Jasper teenager Alex L. shared her brave story of depression and recovery with us for the Lufkin Daily News’ article about mental illness. As she prepares for college in the fall, she’s thankful that someone made a fateful call that saved her life.
Local teen suffering from depression thankful someone reached out to help
By Shelly Ladden
Special to the Daily News
Editor’s Note: In observance of Mental Health Month, The Lufkin News is featuring local mental health stories and services throughout May.
Alex L. will spend the next few months doing what many 18-year-olds across the country do over the summer: getting ready for college.
But if the police hadn’t pulled her out of class that day a year ago, she’d be in far different position.
“I think I’d be dead,” she said. “Having people know I was thinking about killing myself was embarrassing. But things were bad for me and getting worse. I’m sure I’m here today because of that day.”
Alex spent most of her high school years by herself. At home, she spent nearly every minute alone in her room. She had no friends at school. She stared at the floor while she walked to class. She learned to cope with random nasty comments from classmates, but said she didn’t suffer from severe bullying.
“I was kind of a ghost at school,” she said.
School is where she learned there was a name for what she was feeling — depression.
“I learned about the symptoms in my health class,” Alex said. “But I kept it to myself. I didn’t talk to anyone and just denied it for years. When you keep it to yourself, you have to pretend it’s not there. And I sucked at pretending.”
There are teenagers like Alex in every community in the country. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds. Over 800,000 people die by suicide every year, that is one death every forty seconds. There are more deaths from suicide than from war and homicide together.
Research suggests that the vast majority of people contemplating suicide or with a mental illness who seek help can reduce their symptoms. But there are often long delays − sometimes decades − between the first appearance of symptoms and when people get help.
Like many teenagers, Alex became part of an online community that accepted her. She runs a blog which attracted readers and online friends from around the world. One of the online friends she confided in got worried that she would hurt herself. He looked up her hometown and called the local police. All the way from Brazil.
The police removed her from class and she was required to see a therapist.
“I understand that people may not want to offend a person by asking whether they are thinking about suicide,” Alex said. “But it saved my life. And what’s worse, offending someone or missing the chance to save them?”
Detecting depression and other mental illnesses in teens is sometimes tricky. In addition to misunderstandings about mental illness and the public’s discomfort addressing it, some symptoms in teens are confusingly similar to changes that all teenagers go through: new groups of friends, falling grades, or changes in sleeping habits, mood or interests. Most parents of teenagers would say these things are normal.
But with mental illnesses, symptoms persist and worsen.
“People think you can snap out of depression or think kids don’t have anything to be sad about,” she said. “They just don’t get it.”
Fortunately for Alex, someone helped her find the care she needed. It hasn’t been simple or quick, but her progress has been significant. She is now able to recognize her symptoms and can navigate her way through the darkness.
“Medication has been helpful,” she said, “but so has talking to people about it. Managing my depression made me change my thought process. One bad thought could set me off and I’d brood all day. I’ve learned to shake it off. It takes a lot of dedication, but I’m able to push through it.”
According to mental health counselors, it’s important for parents and teachers to be aware of what is going on in their children’s or students’ lives and be on the lookout for unusual changes. If gregarious kids withdraw or quiet kids begin acting out, for example, it may not be kids being kids. In Alex’s case, an online friend from 5,000 miles away made a call that saved her life.
“I can’t wait to get to college,” she said, “which is an amazing thing to say. Two years ago, I’d never think of the future or what my life would be like when I grew up. But now I can’t wait for it to happen.”
Building an aware community is the goal of a national program called Mental Health First Aid for Youth which provides training for parents, teachers, pastors and other adults that work with children basic information about what to look for, how to engage children about mental illness, and the proper steps to take when they think a child is struggling with a mental illness or is considering suicide. Learn more at mentalhealthfirstaid.org/cs/category/youth-mental-health-first-aid/.
In East Texas, mental health services provider Burke has launched its REAL campaign to spur parents, teachers and other community members to be more aware of symptoms they may see in their family, friends, co-workers or students. Visit myburke.org/REAL for more information.