On the Backburner

The lengthy process of mental health recovery can be even lengthier for high school students.


photo and graphic art by Julia Poppa

Mental health must not be relegated to the back burner, even though the exhausting schedules of high school students can suggest that there are more important concerns.

I’ve never met a cook without a favorite burner. Whether it’s gas or electric, nearly everyone who has ever used a stove has their go-to corner of the range — but I can tell you this, it’s never one of the back ones. Back burners are for simmering sauces and boiling water for tea while you focus on more important things going on in the kitchen. The back burner is where things go to be forgotten or ignored for the time being until you’ve finished with everything else. 

That’s why almost anyone who has a mental health disorder will understand what I mean when I say that life is constantly pushing mental health to the back burner. Other priorities stack themselves up, schedules become more and more unforgiving, and the time that it takes to seriously focus on mental health just simply isn’t there. 

 1 in 4 adults in the US suffer from at least one mental illness, but there is an increasingly large population of people with these disorders who are in their early to late teens

The issue, however, isn’t just that the number of mental disorders in high school students is quickly rising but that these disorders have seemingly become more severe. There has been a statistically proven increase in anxiety among teens over the past several generations. It has been noted that the average student today exhibits more anxiety than admitted patients in psychiatric hospitals during the 1950s. Yet somehow it doesn’t stop there. Depression and PTSD levels in minors have been steadily rising as well. 

Of course, our world is rapidly changing, and the way that our brains cope with that must change, too.  But our society is advancing so quickly and aggressively that it is paving over many roads to a healthy recovery.  Mental health takes time to nourish, and the schedules that teenagers are forced to submit to is not conducive to healing. 

There is simply not enough time for sleep, let alone relaxation, and in the midst of all of that work, there is certainly too little time to focus on underlying mental health issues. ”

Adult life after college typically settles into some semblance of a routine — sleep, work, and relaxation — but increasingly, the life of a high schooler seems like a desecration of the monument that is Robert Owen’s eight-hour work day. Our school day lasts seven hours, but it’s hard to avoid the need to hold after school jobs that add another four or five hours to our day.  Add to that at least two hours of homework per night. The 9-5 workday so commonly cited in the adult world is a 7-midnight for high school students. There is simply not enough time for sleep, let alone relaxation, and in the midst of all of that work, there is certainly too little time to focus on underlying mental health issues. 

The school does provide some accommodations, such as 504s and  IEPs, for students who are suffering from mental illnesses, but these are only band-aids to a much larger problem. Mental health is a very serious issue, and even with treatment, nothing comes quickly in regard to getting better. Medications and therapy are the most common ways to treat mental illnesses, but both can take months, at the least, to work. 

Most medications for mental illnesses are SSRIs. These types of medications are cumulative and take time to build up in the body to reach a quantity that actually begins to help rebalance the brain’s chemicals. Even after several months of building up SSRI levels, the dosage may still not be enough, or the medication may not fit the patient — thus another set of several months experimenting with different medications and dosages begin. 

Even after you find the Goldilocks of medications, you soon learn that they can’t fix every problem all on their own. Most patients need therapy, even when they are on medication. Therapy comes in many different forms, too, so finding the one that fits best is yet another challenge. There’s cognitive behavioral therapy(CBT), dialectical behavior therapy(DBT), family therapy, group therapy, and many others. But therapy is a long and complicated process, because even after you identify some of the problems, there are more underlying issues that can take years to work through and figure out.  Even when more unorthodox treatments are introduced, like the increasingly popular prescription of medical marijuana, or even more obscure methods, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), concerns arise sufficient research and authorizations.  Additionally, not all parents, and not all kids, subscribe to more modern takes on western medicine, so these so-called fast acting treatments are not always a viable option. 

It is frustrating to be told that your mental health is important, and that until you find the right therapist and the right medication and spend months waiting it out, you have to just ‘suck it up.’”

As a person who has struggled with mental illness, I am no stranger to the lengthy process that is mental recovery, nor am I unfamiliar with the stress of being forced to rearrange my priorities in order to make room for my mental health. 

I’ve struggled for a long time with wondering why there is no quick fix to my problems. It is frustrating to be told that your mental health is important, and that until you find the right therapist and the right medication and spend months waiting it out, you have to just “suck it up.”  The sneaking feeling that it might never get better is everpresent. 

Knowing that treatment is not an easy or comfortable process is enough to deter most people from seeking treatment, on top of the stigma that already surrounds mental health. And as unfortunate as the time frames are, seeking help is always better than just hoping it goes away — especially in high school. 

As we round out the final years of our secondary education, many of us are forced to watch our mental health, and the mental health of those we care about, deteriorate. But now, more than ever, is the time to begin to open up and seek treatment, so that when we are eventually on our own, mental health will no longer be an addition to our plate of adult priorities.  Now is the time to focus on ourselves and build the foundation that we need to lead happy and healthy lives in the future. Our mental health is a priority, and the time and effort that it takes to begin to heal is absolutely worth it. 

Don’t be fooled.  Mental health is a front-burner concern, because without it, every battle is twice as hard. 


If you, or anyone you know, is suffering from mental health, it is important to take the first steps toward recovery, but if you or anyone you know are experiencing thoughts of self-harm or harming others, call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or Resolve at 1-888-796-8226.