For one UNICEF USA youth volunteer, a struggle with an eating disorder led to the realization that taking time off to address mental health issues is a sign of strength, not weakness.

This Mental Health Awareness Month, UNICEF USA is amplifying voices of youth mental health advocates from around the country to stop the stigma and spread the message that #MentalHealthMatters. If you’d like to take action, join us in asking Congress to prioritize the mental health and well-being of children and youth globally and pass the MINDS Act.

Content warning: The following story contains personal details of an eating disorder and mental health issues. Please proceed with caution if you are struggling. Resources on where to seek help can be found at the bottom of the story. The author’s name has been omitted to preserve their anonymity.

I’m taking the semester off.

I don’t want to, though. The thought of getting off the life track I had laid out in my head really scares me. But I have to take the semester off, and I just have to accept that. Let me tell you the story.

When I was a junior in high school, I got into healthy living. I wanted to look and feel better which, by itself, isn’t a problem at all. For me, though, it quickly became a problem. I started restricting calories, exercising nine times a week, and obsessing over the types of food I was eating. I began to lose weight and, as I did, my body became more and more desperate. And although I was fully aware that eating less and less isn’t healthy either, I couldn’t stop.

For months I lost weight, until one day I had no choice but to face all my thoughts and feelings for what they were: a disorder. After a couple months of working with therapists, dietitians and my family, I started to gain weight again. With steady progress, I was able to finish 11th grade on time, and in good health.

“Mental health isn‘t something you focus on only when it’s bad. It’s something you have to continually work on.” 

When I went off to college, I hoped to leave all that behind. This desire to just let the past be the past, though, made me forget that mental health isn’t something that you focus on only when it’s bad. It’s something you have to continually work on. Long story short, I got so wrapped up in the external world that I forgot to watch my internal world, that voice in my head that told me I’m too fat and or I don’t deserve to eat today. And so the same thing happened: I began restricting calories, exercising, losing weight. And all the while, I was feeling worse and worse.

I was hiding it from everyone too. None of my friends, none of my family, not even my therapist knew. The reason for this was because I knew that to face this thing, I’d have to shift my priorities in life for a while. Maybe I’d have to take fewer classes, go to more therapy or even miss a semester to focus on my mental health.

That prospect, the prospect of deviating from the path I had set forth in my head for myself, seemed worse to me than starving. The idea of putting my life on hold, even for a reason as good as getting my head on straight, seemed unthinkable. With everyone around me talking about moving into senior year and getting a job, moving through life, the thought of delaying mine was too much. So I hid everything until it was too late.

“The idea of putting my life on hold, even for a reason as good as getting my head on straight, seemed unthinkable.”

I went home for winter break and, as the spring semester approached, my parents told me they didn’t think I should go back to school. I didn’t bring it up — my parents did. And that’s not because I thought it was the wrong decision (in fact, I agreed), but I just couldn’t bring myself to take a break to focus on my mental health. When my parents told me that I should, I spent four or five days unwilling to accept it. I argued and complained and brought up every reason that taking three months to work on my mental health would be the worst decision anyone could ever make in the entire history of the world.

In the back of my head, though, I knew it was the right call. Eventually, I agreed and took the semester off.

So why am I writing this? Well, I guess the main reason is so that anyone else who can relate will know they’re not alone. They’re not alone in feeling like they can’t take a break, that they have to continue on a particular path, and that life can only move in one direction.

“There isn’t stigma around taking a pause to focus on one’s health, but there’s stigma around taking a break for one’s mental health.”

Further, they aren’t alone feeling somehow weak in admitting that they need some help. I get it. There isn’t stigma around taking a pause to focus on one’s health, but there’s stigma around taking a break for one’s mental health. For about a year, those thoughts kept me from doing something to make myself healthier and happier. Now, about a month into taking some time off, I’m starting to think maybe all those thoughts aren’t that true. Maybe it’s not true that you have to progress through young adulthood in a predetermined way.

I’ve learned it’s not a bad thing to take a break and focus on your health. That’s what mental health is, health.

“I feel a massive burden being lifted from my shoulders each and every day, a burden I know would have stayed had I not taken a break.”

I’m not going to say that I’m super happy that I’m taking the semester off because, honestly, I’m not. It’s still hard to accept. That said, I feel a massive burden being lifted from my shoulders each and every day, a burden I know would have stayed had I not taken a break.

I’m advocating for accessibility to mental health resources for youth, because they’ve helped me and I know they can help you too. I want you to know that it may feel scary to put your five-year plan on pause for a moment. But I’ve found that once I did, the world didn’t explode. All the goals and dreams and milestones are still out there just as they always were, and I feel far more ready to chase them.

This Mental Health Awareness Month, It’s time to stop the stigma. It’s time to engage in meaningful discussions. And it’s time to ensure everyone has access to the mental health resources and services they need — at every age. Take action to share that #MentalHealthMatters.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, help is out there. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine is a free, nationwide peer-support service providing information, resource referrals and support to people living with a mental health condition, their family and caregivers, mental health providers and the public. HelpLine staff and volunteers are experienced, well-trained and able to provide guidance. The NAMI HelpLine is not a hotline, crisis line or suicide prevention line.

The NAMI HelpLine can be reached Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. — 10 p.m. EST. Call 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or email them at helpline@nami.org

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