Best-selling author John Green talks about his real-life struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder fairly regularly.

In general, he's a pretty honest dude, which is why it's not surprising that he got real during a recent speech at the NerdCon: Stories convention in Minneapolis.

During the speech, the "Fault in Our Stars" writer (and popular vlogger) detailed three specific mental breakdowns he's experienced in his life. He later shared the speech on Medium, too.


Green (left) at the Nashville red carpet and fan event for "The Fault in Our Stars." Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Allied.

The whole thing is pretty powerful. But in the most moving moment, he admits to going off his medication. By choice. As recently as last year.

He described the visceral experience of going off his meds:

"For a couple months, I am a passenger in my consciousness. It’s terrifying, in a horror movie kind of way, to be unable to control your thoughts . ... I feel that I am the demon, clinging to a self that is at its core no longer mine."

He also explained the reason for his self-imposed psychiatric vacation:

"I went off my medication to try to write a novel, because I bought into the dangerous romantic lie. I’m embarrassed to tell you that, but yeah. I hadn’t written a book in years, and I felt desperate to write something. I blamed my medication, so I decided that to write, I would go off of it. ... Here is what I wrote during the collapse of last year: Nothing that made sense."

That's right: Green ignored his recommended mental health treatment because he wanted more creative energy.

Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images for Allied-THA.

He's hardly the first creative person to give in to the dangerous notion that mental angst makes your work better.

But the fact that this doubt happened so much later in his career, after years of success, shows just how pervasive that myth can be. Green isn't an up-and-coming author looking for a shortcut to success — he's written five New York Times best-selling novels, two of which were made into hit films. Time magazine named him as one of the most influential people in the world.

Despite all this, he still decided that letting his mental illness run rampant was the best thing for his career. That's not an indictment of Green's decision-making skills. It's proof of the irresistible allure of the dangerous myth of artist as a "mad man."

John with his wife, Sarah, at the Time 100 Gala. Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Time.

It's the same story we've heard before, from Vincent van Gogh to Sylvia Plath to Robin Williams and beyond.

To this day, Ernest Hemingway's famed alcoholic revelry tends to distract us from the fact that he took his own life. Maybe The Beatles did reap some benefits from LSD — but that same drug contributed to Philip K. Dick's psychotic break and obsession with schizophrenia. And how many famous musicians have died directly from addiction?

There have been a lot of studies done on the relationship between mental health and creativity, and they all support the same conclusion: Creative types tend to be at risk. And yet, this idea that mental suffering contributes to artistic success persists.

Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Allied.

"Romanticizing mental illness is dangerous and destructive just as stigmatizing it is," Green said.

"You can be sane and be an artist, and also that if you are sick, getting help  —  although it is hard and exhausting and inexcusably difficult to access  —  will not make you less of an artist." he added.

"I have written my best work not when flirting with the brink, but when treating my chronic health problem with consistency and care."

Mental health is still all-too-often stigmatized, which is why it's so important when highly visible figures speak up about their own struggles. Green's confession was a powerful reminder that success alone can't solve these problems — and that even people who look like they're on top of the world are still receptive to that treacherous temptation.

I'm just glad he figured this out before it was too late.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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