A Teenager With Mental Illness Responds to Cheerleaders’ Stunt

I’m not the only parent who was outraged by the insensitivity of the Waunakee Wisconsin High School dance team. ( See:  Stupidity Award for Promoting Prejudice blog.) Mom and fellow NAMI member Chrisa Hickey writes a blog entitled: The Mindstorm – Raising a Mentally Ill Child  and Chrisa posted an Open Letter on it that was written by a teenager with mental illness.  Chrisa knows Erika but is holding back her last name to protect her privacy.  The letter is addressed to Head Coach Erin Cotter. In it, Erika poignantly explains why mental disorders are no laughing matter.

Dear Head Coach Erin Cotter;

I would like to tell you a story, and I would like you to read. Truly read it. As, though it is a story of my life, it is also a story of thousands. Many of whom are even at your school.


A little over a year ago, I was admitted to a inpatient psychiatric hospital. I was severely depressed, anxious, hallucinating, delusional, cutting myself, purging and making suicide plans. It had been going on since I was two. Life didn’t mean anything to me at that point. I loved my family and I loved my friends; I’m sure they loved me. Unfortunately, that love couldn’t heal that pain. Not by itself. My therapist couldn’t do anything, either: he didn’t know and I refused to let him in. So, I made my plans, wrote a will of sorts, penned the letters and signed a farewell statement making sure that everyone knew that this was my choice – not the fault of anyone else. I was thirteen.

But then, in one unexpected, bizarre moment, I made a second thought.

To this day, I am not sure what stopped me. The religious will claim it was God’s Divine Intervention; the secular will tell me that it was evolution: that primitive, ultimate need to survive. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter: that day, as I was fighting with my mom because I refused to go to school, I knew I had to do something. She told me she was making an Emergency Appointment with my psychiatrist. I wanted to argue; but something held me back. I went to the appointment and, in a slurred and pained explanation, I told him I couldn’t take it anymore. I told him I was in pain. I told him that I needed help.

When he brought up inpatient admission, I knew that it was what I needed; but I was terrified. So many questions spun through my mind. Would I be given medication? Would the other kids like me? Would I be able to keep my shoelaces? It was a week before Christmas. What if I didn’t make it home in time? My stomach twisted and I felt nauseated. A headache sunk its teeth into me. I hated myself. I felt like failure; as if, because of this, I had let everyone down. Pulling into the hospital’s parking lot, it was hard not to remember society. To them, this place was a joke and the patients that slept there were the deranged outcasts of society. To them, I was now an outcast.

I remember that first day well. My father – the only available person – had brought me in and I was helping him with the paper work (my parents had divorced years ago; he had been too caught up with drugs to learn anything about me). There was a TV in the admissions room; toy advertisements were playing, smiling children running through the house thanking their parents for getting them what they always wanted. The irony stung. Happy families, smiling kids, a white Christmas; it all seemed so agonizingly unreachable. In grief and rage, I bit down on my lip. I can still taste the blood.

After a few hours had passed, they walked me to the unit. The doors were heavy, reinforced, electronically locked and coated with alarms. Everything in me told me to run – quick, get out of here!; but I was too exhausted to do anything other than what I was told to. The doors made a sound as they locked. My heart was heavy. I couldn’t have cared less.

One of the staff members brought me into a small, locked room. They took out a clipboard and told me to strip. Said that it was a required; that all my marks, wounds and imperfections needed to be accounted for. The blood running through my veins ran cold; frozen, ice-like. I choked; clammed up. I had been sexually abused for seven years. I had PTSD. I had an eating disorder. I had a father who told me who I was screw-up. I hated myself. None of that mattered. They had to make sure I was safe; that the other patients were safe. They needed an explanation for every mark. They needed to search everything: from my shirts to my socks to underwear. I tried to laugh it all of. I’m pretty sure I failed.

The reality of where I was sunk in with a fallen weight. Tears formed at my eyes. A scream built in my throat. I wanted to run; get away. I didn’t want to be there. I knew what would happen if I did that, though: security (if I got far enough, police) would be on me; my stay would extent; and I would lose even more privileges.

The next few days are both vividly clear and a disorienting blur. I went to groups. Took medication. Begged the doctors to send me home. I didn’t want to be here for Christmas. I didn’t want to remember it was Christmas.

And I remember the snow. It was powdery and reflected the sun in that blinding way. The staff brought out sleighs from the storage shed so we could glide down the hills and slopes of the property. Our unit even took a picture with Santa. I imagined that, in the cars that drove by – hundreds each day, I’m sure – Christmas music was drifting out their windows and to us. I almost wondered if their happiness would have some spiritual-echo effect on us. Some times, I could forget where I was. Pretend I was at boarding school, or some gifted program. A program where they send all the functional, , successful”, normal kids; the kids that think a psych ward is somewhere you send the “crazies” and “psychos”. The kids who can use those words without thinking about the people they describe. The kids that you coach everyday. The kids that can be ignorant to the reality of mental illness. And the adults, like you, that enable that.

The fantasy never lasted long. I always woke up. I always remembered where I was. It was impossible to forget.

One girl, who I had grown extraordinarily close to, tried to hang herself on the unit. I had talked to her only minutes before. She had talked about ways to hurt herself behind the staff’s back. We talked about that a lot. I didn’t take her seriously. I blamed myself. All of us did. The staff talked about the seriousness of suicide and about reaching out. When they left the room, we laughed bitterly under our breaths. Most of them had never felt that hopelessness. All of us had.

I ASK YOU: How is that fun, catchy or humorous?

Eventually, as all things do, my stay came to an end. I went home – in time for Christmas, too. My journey was not over. I had been sick for a long time. It would take many more hospital stays, outpatient programs and a lot of treatment – medical treatment – before I was able to say that I didn’t wake up everyday wanting to die.  A few days after that first release – and the others after that – I went back to school. You never would have guessed what I had been through; where I had been. I didn’t look “crazy”-I never had. I looked like any other teenage girl. I went to classes with everyone else. I talked to other kids. I attended school events. I would have the seen your dance team, had I gone to Waunakee High School. And you would never have known. In fact, the next time you perform, I want you to look at the kids in the audience. About 1 in 10 children under the age of eighteen have a mental illness; 1 in 5 have a serious mental illness (SMI) like the ones you mock. ONE IN FIVE.

How many kids are watching you perform? How many are in your school? How about in your district? Your town?

In fact, for a district that claims it values its students, you are callously alienating and hurting quite a lot of them. But don’t worry, they won’t tell you: the mindset of teachers, parents and coaches like you have effectively silenced them. Stigmatized them. Made them feel like less than human.

This isn’t an overreaction; a small, thin skinned group of people whining and ranting. It isn’t about political correctness. And it isn’t about hip-hop. It’s about people and it’s about a DISEASE they struggle with every single day. A disease that rids them of their happiness, stability and normalcy. And it IS a disease. A disability. And you are mocking it to the highest degree.

Of course your students and parents didn’t complain; of course you didn’t think of mental illness. You have not had to suffer from it or know someone who has. You think its a joke because you have not experienced. You CAN bury your heads in the sand. And you know what? I hope you never know it feels like, because it is painful, ugly and it will drive you to think things that you never thought you would. Do things that you used to mock and laugh at.

I do not expect you to change your mind; but I certainly hope you try to, because a empty apology for something you aren’t sorry about does not cut it. Mental Illnesses are life threatening diseases. People die from it, everyday. Did you know suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens and that these disorders are the most common reason for it?

If your dance league sang had routine that included hospital gowns, fake IVs, behaviors associated with dementia, shaved heads and a song about a brain tumor, the nation would be seething with anger. There would be outcry. Cancer patients would be sharing their stories. Families of lost loved ones would be sobbing on TV. You would apologize and admit you were out of line. Maybe donate money to Make-A-Wish or the American Cancer Society (both great organizations).

If your dance league had a routine that involved Autism, Down’s Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Learning Disorders, Cognitive Disability and had the word ‘retard’ or ‘stupid’ in it, the nation would be seething with anger. There would be outcry. People with these disabilities would be sharing their stories. Families and caregivers would be sobbing on TV. You would apologize and admit you were out of line. Maybe donate money to Autism’s Speaks or National Down Syndrome Society (both great organizations).

Here? We are told to shut up, stop with political correctness and not be offended. If a mentally ill person spoke of their feelings, they would be criticized and told to get a thicker skin. If a family that lost someone to suicide sobbed on TV, they would be told that their family member is in Hell, no disease killed them and to get over it. Nobody seethes. The nation doesn’t care. You don’t see a problem in the routine. Your athletes go on thinking it’s OK to mock and make fun of these issues. You continue to alienate other students. And you get to keep your head in the sand and claim this isn’t about mental illness; but about hip-hop. Nobody thinks twice.

Nobody, that is, except the people you hurt. The people you make feel like less than human. The people whose you minimize and joke. The families that have the death of their love one thrown back in their face. The people who refuse to seek help because they are afraid people will think they are ‘crazy’, ‘psycho’, ‘insane’. The people who refuse to seek help help because they KNOW that people will think that; they will know because they see it from the people they are supposed to trust – their teachers, their coaches, their school. These people. These families. They are in your school. They are in your students’ classes. They are their friends. They are your students’ teachers – your co-workers. They are the guidance counselors. They are YOUR friends.

But don’t worry, they’ll never tell you: the mindset of teachers, parents and coaches like you have effectively silenced them. Stigmatized them. Made them feel like less than human.

So go ahead, do your dance. The next time you perform, though, look at the crowd. How many people do you see?



About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Maryaburkhardt says

    How could anyone who went to college not know what a psych ward is like. We, (supposedly), have all read descriptions like these. Psychological pain and “Psych Ward” are nothing to dance about, make a “hip-hop” routine to, or teach high schoolers to be mocking of. Every person will experience sadness in life, and depression is not “mental illness”. Bullying and making fun of those in pain is mental illness, and dancing around with such attitudes is mental illness.l

  2. Maryaburkhardt says

    Just reading “Erika’s” letter makes me feel very sad. A high schooler who has been so hurt should not have to be so self revealing to adults, and teachers ought to know that a lot of high schoolers, even those from well-to-do families spend time in the psych hospitals these days. If not, they often kill themselves. The public school system should exist for the well being of the student. Just reading the comments in this small post is enough to make any caring person very offended. Orange and white costumes, motions depicting mental distress, bizarre facial expressions,…what ever happened to young women wanting to present themselves in an attractive, ladylike demeanor? Personally, I know of many highschoolers who have been in the psych hospital. They are usually sensitive, artistic, caring young women, not screaming, hip-hopping goons. What is being taught in our high schools, and painting with white over the costumes does not undo the whole nasty nature of what this team is depicting.

  3. As a mom who has struggled with mental illness since childhood, and has been through the hospitalization of 2 of my children in Psych units, I was appalled by the news of the dance routine. One thing Erika forgot: possibly one of the cheerleaders themselves suffers. I remember as a high school cheerleader, smiling laughing and cheering my way through game after game, then going home and curling up in bed and crying for hours because of the strain of pretending to be “normal”. I would even join in with the teasing so that no one would know the truth. And then later want to throw up from the bitter taste my own words left in my mouth. My mother didn’t have a clue. My father wasn’t around. I was frequently told “snap out of it” “just cheer up already” or “quit being so negative”. So I did-on the outside. And on the inside, it got worse and worse. I did not receive the help I needed until adulthood. I have been undergoing treatment ever since-a combination of medication, counseling, journaling, prayer and good nutrition keep me fairly balanced. I don’t know how old my kids were when they began to understand that their mother was not like other moms. I do know that when my oldest child began to exhibit signs of depression at the age of 9, I NEVER once told her to snap out of it. I got her a counseler to try to handle the pain of knowing that your own brain has turned on you. When, in spite of ongoing treatment, she hit an especially low point at 13, she knew by then to come to me. We had developed a code word for her to use when she knew that she couldn’t battle this at home anymore. I hugged her and helped her pack and took her to the hospital. There was another hospitalization 3 years later, but now, at nearly 20, she is stable and living a full and active life in college. But when she got the word that her brother had just been admitted, she raced home to offer him support-knowing that no one else could understand like one who has been there. When my 2nd daughter-at 12-was prescribed an antidepressant, I will admit, it created a crisis point in my own stability. Had I brought these children into the world only to have to live my own torment? Share my own hell? I was that sweet 12 year old who reassured me. “Mom, I’m sure LOTS of people have to deal with things like this. At least I have a mom who will never make me feel like a loser because of it. She told me about a girl in her class who was dealing with the same stuff, but without the support.” Although risking my daughters possible embarassment, I called the other girl’s mom. After a long, often tearful conversation, I was able to refer the other family to resources that could help. The poor girl’s mom had been raised in a strict German home and knew no other thing to say to her daughter besides “snap out of it”. I was so glad that she listened and my daughter reported that the girl told her that she had begun counseling.

    It’s not enough to refuse to laugh at the antics of ignorant children who are allowed to act like ignorant children by ignorant adults. It is up to those of us who know the truth to share it, to reach out a hand, and to make sure that our children are not the ignorant ones.

  4. It makes me so angry that mental disseases just aren’t understood or so it seems. This is a chemical imbalance and if not treated will lead especially teenagers possibly to a young death.
    I am bi-polar and in the midst of my second bi-polar break I spend lots of days just getting through the day. At least i can function for my family and I am on one med that helps some but feel anxious alot.
    I am outraged that this coach was allowed to do this. What were they thinking.
    Luckily I have been able to stay out of the hospital but have a very soft place in my heart for those this happens too.
    The one thing that stuck out to me is the feeling of not feeling normal or not knowing what normal is at times.
    I also have one child on meds and in my opinion another who might benifit from them. But as long as there is this is this attitude in society that you are some how less than if you take meds. Or like this dancing group that it is a joke.
    There will continue to be people who dearly need help out their and won’t get help.