‘Suddenly, the world was bigger; not in an astrophysical sense, for I’d been aware and awed by that for many years already; but I felt like the bubble that encased me had burst, exposing me to raw, intoxicating air.’
This was written by a teenager I know well. It beautifully reflects the realization of all sorts of intangible, exciting feelings that characterize growing up. A waking up to the vastness of the world of ideas and emotions, of people and technology, and all that it has to offer. A world that is not bound merely by physical limits.
For the first time, things are not black or white; there is an entire range of grey to contend with while making choices in every area of life. Values, friends, even the clothes you choose to make statements with, are no longer simple binaries. Existing norms are questioned, because sorting out your beliefs to forge an identity becomes important.
Even the most confident teenager has lurking doubts about himself. Competing and comparing with your peers, however frivolous it might appear on the surface, is inescapable, because it is a normal way of seeing where you stand in relation to everybody else. You feel like a success or a failure, based on where you peg yourself on this scale. A sense of achievement is necessary to feel confident, a belief that you matter, your life matters. This is what mental well-being is about. If this is compromised, you get overwhelmed by negative emotions like anxiety and depression, and could even have a breakdown.
It is important to be aware that mental health cannot be neglected anymore than physical health can. When things go wrong - as they sometimes will – it is necessary to talk to your parents; in fact, it is the best thing if you share a loving, trusting relationship with your parents. They do have your best interests at heart, even if they don’t always approve of the things you do. If, for some reason you can’t, you could reach out to an adult you trust, or to a mental health professional.
Here, I’d like to share one teenager’s take on her life:
Being a teenager is pretty hard. Adults relentlessly expect things from you, and hold up all sorts of high-achiever kids as examples for you to emulate. People act like your value can be quantified by incredibly simplistic parameters. It’s likely that some will crumble under the pressure.
Even leaving aside other people, it’s a stressful time inside your own head. Do you constantly compare yourself to someone else? Come up against a seemingly infallible opponent in every field you pursue, and then proceed to feel useless? I do that sometimes, and it’s really tiring. Honestly though, there’s nothing anyone can say that can entirely stop me from doing this.
What do you want to do with your life? What do ‘success’ and ‘failure’ mean to you? Going along with your own definitions of these slippery entities is tough, especially if they clash with your parents’.
Then, there are the moral dilemmas. Whole barrages of these hit you exactly when there is an increase in workload at school. You feel lonely and isolated if you are not fitting in because you don’t want to do morally incorrect things. Or get desperate because you can’t cope with school upon giving in to peer pressure and letting things slide.
Situations and people are not black or white; they can be confusingly grey too. My belief system underwent quite an upheaval, and I’m still not sure about a lot of things being completely wrong, the way adults portray them. And I’m not sure adults are right about everything either.
My problems sometimes seem unsolvable, and of dizzying magnitude. Maybe I only feel this way because those problems are bouncing around and echoing within my own brain. But sometimes I wonder – is this how being a teenager is supposed to feel?
This is the story of just one girl. I’m sure every teenager views life through his or her own personal lens, and has questions that need answers. Over the next few weeks this column will try to address issues concerning the mental wellbeing of teenagers.
Dr Shyamala Vatsa is a Bangalore-based psychiatrist who has been practicing for over twenty years. This column on youth will appear every fortnight in this space. If you have any comments or queries you would like to share, please write to her firstname.lastname@example.org