Learning how to destigmatize mental health has been a bit of a feat for our society in the last decade. There have been many revelations that have been made on an individual and societal basis in becoming proactive in one’s mental health journey. These destigmatizing efforts have been tremendously advantageous for society to progress in its attitudes about taking care of one’s mental health just as one would do for their physical health. However, when the foster care system is added into the sociological view of these already pioneering efforts, mental health becomes that much more of a struggle to grapple with.
Data suggests that 80% of the nearly 420,000 foster youth in the nation suffer from significant mental health issues. In addition to all of life’s surmounting pressures, abuse, neglect, and trauma — or all three, in some instances — are fuel to the frenzied flames of mental health challenges in youth. The statistics show one side of a larger picture, but individual testimony is just as vital to breaking down our collective understanding of the mental health of foster youth. Considering the cruciality of addressing these issues from within the system could help curb the prevalence of mental health issues, such as undiagnosed disorders, increased anger issues, attention-deficit issues, increase in depression and suicide rates, and more.
After being admitted into the Texas foster care system as a teenager, my mental health went through a rollercoaster of peaks and dips. My perception around mental health was to hide my struggles with it as much as possible to avoid what was done to other youth. I, very quickly, began to associate mental health struggles with judgment about whether one is “stable” or not. If you wanted to appear “normal” and non-problematic, you couldn’t talk about mental health struggles. Talking about them could lead to presumptuous and hasty clinical diagnoses, possible relocation to mental health facilities or residential treatment centers (RTCs), gratuitous prescription of medications, missing more school time due to increase in mandated therapy visits, and more. The disadvantages of sharing my struggles seemed endless. The advantages didn’t occur to me as obtainable due to all of the surrounding negative perceptions that other people attached to the “foster youth” title.
Before coming into foster care, I had grown up in a conservative, very tight-knit family. It’s understandable that being separated from parents and siblings could have a horrific strain on my mental health. However, I distinctly remember trying to mask it all. During the initial analysis period, it seemed that everyone was trying to poke and prod at me to see what type of foster youth I was going to be. As off-putting as it was, I put my best “normal and potential token foster youth” foot forward. Every worker that I crossed paths with, no matter their role in my care, was themed with a “proceed with heavy caution” motto where I only shared what I thought each person wanted to hear. This ended up taking a very heavy toll on my mental health, even though others gave me badges of honor and praise for my “adaptability and exemplary behavior.” It was a major barrier to allowing people to connect with me and peer into my true mental well-being. The struggle of not trusting people in the foster care system caused many roadblocks in my mental health journey. Some roadblocks that I still struggle with include an increased need for isolation, paranoia about people’s intentions and biases, not allowing people to connect with me beyond my persona, an abnormal pursuit in striving for acceptance and optimal behavior, and carrying a mountainous weight on my shoulders that always sabotaged my personal relationships.
Some advice that I would’ve been keen on receiving back in my prime is that opening up does not make you fragile or weak. On the contrary, it allows for an efficient, non-convoluted process of mending your mental state. Nobody’s dream is to end up in the foster care system, but it is what you make of it that counts. Navigating the challenges does not make you unfortunate. Edwin Hubbell Chapin once said that “out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” The truth is, mental growth can be painful to the point where the suffering does not seem worth the reward. But one should never lose sight of the reward of internal salvation and restoring faith from within.