For the past four years, I have lived a dual life.
Throughout high school, I was a quintessential “teacher’s pet” — the student enrolled in all honors courses, who consistently won debate tournaments, and hosted special guests for the school. Additionally, I managed my success all while being a Black queer kid on financial aid — an anomaly in comparison to many of my peers at my predominantly white private school in New York City. To many administrators, teachers, and peers, it seemed as if I had mastered the winning formula for success. I had earned a place of respect, mostly for my facade of perfection.
Yet I was also suicidal for much of high school. As I gained more recognition for my accolades, I found that my depression, anxiety, and self-harm spiraled the more I progressed through school. At the conclusion of my junior year in 2022, my mental health crisis resulted in multiple incidents of self-harm. Facing my therapist on a Zoom call in late spring, she told me that I needed to start antidepressants to save my life; she could not foresee me surviving my senior year without a life-threatening mental health incident.
Unfortunately, my high school experience is not uncommon. In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its “Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report,” which documented the health and well-being of US students over a 10-year period. It was followed by a story in The Washington Post that highlighted similar stories from many fellow adolescent girls around the country grappling with suicidal thoughts and depression. NBC News recently ran a special that exemplified the worsening of adolescent mental health. Such issues were only compounded by factors such as sexual violence, racism, homophobia, and transphobia.
To make matters worse, adolescent access to mental health care is increasingly restricted across the United States. As of April 21, 12 state legislatures are actively enforcing bans on gender-affirming care for trans youth, with a total of 121 anti-LGBTQ health care bills being debated across the nation. Meanwhile, studies have shown that access to gender-affirming health care reduced rates of mood disorders and suicidal thoughts among transgender adolescents; restricting access to this health care has deadly impacts.
Representatives such as Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia are now coupling supporting bans on gender-affirming health care with disinformation on commonly used, life-saving antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, claiming they are a primary root of America’s cascade of mass shooting tragedies. Although side effects to medically prescribed SSRIs may include suicidality and agitation, the black box warning is being politicized. Disinformation about life-saving mental health treatment only complicates access for youth and continues to put our lives at risk. I have seen the destructive ramifications of such disinformation in my real life with many of my peers and close friends.
I have been on 20mg of the SSRI escitalopram, better known under the brand name Lexapro, for almost a year. In that time, I’ve gradually begun to regain my ability to execute the same daily tasks that became burdensome as my depression worsened. Lexapro has enabled me to take care of myself — whether regaining the time to execute simple tasks or being able to take strides toward pursuing the loftier goals I have for myself. While Lexapro has not resolved all of my mental health struggles, it is a crucial part of my combined therapy that has helped me recognize that I have value. More important, it is a daily physical reminder that my life is worth fighting for.
In light of all the recent tragedies Gen Z has faced — such as frequent school shootings and the educational fallout of a pandemic — it is crucial that state and federal representatives advocate for our right to access scientifically backed resources for combatting the adolescent mental health crisis. Whether that be through relentlessly filibustering proposed bans on gender-affirming health care or advocating for federal legislation that would expand access to free mental health resources for adolescents, politicians must step up their role in the resolution of this crisis.
In my final semester, I am left with an appreciation for the adults and peers who helped me through the worst of my crisis, and who are still there to support me through the tangle of depressive episodes that emerge. Because of them, I was able to get the help I needed — therapy and access to medication. I now have the chance to experience my life post-graduation.
Everyone deserves the same access to life-saving medical treatment that I was privileged enough to access. Let’s ensure they get it.
Jasmine Wynn is a political activist based in New York. She is an incoming freshman at Harvard University.
Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is considering self-harm or suicide, please call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. You may also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741.