This column is part of an ongoing series by USA TODAY Opinion exploring the mental health crisis facing Americans.
Imagine a freshly cooked dinner, consisting of marinated steak, steamed vegetables and mashed potatoes with a mountain of butter cascading down the side. To top it off, a homemade hot fudge brownie sundae with a cherry on top.
To many people, the thought of this meal is mouthwatering, but to anorexia survivors like me, such a meal was once beyond petrifying.
Seemingly out of nowhere, when I was 10 years old, I developed severe anorexia nervosa that almost killed me, and my whole world was flipped upside down.
Everything became a numbers game: how many calories I consumed, how many minutes I needed to exercise, the size of my jeans. During the height of my eating disorder, I craved only one thing: control.
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In reality, everything I once had control over was torn away, but I was too sick to realize it. My health deteriorated and I could no longer compete in athletics, and I was forced to take gap years from school because of trips across the country to recovery centers.
Even relationships I once cared about slowly vanished after I was torn from my family for several months due to a ravaging mental illness that caused me to spend my 11th birthday in a hospital room by myself across the country from home.
While all of this was happening, I did everything in my power to keep this secret hidden from my friends, classmates, coaches and virtually anyone else who knew me.
Unfortunately, putting on a mask and repressing reality is common for those struggling with a mental health problem.
When it comes to mental health in teenagers, it seems as though the problem gets worse each year. So many of my peers have told me that they also felt as if they had to shield their emotions from everybody else and continue going through the motions of life as if nothing was ever wrong.
However, whether it's anxiety, depression, anorexia, bipolar disorder or anything else, we have seen that bottling up these emotions will lead to more collateral damage in the end.
When somebody breaks their arm, they are treated with empathy and kindness and do not feel that they have to hide their injury. Why does somebody with mental illness not feel that they deserve this same empathy and kindness?
Social media and the highlight reel effect – the idea that people will almost always represent themselves, their lives and their experiences in the best light possible – only make matters worse.
My anorexia nervosa thrived off comparing myself with others and the unrealistic expectations created by social media. What I needed to consider was the use of photoshop and other editing tools behind the images that I allowed to control my life.
Many teenagers fall victim to the lie that everyone else on social media is happy. And others like me feel reluctant to share their struggles when Instagram and Snapchat paint the picture that everybody is living a perfect lifestyle.
Mental illness in teens is an issue that we need to not only prioritize but also normalize. My struggles have made me more observant of the scope of the crisis we are facing.
It has become clear that the best actors aren’t getting played off the stage at the Oscars – they surround us, silently screaming for help. In America, more than 50 million adults have a mental health condition. However, nearly 54% of sufferers in 2020 did not receive treatment due to lack of access.
We are seeing these trends now more than ever among adolescents. I believe that the key to ending the mental health epidemic among teens is to normalize the struggle, educate those around us and be vulnerable about our struggles.
Most of all, I’ve learned that almost nothing is as ideal as it seems. Every person has their own story, and they can make it seem however they want for people looking in on the other side. It’s easy to look and judge, but merely impossible to see who people really are and what they are struggling with.
Everyone saw me as a very skinny, cute, “average” fifth-grader. What they did not know was my struggles with distorted body image and that I had severe anorexia that almost killed me. To outsiders, my life looked “happy” and “perfect.”
A simple smile or compliment can go a long way as you really never know what anyone is going through.
Alaina Stanisci,18, is from Mountain Lakes, New Jersey.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Social media makes everyone look happy. That lie nearly killed me.