By Tamara Jeffries
It was just a routine pit stop between classes. But then they saw someone lying on the bathroom floor. When they looked closer, they noticed the blood. Yo, man, you okay? The boy on the floor wouldn’t respond, so they kicked the door in and saw him…their high school classmate…wrists and throat sliced…blood pooling beneath him. He was holding a box cutter. The wounds were self-inflicted.
They thought quickly. One ran and yelled for help. Another took off his shirt and used it to stanch the flow of blood. A teacher came. The ambulance arrived in time. Students were hustled back to class.
And that was that.
For the rest of the day, it was pretty much business as usual. As if nothing happened. Except students–those who witnessed it and those who only heard about it–were reeling. And weeks later they were still asking: Why did he do that? What would make someone do something like that? Why?
“They are confused,” one teacher said. “And I don’t know what to tell them.”
Across town, at a different high school, another boy died. A student texted: “They said he ‘died mysteriously over night.’ But my friend was his neighbor and she said he did in fact kill himself.”
She heard that another student was hospitalized the same week. The word was that it was an attempted suicide, too. “But there are so many rumors surrounding it that so we really don’t know,” she admits. It wasn’t a great prom week, she says with adolescent irony.
Clearly, the problem is bigger than a bummer prom. Desperately troubled kids are hurting and dying. Their surviving friends are patted on the shoulder and sent back to class. And grieving classmates are left to sift through rumors and sort it all out in their post-adolescent minds.
Solid, meaningful mental health care for young people is clearly lacking. When one parent asked about grief counseling for her son after the suicide of his friend, she said, “I was told they were being sent to their academic counselors.” She doesn’t know how well they’re equipped to deal with trauma.
These are just cases I heard about through my grapevine. But it’s happening all over. A 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health says that “among all adolescents with past year major depressive episode (MDE), nearly two thirds (62.3 percent) did not receive treatment for their depression.”
Four million children and adolescents suffer from a serious mental disorder—including depression and other conditions—according to, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). If 62 percent of them aren’t treated, we’re looking at 2.5 million kids trying to hold it together.
And some will. But adolescent mental illness is linked with academic failure, drug abuse, criminal justice involvement and long term economic and health effects. Some of these troubled kids are the ones shooting back and forth along gang borders. Or randomly firing rifles into classrooms. Or quietly bleeding in the bathroom.
What’s worse is that it’s not just that these kids are falling through the cracks. Some lawmakers are actively putting up barriers to their mental health care. In North Carolina, state legislators are pressing forward a bill that would forbid “the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment” of mental illness without the “notarized written consent” of a parent or legal guardian. What if you’ve got a problem that you don’t want your folks to know about? Suppose you think you’re pregnant. Or gay. Suppose your mom’s boyfriend is coming into your room at night. What if your folks are the ones making you crazy? Maybe you want to talk to them—but you just need some help gathering up the courage and finding the right words. If you’re in crisis and the box cutter’s gleam seems like a solution, you do not have time to get a note from your mama.
I am a mama. And, yes, I’d want to know if my daughter were dealing with something so heavy that she needed counseling for it. I’d want her to have access to help with–or without–me. Especially if it meant not having her end up on the bathroom floor.
It cannot be a crime for a health-care provider to provide a child with needed mental health care. In fact, refusing to allow needed care should be the felony. If lawmakers pass such a backwards bill, those high-school kids won’t be the only ones with blood on their hands.