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Teens open up about depression and suicide

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In a world ruled by social media and constant pressure to achieve, most teens don’t talk about depression, anxiety and suicide.

“I think people, especially my age, are a little bit scared to be vulnerable. And I think they want to be, but they’re just afraid,” said Talia Hutchins, a senior at South Medford High School.

She’s part of a group of teens who get together to talk about subjects they all think about, but rarely discuss — even with their closest friends.

The Champions of Change group hopes to be the model for similar groups to sprout across the country.

In Oregon, the need couldn’t be greater.

This month, the Oregon Health Authority announced suicide is the leading cause of death among youth ages 10-24 in the state, according to 2018 data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Suicide displaced accidental injury deaths, which include car crashes and overdoses, to become the No. 1 killer of young people. In 2018, 129 youth died by suicide — up from 98 in 2016 and 107 in 2017. Data for 2019 aren’t yet available.

Hedrick Middle School teacher Susan Holt, who lost her 15-year-old daughter Grace to suicide in 2016, said something has changed in society to push suicide deaths up.

“It’s just horrific,” she said.

Holt, who helped found the Grace & Kindness Foundation, has teamed with board member Lisa Hutchins and Andrea Berryman Childreth to host the supportive, caring meetings for teens. Childreth is the founder of The Lemonade Project movement to end stigma about mental health and improve access to care.

Talia, the South Medford High School teen, said she expected the meetings to be stiff and somber.

“It was actually surprisingly really chill,” she said. “Like everybody just had a place where they could lay their heart out and have no judgment, and they were just able to be themselves.”

Talia said many teens deal with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, or if they don’t, they have friends who do.

“We talked about how we don’t really have a place to talk about it and we need more places like Champions of Change — where we are able to feel safe and feel comfortable,” she said.

Talia said she gets excited for the meetings because they offer an outlet for her thoughts and feelings.

“It’s kind of crazy how this is an issue that’s important to almost every teenager that you talk to, except we barely ever talk about it,” she said.

Talia said she leaves the meetings feeling happy the group is raising awareness and everyone had a chance to give input.

Cali Follett, a junior at South Medford, said most teens are coping alone with difficult feelings.

“I see it everywhere. Like there’s so many times I’ll see a kid just walking the halls or I’ll even have one of my close friends — and you can just tell that something’s just off. But there’s no place for us to talk about it,” Cali said.

Like Talia, she said she looks forward to the meetings and wants more of her friends to join her.

“You can see that you’re not alone in this and there’s like so many other people that feel the same way as you,” Cali said.

If teens don’t want to attend the meetings, she encouraged them to at least talk to someone they love about their feelings.

Teens in the group said many people are struggling with pressure from social media.

Childreth, mother to a daughter living with mental illness, said parents of teens don’t realize how much times have changed since they were growing up.

“We don’t know what’s going on in their world. We can’t even conceive of it, because we didn’t have social media growing up,” she said. “We had a phone with a cord on it that you had to stretch to the other room to talk to your boyfriend because your mom was listening to you. These kids know where their friends are at every single moment of the day.”

Holt, the teacher whose daughter died from suicide, said she’s heard from parents who’ve lost teens to suicide because of overwhelming stress and pressure.

“The pressure on kids just seems so heavy. It seems so much heavier to me now,” Holt said.

Childreth said because of social media, today’s teens are living in a fishbowl. They feel they’re constantly being watched and judged by everyone they know.

The teens said they’ve sometimes tried to disengage from social media but feel they’ll miss out on news like their soccer practice time has been changed or they’ve been invited to a friend’s birthday party.

Social media use is so ubiquitous some teens use messaging apps in the morning to plan who they’ll eat lunch with every day. Without their cellphones and social media, they feel disconnected — but technology comes with a price.

“I think one of the biggest things is you can’t get away from like the drama with social media and everything because you always have a phone on you so you’re always surrounded by that,” said Jagger Burrill, a senior at South Medford.

People post photos of themselves on vacation, showing only flattering shots of themselves. That causes other teens to feel more critical about their own activities and appearance, he said.

“It’s easier to put yourself down when you see how great other people’s lives are — even if that’s not how it always is,” Burrill said. “You just kind of feel that way.”

He said teens can see when their friends are out together without them, prompting feelings of loneliness and anxiety about why they weren’t invited, too.

“A lot of people feel like they’re alone and they’re the only ones going through things. But like when we came and had our first meeting, everybody was talking about similar things and similar problems that they’ve gone through. And everyone agreed on the same things,” Burrill said. “It really was nice knowing that you’re not alone and there are a lot of people going through the same things.”

He said talking together is one of the best ways for teens to deal with the pressure.

Burrill said about 10 girls show up for the Champions of Change meetings but only 4-5 guys typically attend. Guys try to appear manly and don’t want to be vulnerable.

But he has a message for anyone out there struggling with feelings of loneliness or depression.

“I would definitely say that you can’t give up. And I know that a lot of people feel like they’re alone and they’re going through things by themselves, but there are a lot of people and different options. I know it doesn’t feel like that,” Burrill said.

He encouraged more teens to attend the meetings to share their thoughts and learn how others feel.

“There are always ways to make things better. I know it’s hard, but you’ve got to keep fighting through it,” Burrill said.

Visit thelemonadeproject.com for news about the next teen meeting, which will likely be in April.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text 273TALK to 839863. The Spanish language line is 1-888-628-9454.

Those who are deaf or hearing-impaired can use TTY service by calling 1-800-799-4889.

Youthline, a teen-to-teen crisis and help line, is available daily from 4-10 p.m. Call 1-877-968-8491 or text teen2teen to 839863 or chat at www.oregonyouthline.org.

If a suicide attempt seems imminent or a suicide attempt has been made, call 911 immediately.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneTalia Hutchins, left, Susan Holt, middle, and Andrea Berryman Childreth talk about student involvement in suicide prevention.
KTVL and the Mail Tribune teamed up for a story about Rogue Valley teens' efforts to confront a rising trend of depression and teen suicide in Oregon. KTVL video by Carsyn Currier