By Edward (Ned) Hallowell, M.D.
When I was in high school, I was worried or sad a lot of the time. I came from a pretty mixed-up family and didn't feel very secure within myself. I felt pressure not only to do well academically but also to be liked and accepted by the others in my class. Often I felt on the outside, and I didn't know what to do to find a way to the happy, secure life I imagined my classmates enjoyed.
I wish someone had been able to sit down with me and explain that my feelings were common among people like me, people who have learning difficulties (I have both dyslexia and attention deficit disorder), as well as people who have a family history of mental illness and alcoholism, as I do. My father had bipolar (or manic-depressive) illness, and my mother was alcoholic.
If all this sounds frightening, take heart. I am a very fulfilled man today. At the age of 52, I have three happy children whom I adore, a wonderful wife whom I cherish, and a multi-faceted job I love. I am a psychiatrist in private practice and on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, a writer, and a public speaker.
But I wish someone had told me, when I was in high school, what I am now going to tell you. It would have saved me a lot of heartache. However, no one did. This was not because no one cared. It was because most people didn't know. The average person thought of emotions like sadness or fear or worry in terms of character and upbringing. If you suffered from sadness or excessive worry this was considered at best to be bad luck, and at worst it was evidence that you were weak, had rotten parents, or both. Therefore, not only did no one counsel me regarding my feelings, I felt compelled to hide them a great deal of the time, covering them over with self-effacing humor or silence.
What I would have liked to know back then, and what I am going to tell you now, is that excessive worry and sadness are common among talented, creative people. Indeed, it is more the rule than the exception that a person with creative gifts will also struggle with periods of excessive worry or sadness. That is not to say depression and anxiety are merit badges, but it is most certainly to say they are nothing to be ashamed of. Not in the least.
All people need to know this. Don't hide your feelings, especially the painful ones. It can be a matter of life and death. Sadness and worry can lead people to abuse alcohol and other drugs; make terrible decisions about their lives; and even attempt suicide.
How do you know if your sadness or worry is dangerous? How do you know when to ask for help? A good rule of thumb is this: Never worry alone. Never keep these feelings to yourself. If you are sad or worried or both, talk to someone you trust. Then see how you feel. If you feel better, good. But if the sadness and worry persist, then speak to your parents, or a teacher, or a doctor.
What can they do? Isn't this just life? That's what I thought when I was in high school back in the late 1960s. I thought this was just "the human condition," and the best I could do, indeed what I was supposed to do, was suck it up. Tough it out.
That is a dangerous - not to mention ineffective - solution.
In fact, mental health professionals have a lot of practical remedies to offer for both excessive sadness and excessive worry. You do not have to suffer in silence; you should not suffer in silence. That suffering detracts from your enjoyment of life, your performance in school, your abilities in sports, and even your physical health. Prolonged worry or sadness can actually make you physically ill. And at their worst, they can make you try to hurt yourself.
But don't go there. There is no need to. We have help available, help that actually works. All you have to do is tell some adult you are in trouble and need help. Above all, as I said before, never worry alone.
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