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I am fifteen years old, and I have spent almost 1000 days of my life circulating through mental health programs for depression, anxiety, and disordered eating.

During these times, I miss whole chunks of my childhood that I will never, ever get back. I will never be able to attend the parties and extracurriculars that others my age take for granted. I will never experience the thrill of entering high school because I spent my whole first year of it hospitalized. I will never be able to chase back the time that was taken away from me and pursue all of the dreams I had: auditioning for The Voice, publishing the novel I have been writing for seven years, traveling to Italy with my school…

And yet, it would all be worth it if going through all these programs could mean that I would one day get better, be able to function in society, and have a "rest of my life." I would not mind spending another 1000 days in programs if it meant getting the support and help I need and finally getting better after years of struggling.

But that’s not happening.

Treatment in psychiatric units is not what people think it is. Every day, I witness and experience things that I believe no one should ever have to be put through. I have watched counselors laugh and joke about the extra money they’ll make staying after hours while holding down a tear-streaked kid. I have seen an eleven-year-old girl shut in a room naked for days at a time, refused even the basic needs of a human, not to mention the psychological needs of a little girl. Yet, fellow peers recall this same eleven-year-old coming into the program with an anxiety disorder that did not nearly cloud the glowing light and extraordinary potential and talent within her. We were forced to watch as her mental health deteriorated and her eleven-year-old spirit got crushed. I have watched her grow up far too fast. I have watched staff roll their eyes at her and treat her with cold comments and sarcastic remarks and insensitive redirection when it is plain to me—someone who has not undergone a minute of psychiatric training—that she just needs a tiny bit of empathy. I have seen the terrified eyes of my peers that watch as stony-faced security guards shove sobbing kids onto beds to be strapped down. I have watched kids shut behind locked doors for months at a time without fresh air, access to the outdoors, or any contact whatsoever with the outside world. I have been kept awake by more than the unit’s horrors when irritated staff refused to even allow me a mattress to sleep on, much less a pillow or blanket.

I am someone who is living through this every day, and even without a degree and a badge that says I’m working at one of the top-ranked hospitals, I can tell you that this is not what we need. Though professionals everywhere agree that many inpatient stays become traumatizing and huge changes need to be made in the entire system, disregard for human rights, belittlement, disrespect, and restraints continue to make up the majority of our “treatment.”

At thirteen, I was admitted to my first hospital, and I met a girl not much older than me, who told me that this was her twentieth psych unit without batting an eyelash. Two years later, she’s at her fortieth. Why do kids continue to circulate through programs if these places are helping us? Why do we come out of programs and attempt suicide ten times more often and get admitted to higher and higher levels of care? Why do we live in a society where it is acceptable for young people to have entire years of their youth taken away?

The attitude in the mental health system needs to change. We need to be recognized as individuals who each have a story to be told. We need to be treated as humans, not just patients who need to be controlled. I don’t have a degree, and I could not tell you how to label the parts of the brain or explain their neurological functions, but I can tell you that the ideal of “safety trumps everything” has been taken to such an extreme that its purpose has been defeated. What point is there in forcing us to “get better,” forcing us be safe if it only makes us feel worse?

A seven-year-old boy who is intent on scratching his wrists does not need four security guards rushing in to hold him down. In five days, the scratches will fade, but the horror of being strapped down by strangers and stabbed by a needle containing an unknown medication will remain with him for the rest of his life. I have not read his pile of paperwork, but I know that what he needs is not a frightful night of staff making snide comments about him behind his back, or security guards boasting about how they are the best guys on the floor who show up first to every restraint.

Nothing makes us feel more powerless and worthless than to be regarded by the masks of professionalism and invisible barriers called “boundaries,” which seem to be the only thing that matters. Kids who have grown up neglected and abused all their lives have not been shipped off to another program so they can see more uncaring faces and be answered with more emotionless replies.

We are rarely listened to, although we are the ones who know what we need best. We are given treatment by strangers who barely even know us and are often too busy and confident in their knowledge to sit down with us and listen. How can these psychiatrists and psychologists and counselors possibly know what we need if they have never walked in our shoes? How can they possibly help us if they see us and treat us as patients that need to be contained, managed, and filed into cabinets and fit into generic treatment plans?

We are imprisoned by not only unit walls and Plexiglas windows but also the endless restrictions piled upon us and staffs' aloof replies that we “did this to ourselves.” Trust me—if we could find a way to be happy, safe, and free, we would.

Boundaries are important. Safety is critical, and as a rule-follower and someone who strives to do good in society, I know. But I have suffered from depression for nearly half my life, and I see the same need for human empathy, mutual respect, and simple compassion that I see in the mirror in the eyes of the other patients who have become my friends. And I don't think that any diagnosis or any incident can trump that.

I wonder why, as someone without a degree, training, or background information, I can make a kid stop trying to hurt themselves by talking to them for ten minutes when professionals can’t do it in an hour of restraints, restrictions, protocols, and medications. I wonder why I am then punished, redirected, and put down for being human and reaching out my hand as a fellow human.

To the clinicians and staff out there who truly care, thank you so much. You have helped me more than you can imagine.

To all the others: a change of attitude is needed in the mental health system. A smile, some understanding, and the words, “I care” are steps taken to change someone’s life, but learned masks of professionalism, desensitized protocols, and gloved hands of aliens digging into a young kid’s thighs will only break them more.

I am asking for a more humanistic approach to treatment. Kids should be treated for their problems—deep-seated issues in their lives—rather than the surface-level behavioral symptoms. The use of restraints and other traumatizing protocols should be a last resort, rather than a means to simplify a problem. There needs to be more open-mindedness in listening to what patients have to say, respect for each patient’s dignity and privacy, and value in each patient’s human rights.

I am also leaving this petition open-ended because I want other patients themselves to be the ones who contribute to what they want to see in mental health systems. All of us should be the ones who ask for the changes that we need so we make our time at programs worth it.

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