Conquering the stigma: Lehtinen’s journey of mental health

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Conquering the stigma: Lehtinen’s journey of mental health

Lehtinen and his father, who learned to share personal experiences about their mental illness struggles with each other.

Lehtinen and his father, who learned to share personal experiences about their mental illness struggles with each other.

Submitted: Nik Lehtinen

Lehtinen and his father, who learned to share personal experiences about their mental illness struggles with each other.

Submitted: Nik Lehtinen

Submitted: Nik Lehtinen

Lehtinen and his father, who learned to share personal experiences about their mental illness struggles with each other.

By Isabel Saavedra-Weis, St. Paul Academy and Summit School

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Here’s what senior Nik Lehtinen wants you to know about him. He wears a lot of baseball hats. He’s funny, or likes to think he is, and always has some jokes to crack if class ever gets a little dry. He hates running, but loves to play hockey and baseball. He talks to everyone — he’s a textbook extrovert — and prides himself in being outgoing. And he has struggled with mental illness.

“I was always a worrisome kid,” Lehtinen said.

He recalls the anxiety he would feel as a child when he wasn’t able to find his parents in the stands of his hockey games. At the time, his worries seemed like natural nine-year-old worries; the kind that would eventually go away when he practiced getting out of his comfort zone. And his anxieties about losing his parents in a crowd did eventually go away. But they were replaced.

Starting middle school at St. Paul Academy and Summit School presented Lehtinen with a whole new set of stresses. He felt pressure to perform well academically, and the pressure got so bad that one day, he just stopped trying in class. He stopped caring. He stopped hanging out with friends.

“I know it was confusing for a lot of my teachers. Especially Ms. McElligott. She’s a great teacher, and she did a lot for me that year. I wish I could’ve gone back to her sooner once I started figuring myself out and told her I appreciated everything,” Lehtinen said.

Most of middle school for Lehtinen was fogged with this depression and anxiety. It took until freshman year, and an emotional breakdown, for him to find the words to explain his sadness and worry.

“I was always a kid who hated asking for help. It was hard for me to say that I needed to go see a therapist,” Lehtinen said. “There’s a stigma around it, and it’s hard to beat.”

There’s a stigma around it, and it’s hard to beat.”

— Nik Lehtinen

Reaching out for guidance helped Lehtinen start to grapple with the layers of his depression and anxiety, but it didn’t fix everything immediately.  

Junior year, Lehtinen had a doctor appointment involving needles, which triggered an anxiety-induced fainting spell. Up until this point, Lehtinen’s anxiety had never gotten so bad that he couldn’t control his body and knowing that it could cause him to faint freaked him out. He started suffering from panic attacks.

“Your hands go numb, your vision narrows, your heart is racing, you’re sweating and cold at the same time,” Lehtinen describes.

His anxiety was taking over his life; it was harder for him to take tests, he didn’t want to drive the car or leave the house out of fear of blacking out in public. So, Lehtinen did the hard thing and reached out for help again.

A doctor explained to Lehtinen that his fear is a common one, and prescribed him a medication that almost immediately started taking effect. He was having less extreme mood swings, and it became easier to leave the house.

However, Lehtinen only acknowledged his medications as part of the solution; a “pat on the back” of security he could fall back on when he was struggling. The other part was the lifestyle changes he made to improve his mental state.

“I have to exercise every day, at least thirty minutes. I can feel my stress from the day mellow out,” Lehtinen said, mentioning that physical activity plays a major role in his mental health journey.

I can feel my stress from the day mellow out.”

— Nik Lehtinen

Another large change Lehtinen made in his life to better his mental health was to speak out about it. He started small, like reaching out to his parents and his close friends. From doing that, he learned that people he was close to, like his father, had struggled with similar issues. Then, he made the daunting decision to speak about his mental health journey for his senior speech.

“I’d get to certain points of my speech and I’d think, ‘Oh my god, I’m about to say this in front of this many people,’” Lehtinen said.

But once he said it? He felt like he did the right thing, for himself and for others in the audience.

“It’s a dreary speech, but it’s important because it will make people relieved knowing they aren’t the only ones,” he said.

Lehtinen recognizes that his identity, being a male athlete and class clown, might not paint him as someone who would openly talk about mental health. That only makes him want to talk about it more.

“I’m a guy, I play sports, and people who play sports and are guys go through [mental health struggles.] You go through that stuff regardless of who you are, or how you identify.”

Giving a personal, vulnerable speech lifted a weight off of Lehtinen’s shoulders, but he knows that for many, speaking so openly about their mental health journey is not the chosen path. For those people, he hopes his speech helps them realize that they aren’t alone, and even if they don’t want to tell 500 people about their struggles, they would be inspired to reach out to someone for help.

This story was originally published on The Rubicon on April 9, 2019.