness is] something that they are struggling with, I believe you,” Thompson said. “I think just having people say that to me just made so much of a difference. [For] someone that has friends that are experiencing mental illness, [let] them know that you hear the things that they’re saying and believe them. [This] can sometimes do more than trying to solve the problem.”
A mess. That was the state in which Jefferson alum Elizabeth Sherrock’s anxiety left her during her senior year. The issue began with feelings of heartbreak after hearing the girl she liked was dating someone else. Her emotions began to take a physical toll.
“They were hanging out and being physically affectionate. I still feel so stupid about this, but that was what would trigger me and my anxiety attacks and all that.”
After her initial emotional breakdown, Sherrock found herself having many panic attacks over things she didn’t expected to bother her.
“I would suddenly have panic attacks over the smallest things, whereas it didn’t really happen before. I remember we had to write a movie review for AP Lang class and I couldn’t do it. And I just started freaking out. I had to go to the bathroom to calm myself down… I was a mess… I would never get that panicky over an assignment like that [before].”
Sherrock found that putting space between her triggers and herself helped, even if it meant not participating in all aspects of an activity that she loved.
“I cut myself off from those two people,” Sherrock said. “I left a bunch of group chats that we were in together. I also had to isolate myself from my other friends who I loved, but I would no longer be seeing messages between the two of them that would remind me of everything… Just being away from them helped.”
Sherrock also gives credit for the better state she’s in now to her friends for helping and checking in on her. However, she recognizes that mental illness is not something that just goes away completely. It’s something you learn to live with.
“[The experience] lowered my threshold for like things I could handle,” Sherrock said. “Overall it’s better, but it’s still there; it never really went away fully. And I feel like that’s one of the things that people need to remember about mental health. Even though the overall situation can be better, little things can remind you or set you off again.”
Mental health is complex. So complex that sometimes people don’t realize they are suffering. Jefferson alum Eke Wokocha didn’t realize what he had gone through in high school could be considered depression until he took an autobiography class last year.
“I was forced to reflect on my past life experiences,” Wokocha said. “I noticed there was an anomaly at the end of my sophomore year… my ultimate low. That was the point where I would stop showing up to school, almost entirely. I made a joke that I had somehow acquired senioritis around that time… I now would call it… a point where my mental health was not where it needed to be.”
For Wokocha, self-blame played a major role in delaying the recognition of his mental illness. Comparing himself to his peers, he wondered why it was difficult to put effort into school.
“It’s complex because it just feels like I might just not be trying hard enough; I might just be too lazy,” Wokocha said.
Wokocha explains that the competitive environment at Jefferson can cause people to overwhelm themselves.
“Especially at TJ, you can start to feel like you need to do everything,” Wokocha said. “If someone else is doing something, you’ll feel like you have to do it too. At the end of the day, that just ends up spreading yourself out too thin, which leaves you susceptible to what you could call snapping.”
Wokocha believes listening to how other people with similar issues dealt with their situation can be extremely helpful, so he is sharing his story and urges others to share theirs.
“[When] people share their stories and you realize that some of their story coincides with parts of your story…, you can understand that maybe they went through something similar. And then from there, [you] can also see the things they did, which you might be able to use to help yourself as well,” Wokocha said. “That’s is why I believe it’s beneficial to share your story when you’re ready.”
For senior Ankita Vadiala, the world started losing its color during sophomore year.
“My depression was kickstarted by the stress of freshman year and the long-lasting shock of the middle school [to] TJ transition,” Vadiala said. “All of a sudden, things were much harder. I noticed that I started feeling down for no reason sometimes, even when I was with friends.”
Those symptoms held tangible consequences as her grades fell drastically. To cope with changes in her academic performance, Vadiala began to seek resources from Student Services. Through meeting with the school counselor, psychologist, and social worker, she slowly began to build the courage to bring up the situation with her family.
“It took me half the year for me to open up to my parents and a lot of time for me to convince them that something was really wrong. That’s where I started finding a name for it. Depression,” Vadiala said.
In building a support network beyond her school and home, Vadiala forges a path of endurance through weekly therapy sessions in her battle against depression. Now she asks for the students at Jefferson to recognize that the people around them may hold stories similar to hers, each searching for their own solution.
“At TJ, I’ve noticed a lot of people who think they have to make it on their own at all times,” Vadiala said. “A lot of [them have a] fear of stigma or fear of what their family’s going to say. They end up suffering in silence. My number one piece of advice is just don’t be afraid to ask for help. There’s always a support system if you look in the right place.”
Perfectionism, to junior Rayna Schoenberger, is a source of anxiety.
“I [have] always been a perfectionist,” Schoenberger said. “The problem was, perfection at TJ is essentially unattainable yet I was trying so desperately to get there. But nobody’s perfect and you inevitably mess up. Then the anxiety takes over.”
Breaking that cycle came in the form of learning to take on a new perspective regarding her own performance.
“[You have to learn] to show yourself that this is not a problem. If you realize that you’re catastrophizing, you try to put it in perspective. It’s a lot easier said than done and it takes lots of time, but [you should try] to rationalize something when you start to get really anxious,” Schoenberger said.
Schoenberger utilized rationalization and sought advice from a psychologist. From there, she learned to identify her triggers and to find peace within herself.
“My biggest thing would be [to] remember that it’s okay to not be okay,” Schoenberger said. “A lot of this process is trial and error, but it’s all you can do. You just have to remind yourself that you’ve made it this far, try to challenge negative thoughts when you find them, and trust that you’ll get through this.”
Schoenberger takes this mentality and hopes to embrace a culture of empathy.
“I felt comfortable enough admitting to other people that I was really struggling,” Schoenberger said. “I’ve had people like come to me in really horrible states and I’ve gone to other people in the same thing. I can promise that you are not a burden.”
Depression is not pretty. Junior Maria Abramova experienced this first hand when she transitioned into high school without the comfort of familiar faces from middle school.
In trying to adjust to the new high school environment, Abramova’s academic standing began to fall. By the middle of her freshman year, the school notified her that she did not meet the required unweighted 3.0 GPA. While she was able to improve her grades, the heightened pressure she felt for academic achievement resulted in drastic changes in her mental health.
“At the same time my grades went up, my mental health went down dramatically because I was more under pressure and I felt more like a failure,” Abramova said. “I started starving myself. It was just not good; it was not pretty.”
Abramova sought outside treatment for anxiety and depression, but none of the methods of treatment seemed to work. Medication is what turned things around for her.
“With antidepressants, it just went away naturally. And then one day at the end of my sophomore year, I just kind of stopped taking antidepressants,” Abramova said.
Abramova shares her story to express her belief that mental illness needs to be approached differently. She emphasizes that therapy is not for everyone because mental illness is not a one size fits all.
“I’m not saying don’t get help, but there’s so many considerations,” Abramova said. “Talking about your problems will not always help solve them. I wish that therapists would actually give more advice [in a] more individual way. I wish there would be strategies to help resolve those mental issues by yourself.”