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Youth Summit: Combat Depression: Reach Out

Whitman Youth Summit helps teens address depression and suicide prevention.

Pamela Valentine brought her son Michael's baseball cap to show a Walt Whitman High School class last Wednesday, Dec. 10.

"This is what I have left," Valentine said. "I don't have my son, I have a hat."

Before her son turned 22, Valentine lost Michael to suicide in June of 2002.

"I can remember Michael saying for months, 'I'm so tired. I'm so tired.' I thought it was college life, I had no idea it was depression.

"There are memories, wonderful memories," Valentine said, "but I want [Whitman students] to understand the chaos I was left with. … You don't get to come back tomorrow."

There have been other suicide attempts and suicides at Whitman during the last few years, including a death last year and a suicide attempt this school year.

"We have had some catastrophic events — things that reverberate through the community," said Lesley Macherelli, a parent on Whitman's Youth Summit committee, which organized the summit on depression, suicide prevention and stress management on Dec. 10.

"If one child was changed by this…if one child seeks help, we accomplished our goal. If 10 seek help, that's even better. If everyone learned to detect the symptoms in themselves or in their friends, we have done a huge service," Macherelli said.

MORE THAN 85 speakers — including suicide survivors, therapists, bereavement counselors, emergency medics and others — spoke during Whitman's Youth Summit, which was organized by students, parents and faculty to address the prevalence of depression and the ways students can seek help for themselves and for their friends.

"Here in this room, one of four of you will experience depression. When we talk about knowing someone with depression, everyone in this room will be impacted by depression," said Dr. Suzanne Griffin, to another class of students during the summit.

"Depression is rampant, stress is rampant," said Margaret Cothern, counselor at Whitman. "We have had suicides, we don't want anymore."

FOR HER PRESENTATION, Lisa Diamond-Raab, of Children's National Medical Center, brought miniature figurines and construction paper and asked students to depict what the world feels like for someone who is depressed.

"One group created a cave and they tied up a miniature in the cave, depicting that he felt trapped and alone and powerless," Diamond-Raab said.

Another student put a number of figurines on one side of the paper and placed a barrier between them and one solitary ugly figure. "He showed that he wasn't worthy of trying to cross the line, that was a lot of what they feel like," she said.

Diamond-Raab said one-third of teenage Caucasian girls engage in self-injurious behavior. "Children are hurting themselves because they are hurting inside," she said. "I educated them how that is a link to depression and early intervention is necessary to make sure it doesn't get worse," she said.

MORE THAN 15,000 teenagers in the United States die of suicide each year and over 1,000 teenagers go to the hospital for suicide attempts, according to Ross Szabo, 25, youth outreach director of the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign.

"Suicide kills more people in this country than homicide, but four of every five people that contemplate taking their own lives exhibited warning signs," Szabo said, to a group of physical education classes in an auxiliary gym. "We need to learn those warning signs."

Szabo talked of his own experience with bipolar disorder during high school and how he survived a suicide attempt before he began treatment to learn how to deal with his mental illness.

"Words like depression, bipolar disorder and eating disorders are not negative words, they are words we use to identify the issue inside someone," Szabo said. "The diagnosis is just the tip of the iceberg, you're going to have to learn about yourself, learn about what happens in your brain, and learn about how to deal with it."

He encouraged all students to combat the stigma that prevents people from seeking help, the stigma that prevents people from helping friends, family members and loved one in need.

"Maybe you're thinking, 'Man, I'm not like this, I'm never going to take my own life, I don't need to listen to this.' I hope you don't," Szabo said. "But one of your friends may want to, and I would never want any of you to be in a position where you see someone leave somewhere and you never see them again."

DR. KEITH ERICKSON was "struck" by how many students in the class he talked to have had first-hand experience with depression or have known someone with depression.

"They wanted to know how severe depression can be," he said.

"Most who feel suicidal don't want to die, but the pain is so intense that they can't quite think of any other way to stop it," said Erickson.

Erickson said he hoped students came away with two important messages from his presentation.

"Depression is something you can talk about, it's not something to be ashamed of and there are people that are caring and interested and available who want to listen."

He said he also wanted students to feel that they can have an impact on each other.

WHITNEY, A SENIOR who asked that her last name not be used for this article, gave a co-presentation with Erickson in two classrooms.

"It's certainly helpful to see it not as some abstract problem presented to them by an adult professional. I could ask questions from my experience as a clinician, but she could talk about what helped her. That brought it home," Erickson said.

Whitney wanted to make a difference in the lives of her peers.

"In a way, I felt like I came out to the entire school, but now people know I have it and I'm going to help people," Whitney said. "I'm not embarrassed to tell my story because it is such an important issue."

"I thought it was so important to have someone talking that people know," Whitney said. "The fact that I've gone through what they are going through made it more identifiable."

She urged her fellow students that if they see a friend or peer who is upset, not to ignore them, because their tears or their upset might be "a cry for help."

"A hug can make a huge amount of difference. Often times when you're depressed, you feel completely invisible," Whitney said. "At Whitman, there are 2,000 people; I've sat in class crying before and the teacher didn't even notice. You feel hurt.

"They don't know what to say, no one knows what to do, but take that risk because that risk is completely worth it based on what both of you get out of it. You've both made a difference."

"MILLIONS in this country feel lonely, hundreds of people in this high school feel lonely, and it's time to let them know they are not alone," Szabo said.

Pam Mintz, of YMCA Bethesda Youth Services, spoke to her classes about ways to change relationships with parents and suggested that students be the ones to initiate shared activities with their parents.

"They looked a little skeptical, so I asked what would happen if you said, 'Let's hang out together tonight?'

"One student responded his parents are too busy. This was after another student had been telling me that her parents travel all the time, she doesn't even really count her Dad as a parent," Mintz said. "I just wish there could be some way to get parents to hear how much teens need them."

Bekki Sims' daughter graduated from Whitman last year, but Sims still continued to chair the Youth Summit Committee.

"Parents have no idea how prevalent depression is and how many suicide attempts there are," Sims said. "They need to understand how stressful students' lives are and how many are depressed."

Some members of the committee are planning a summit for parents in the winter or early spring.

"One of the messages for parents is to be aware of the emotional lives of their children and their children's friends," said Erickson. "That somebody who is quiet and withdrawn and appears sad might not just be going through typical teenage struggles and might really be suffering and need help."

"WE ARE LOSING far too many young people to suicide," said Mary McCausland, president of the Maryland Chapter of the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program. McCausland lost her nephew Daniel to suicide in 1999.

"I stress to youth, if a friend tells you they are suicidal, that 'the world will be a better place without me,' you take these threats seriously, you get help, you don't keep it a secret," McCausland said. "You can't ignore them no matter how many times it is said. Find someone who will help them."

Pamela Valentine told her classes last Wednesday that she knew the summit addressed difficult topics.

"Believe me, I don't want to be up here talking about it, but it is the only way we can make changes. Losing 15,000 people a year in your age group is unacceptable to me."

One student during Valentine's presentation asked how she could help a friend who she was concerned about if her friend was resistant to receiving help.

"She said, 'I have a friend who I think is depressed, but she is very hard headed and stubborn," Valentine said. "I said, 'Be more hard headed and stubborn than she is.'

"Get out there and get your parents, get her parents, go to a counselor, find someone you trust. You may lose your friendship — I doubt it — you may lose it, but it's better than losing your friend."