Carnegie Mellon University

"The 'S' Word" by Kristen Deasy

Third Place for High School Prose

Growing up, we are all taught words that we shouldn’t say. We hear them on TV, in movies, or from adults around us. Some of these words make others uncomfortable, so we are told not to repeat them. As children, we have to know why we aren’t allowed to do or say something, but sometimes we are not given a clear answer. As a result, we live our whole lives with a subconscious negative meaning attached to these words. The most common one we all know is probably the “s word”. The word isn’t shit, but suicide.

I can’t recall the first time I heard the word suicide, but I can remember at a young age being confused about what it was and never having it explained to me. Anytime I heard the word or spoke the word “suicide” there was an automatic tension in the room, one I didn’t understand. In grade school, there was a story on the news about a man who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge near my house. I felt sad, but I was also cynical towards the man. That sounds weird because I never knew him but I thought that killing himself was selfish. I thought about his family, his friends, all of the lives he was affecting by taking his own. I didn’t understand at the time that the man was sick and that his illness had prompted him to act. When I asked questions about the incident, everyone stayed silent, which added to the weird tension around the word. When I was in 7th grade, there was a shooting at Western Psychiatric Hospital. This was the first time I learned that Pittsburgh, the city I’ve lived in since birth, has a psychiatric hospital. I live less than ten miles away from this hospital and had no idea it existed. After hearing about the shooting and watching it consume the news, I assumed this hospital served crazy people. I had heard of psychiatric hospitals prior to this and anytime they were talked about it was in a negative way. I used the terms “nut house”, “insane asylum” and “psycho” to describe the hospital and those inside of it, not realizing that it’s a serious hospital helping people who are legitimately sick. In a society where everything we say has to be “politically correct”, it’s ironic that I was never corrected when using those terms, words that were not appropriate to be using.

As the hysteria around the shooting slowly ended, I didn’t think much about the hospital or the types of people within it. The only time I ever thought about mental health was when I saw anti-depressant commercials on TV. The commercials always showed an adult who couldn’t get out of bed because they were “so sad”. These overdramatic commercials irritated me more than a commercial should. I didn’t believe that these people were as sad as the commercial made them seem. “Life isn’t that miserable,” I thought to myself. I was skeptical that a pill could make someone happy and the plethora of side effects rambled off at the end of the commercial really didn’t convince me. I thought that people who needed an antidepressant were just exaggerating their symptoms of sadness. Little did I know, I would become one of the people from the commercial. I had been applying stereotypes and discriminating against people with mental illness for years, when in reality I was one of those people.

For years I had denied my symptoms of depression for the same reason I didn’t believe the commercials: I thought that I was being dramatic. I thought that isolation, skipping meals, and panic attacks were normal for a teenage girl. I was wrong. I put on a mask for years, pretending to be happy, just so people didn’t label me as “the attention seeking one.” The mask was exhausting to wear 24/7 so sometimes my family could tell something wasn’t wrong. When they suggested I see a therapist, I said that there was absolutely no way I was seeing a shrink. “I’m not crazy,” I told them. I was so offended that they thought I was the type of person who needed to see a psychiatrist. When they pushed the topic, I argued that they were overreacting, that I was just being a normal teenage girl. But what does any of that mean? The word "crazy” or “the type of person who needs to see a psychiatrist”? Why did I think that it’s wrong if someone needs to see a therapist? Why was I offended when my parents suggested I talk to someone? Why was I discriminating against myself?

My mindset was completely transformed while in the waiting room of the hospital that I once thought crazy people went to: Western Psych. I had previously visited the hospital a few months earlier after a severe panic attack but even after that visit, I didn’t accept that I was sick. This time was different though, I had actually tried to take my own life. So many things entered my mind in the waiting room this time around. I thought of how I viewed mental illness: how I thought people who went to psychiatric hospitals were crazy; that people on anti-depressant commercials were dramatic; that people who committed or attempted suicide were attention seeking. I applied all of these labels to myself. I realized I was one of the “crazy, dramatic, attention-seeking” people. This realization came to me after my dad told me something in the waiting room that I remind myself of everyday. He said, “Kristen, if you had a broken foot we would take you to the hospital to get it fixed. There is something wrong with your brain so we are going to get that fixed.” He couldn’t have been more right. We are so quick to treat something like a broken foot or diabetes, but when we can’t see exactly what’s wrong, we ignore it. I thought to myself, “Our brains are the most important part of the body, yet we give it the least attention. If our brain isn’t working properly, how can the rest of our body?” This thought made me angry. I was angry because I used to judge and discriminate against people who were seriously ill. I was angry because I knew most of society has the same mindset I used to have. I was angry because we don’t talk about mental illness and we don’t try and educate people about what it really is. I was angry that the word suicide makes people uncomfortable and so we ignore it. I was angry at how big of a problem this is.

During the months following my hospitalization, I slowly recovered and became more aware of how severe the discrimination against mental illness is. Because I missed school to recover and receive treatment, I didn’t hear the rumors floating around the halls about why I was absent. I eventually started to get word that people were saying I was a “psychopath” and “faking it.” I tried to ignore the rumors but deep down it hurt. I had no desire to return to school because I dreaded seeing the people who were saying these things about me. Once I returned though, the worst part weren’t the rumors or the mean names, it was the way people isolated me. Girls who I had gone to school with acted like I was a completely different person; they were afraid to talk me, afraid of saying or doing the wrong things. I was awkwardly approached and was treated like I had been living on Mars for five years. I was so bothered. I didn’t want my classmates to think of me any differently just because I had a sickness. I know for some of them it was pure shock. I had always appeared to be an extremely outgoing, confident person so the news of me trying to kill myself was a slap in the face for most. I tried to ignore it and surround myself with people who didn’t treat me differently for what I had gone through. But I was still bothered. Not because I was offended, but bothered because people thought they had to treat me differently. But I thought to myself, five years ago I probably would have treated someone with a mental illness the same way I was treated, with fear and judgment. I could have accepted the treatment I received, but I couldn’t just passively let this go on. I wanted to change the attitude around this subject.

I began to openly talk about my battle with depression and before I knew it, people were reaching out to me for help. This has motivated me to apply what I have learned from my own struggles when encouraging others to ask for help and receive the treatment they deserve and so desperately need. We have created a society that ostracizes people who have invisible illnesses. We live in a world where using every swear word possible in a rap song is appropriate but a word that describes how someone died is not. We need to stop silencing people when the conversation of mental illness is brought up and we need to start saying the words that make people cringe until they aren’t cringe-worthy anymore. Because if you had a broken foot, we would get that fixed.

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