Grace art

A collection of art created by Grace Presnell, who has used art as a form of therapy for her mental health issues.

WATAUGA — There is no age where someone grows out of — or is too young to begin struggling with mental health issues.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 17 percent of people aged 6-17 in the United States experience a mental health disorder. The figure is not far off from the one-in-five American adults that will experience mental illness.

Kurt Michael, a professor in Appalachian State University’s department of psychology who specializes in mental health in K-12 students, counseling and rural school mental health, said that mental health issues in young people are not only more prevalent than some may think, but are also the same issues affecting older people.

“Some of the more prevalent things that we see — sort of broad brush strokes — is depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, which is probably more normative than some people I think realize,” Michael said.

Mental Health America publishes a yearly ranking of every state — including the District of Columbia — based on their prevalence for mental health issues combined with the rates of access to care for those issues. In its 2021 report, North Carolina was ranked No. 45, the lowest for any state east of Arkansas.

Adeyah Hammond, a 16-year-old junior at Watauga High School, has dealt with depression for five years — almost a third of her life. She said after moving to Watauga from Nashville at 11 years old, she began to feel isolated in the mountains with not much to do. Add to the fact that she is mixed race in a predominately white area, Adeyah said she has spent five years feeling like she was on the outside looking in.

Adeyah’s negative view of her new home was not helped by racism, which she said got worse as she has got older.

“People were making comments towards her because she talked differently, she listened to different music and they were like, ‘You are so ghetto, why are you like that?’” Ileana Christensen, Adeyah’s mother, said. “I think when they started making differences regarding her differences, that really affected her.”

Adeyah said she would make it clear what others said did not bother her, which only made them keep going.

“At first, I used to be really mad when a racial issue would happen,” Adeyah said. “I don’t let that bring me down as much as I used to.”

The changing view of mental health

A decade before Adeyah and her family arrived in Watauga, Michael’s work in school mental health led to the development and implementation of Assessment, Support and Counseling Centers in the high schools in Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany counties. He said that after opening the first ASC Center, the conversations he has with youth about mental health today are drastically different.

“It seems like in general, people are more willing to disclose difficult things that are more in the mental health category than they were in 2006,” Michael said. “I do think there’s more willingness to confront some of these things more directly, but if you think about the generation before that — often the parents of these kids — may be less willing.”

While there may be more of a willingness to tackle mental health in an open dialogue, it does not mean it’s easy to do so.

“I knew it and didn’t want to talk about it. I kind of brushed it off to the side,” Adeyah said.

Ileana said that it can be easy for a parent to notice something is off, but noticing something and getting someone to open up are two different things.

“This is my child, I knew something wasn’t right but she never wanted to talk about it,” Ileana said. “Until one day, she exploded and was like, ‘I’m depressed.’ I think it’s scary to say those words, especially at a young age. You don’t know how people are going to take it.”

In Adeyah’s case, Ileana had to push the topic after it came up to get her daughter to open up that little bit more.

“I basically had to force her to talk to me about things — and she still doesn’t open up that much — but I had to constantly reiterate to her that depression is real,” Ileana said. “People suffer from depression. It’s okay, you have a support system. We love you. What can we do to help you?”

According to Michael, even if confronted with the mental health issues of their child or grandchild, not everyone will react like Ileana did.

“Even now, if we get a little bit of pushback, it’s usually not as often the young people. It’s more often the parents, guardians or grandparents who are skeptical, maybe more so than their younger generation or their children,” Michael said.

Grace Presnell, a 17-year-old senior at WHS, said it can be easier to be depressed than it is to be happy for people her age.

“I think a huge theme with teenagers and depression is that it’s comfortable for them,” Grace said. “Whenever I started getting happier, it was jarring … I didn’t know how to process it. I knew how to be sad, I knew how to live my life being sad.”

Grace put it plainly when describing how parents can miss mental health issues.

“I think parents don’t see a lot of things that they don’t want to see until it’s literally smacking them in the face,” Grace said.

Grace’s mother, Denise works with mental health herself through the Watauga Compassionate Community Initiative and helped found the Watauga Community Mental Health Project. She said when confronted with her own daughter’s issues with depression and anxiety, she did not respond in a way that was best for Grace.

Denise said that Grace’s older brother had not dealt with the same issues which made her feel she could be the same type of parent for both.

After a lot of fighting between the two, Denise knew something had to change. They both started going to counseling, which for Grace was a step toward healing, while Denise had something of a reckoning.

“Come to find out, I was going to change for a teenager,” Denise said. “It’s continual experiences that bring you to your knees as a parent of someone who struggles with their mental health because you do think you have all the answers.”

Grace said even with the shift toward openness about mental health issues in people her age, there is still a way to go before people are totally open. While she feels she is open about her struggles, she thinks others should follow suit.

“I do it a little bit for myself, but more for people that are my age,” Grace said. “Mental health is so much of an incorporated thing, it’s more socially acceptable now, but still at the high school I feel like it’s not talked about as much as it should be considering how many kids at the high school are depressed.”

Grace said she feels many of her peers do not realize they may be battling mental health issues, and that they do not have to feel the way they do.

Confronting and healing

Going to counseling is not a catch-all solution for many people dealing with mental health issues. People will deal with these issues differently, and find their own ways to handle them.

“I have certain things to cope with my mental illness and my depression, but if I can’t do it then it just makes it worse,” Adeyah said. “I play basketball and then if I can’t go play basketball, I can listen to music. But, if I can’t do any of those things at that moment, I just shut down.”

While Adeyah was able to find her own ways, the more traditional route of counseling did not work out. Ileana said it was a struggle to find someone who could provide the counseling her daughter needed.

“She’s my child, I want her to be comfortable opening up,” Ileana said. “If she’s not open and if she’s not comfortable, what’s the point of doing it? The people that she has been presented with just haven’t made her feel comfortable.”

Ileana said that part of it was a lack of diversity, not just limited to race or gender, but age as well. She said that one counselor that saw her daughter “did not understand the youth of today.”

Counseling helped, but was not the only solution in Grace’s case.

“During (the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown), I started painting stuff in my room and immediately it was just like my brain slowed down and I loved it,” Grace said. “I was doing art all day long. Then, I started going to High Country Clay — which is the community studio on the bypass — that was a huge step.”

The other two things that worked for Grace were medication and Floki, a husky that the family took in from a relative.

“Each one of those things, I think it was like 25 percent of saving her life,” Denise said.

At the same time, Grace said that being in lockdown forced her to do some introspection that otherwise would not have happened.

“I had to figure out myself, because I didn’t like who I was,” Grace said. “I didn’t realize that until I was locked in my house for two weeks and was like, ‘this is not who I want to be,’ or ‘I don’t feel like myself.’ I feel the most like myself I’ve ever felt, and it’s literally a 180 from who I used to be six months ago.”

However, getting help or finding coping mechanisms does not fully eliminate every issue. Grace and Adeyah both said they still have bad days.

“I think (Adeyah’s) getting a little better, but there’s still days where the tears run steady,” Ileana said.

Adeyah said that ultimately, her mental health issues do not define who she is. Being more honest about them has changed her outlook on life.

“You never know what people are going through,” Adeyah said. “I try to make everybody laugh and like, have a good time when they’re around me. I don’t want you to think about what’s going on in your life all the time. Because that’s when you start to beat yourself up even more. You got to let loose.”

Having an understanding of her mental health issues and how to handle them, Adeyah said she is at a point where she knows what to do when they come up.

“I deal with it in a good way, I keep going and I know I’m not the only one dealing with it,” Adeyah said. “So if I ever need anything, I got it.”

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