High school and struggle: Breanna Roach’s bumpy path to mental health wellness
Building Hope Summit County
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone more poised for success than 18-year-old Breanna Roach.
The 2020 Summit High School honors graduate sat down in early June to talk about her emotional journey through mental health struggles and self-harm.
While talking, Breanna occasionally twirls the copper-colored strands of her curly mane that frame a pretty face dotted with freckles. Her blue eyes are bright and honest, steady and deep. When she speaks, it’s with precision, as if she’s spent a great deal of time kneading her thoughts.
“I think high school is a hard time for a lot of students, and a lot of us simply struggle through mental health challenges,” she said. “For many of us, people see happiness defined as success in academics, sports, friendships, extracurricular achievement, but happiness isn’t always what we feel inside.
“In high school, I learned a lot about the mismatch between public and personal perception. It led me to a lot of bad days and a lot of good days. Both were important to my growth, and without both, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Breanna identifies and appreciates the process of darkness yielding to light, of being patient and present to feel heaviness lift, of making sense of turmoil.
Life is good for her these days. She is attending the University of Virginia on scholarship and declared nursing as an early major. And she’s learned that it’s going to take struggle, strength, courage and hope for those good days to continue.
A native of Summit County, Breanna grew up enjoying the bounties of outdoor sports and recreational activities.
“I had a typical Summit County childhood,” she said. “You go to school, you get close to your classmates, you ski with your families on weekends. It was a good time.”
A goal-oriented, self-starter, she participated in an advanced academic program and became captain of the varsity soccer team as a junior. She also played basketball and was a member of the ski team. She had many close friends and participated actively in myriad clubs and as a camp counselor.
As she distills her accomplishments, she admits success had its costs.
“From an outside perspective, I looked like I was happy and successful, so there was nothing to worry about,” she said. “People measure your success based on school performance, extra-curricular, social life — check, check, check. I had all those things, and I was doing well in all those things. So they identified me as being successful, and they assumed I must be happy, right?”
It was in her junior year when things got both better and worse for Breanna. She was one of 40 students admitted into the international baccalaureate diploma program at Summit High School. The intense academic curriculum includes advanced college-level classes, exams that determine college-level credit and multiple essay assignments, among other demands.
“I was stretched thin, playing varsity soccer, playing basketball, hours of homework after school and a lot of sleep deprivation,” she said, adding that she averaged about four hours of sleep per night.
Some of the students in the program who didn’t have extracurricular activities were able to manage the workload more easily, but it was frowned upon because “you need extracurriculars to be balanced,” Breanna said, emphasizing the word “balanced” to underscore the irony.
With the demands of school and extracurricular activities increasing, so did her awareness of her mental health issues.
“I made the decision not to do my extended essay in May of junior year …” Breanna said about the international baccalaureate diploma requirement. “For me, I knew that not completing the essay was the right thing to do. I didn’t share the decision widely because I was embarrassed. I had failed my goal of getting the IB diploma just halfway into it. There was this heavy sense of failure. And it wasn’t a relief to let that go because I kept pretending I was doing it.”
Struggling to cope
It was during this time that positive coping mechanisms were no longer relieving Breanna’s exhaustion and sadness, so she turned to negative ones, including self-harm. That could mean cutting, drinking too much, binge eating, getting high — all ways to feel something other than what you’re feeling. As many as 23% of teenagers engage in the practice, according to Mental Health America.
The irony was not lost on Breanna. She had been trained and equipped to help others with their mental health struggles, yet she faltered with her own.
“I was very educated on mental health,” Breanna said. “I went through peer counseling; I was a peer counselor to middle schoolers. I was aware of how common self-harm and depression were among my peers. I’d always been the person who helped. It was weird. I was still fulfilling that role of talking to people who were struggling while I was going through all this. I know what mental health advice I would give to someone who was going through what I was going through, but I couldn’t take the advice myself. I tried hard, but I couldn’t counsel myself.”
After sharing some of her struggles with a mentor, she decided to see a therapist in November of her senior year.
“Therapy was one of the most positively impactful things I’ve ever done,” she said. “It gave me strategies, like being more mindful of little things or rearranging my language to be more positive. It gave me an outlet to communicate and find solutions. It expanded my support system. …
“I was at the point when I wanted to address the problems, and I had given myself time to think about them, and I had practiced talking about them with friends. A couple of years earlier, I would not have been able to identify my problems to a therapist.”
Breanna suspects she had trouble identifying her problems and asking for help because she was viewed as successful at school.
“I think we’ve done a good job at normalizing the idea that people who struggle with mental health can be successful,” she said. “But something that isn’t very normalized is that successful people can struggle with mental health. When you’re successful, people just assume that you have good mental health because it has to be to some extent, but there are cases like mine, where you can appear successful on the outside and still struggle on the inside. School performance and good mental health do not necessarily go hand in hand.”
Breanna said seeing a therapist helped her become more aware of the dangers of negative coping mechanisms as well as the efficacy of positive ones.
“I got into meditating, breathing patterns, physical activities, journaling, talking with friends — things that were not harmful to turn to,” Breanna said.
When asked what she most likes about herself, Breanna’s list is long and deep:
“That my friends know the real me, and I don’t have to put on a show,” she said without a second thought. “That’s a real achievement, and it takes a lot of work.
“I like about myself that I’ve learned that there will always be adversity in my life, and that I know how to get help before it escalates. I like that I got a good education with good grades and turned in really good work. I like that I could have ignored my mental health, but I didn’t. …”
“I like about myself that I’m ready for the next chapter in my life,” she said finally with an assured smile. “Yeah, I’m ready.”
Editor’s note: This is a shortened version of a story written by Suzanne Acker, a special projects writer for Building Hope Summit County. Read Breanna Roach’s full story and watch a video interview with her at BuildingHopeSummit.org/about/hope.
• Building Hope Summit County peer support line: 970-485-6271 Option 2.
• The Hype youth connection program, ages 12-20: BuildingHopeSummit.org/events/hype
• Therapy resources: BuildingHopeSummit.org/resources/therapy-resources
• Peer-to-peer teen support group: Support.TherapyTribe.com/teen-support-group
• SpeakUp ReachOut suicide prevention support: SpeakUpReachOut.org
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