When it was bad, it was really bad, Jared Walejewski said.
“I was so lonely,” the Rockford High School senior recalled of his depression as a freshman, when he’d sit for hours in his basement in front of a computer. “I isolated myself. … I just felt alone.”
It was a gutsy admission to make, especially one shared with hundreds of classmates on a video made by his school’s television class. But disclosing his dark battle with depression – and reaching out for help — was essential to overcoming it, Jared recently told an audience of approximately 400 students and parents at Rockford High School Auditorium.
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“Go get help,” Jared urged his fellow students from the stage. “Until you realize that you need help, you won’t ever get better.”
Jared’s emotional testimony, along with that of junior Annika Severson, made a powerful impact in an assembly aimed at better understanding teens’ thinking and vulnerability to mental illness. The recent event was part of the Developing Healthy Kids series, a program of Rockford Public Schools to help raise community awareness of mental health and suicide prevention.
Organized by students in Rockford’s Peer Listeners group, the program put forth a key message: Have the courage to share your problems – and learn you’re not alone.
“Everyone struggles with something,” Annika Severson told the crowd. “It takes a lot of strength to reach out – to talk to your counselor, your friends, your family members. You don’t have to feel guilty about struggling with something like this, because it can impact anybody.”
Understanding Young Brains
Developing Healthy Kids assemblies are offered each school year in partnership with Rockford HOPE, a suicide-prevention and mental-health awareness organization. The Rockford Education Foundation provided $5,000 to support the schools’ community education efforts this year.
Jesliee Bonofiglio, a clinical social worker at Claystone Clinical Associates, set up the video by describing how teens’ brains undergo changes that aren’t fully developed until their mid-20s, Bonofiglio said. Their sometimes head-spinning behavior is driven by the brain’s emotion center, while lagging behind is the prefrontal cortex – “the CEO of the brain” that oversees decision-making and self-control.
While stress can fuel indecision, self-consciousness and trauma, it also motivates teens to work harder and learn coping strategies, she reassured her audience.
“Parents, it’s OK that your kids are stressed,” Bonofiglio said. “It doesn’t mean your child is doomed for the rest of their life. It means that they’re growing.”
She advised parents to listen respectfully, show empathy and not be afraid to get professional help for their children.
“Give them their space, but don’t disappear,” she said afterward. “When you intuitively feel things just are not right, get help. It’s not weakness. It could save a life.”
Out of the Shadows
Annika and Jared brought home much the same point, through candid accounts of their personal struggles.
They were joined in a talk-back panel by four other students, including Jason Whittaker, a standout Rams quarterback who spoke about keeping the pressure of sports in perspective. But Annika and Jared were the primary sources in a video filmed by the high school’s award-winning Beyond the Rock TV studio, and produced by Lauren Butzer.
Annika spoke of changing from a confident person who welcomed pressure to suffering from “crippling, debilitating” anxiety. It worsened to where she was unable to eat or sleep, dreaded taking tests and coming to school.
“I became fearful of doing things that should have given me joy but instead gave me fear and anxiety,” she said, adding she tried to hide her ordeal because she didn’t want to be labeled. She pushed away family and friends until she realized she couldn’t cope on her own.
‘The journey begins with being honest with yourself and what you’re dealing with.’ – Annika Severson, student
Her breakthrough came at a Developing Healthy Kids program last year. She saw someone describing depression and thought, “That’s me.” After opening up to her parents, she was referred for counseling and began regaining her strength and confidence.
“The journey begins with being honest with yourself and what you’re dealing with,” she said. “But it’s carried through by the people who love you and will support you enough to get you through it.”
The Value of Opening Up
Jared described a similar downward spiral, marked by hopelessness and thoughts of suicide – all the while pretending he was OK. His voice at times choking with emotion, he said, “You never see any of this coming. You never expect it to happen to you.”
He began to get help when a friend reported a suicidal message Jared posted on Twitter, resulting in the first of two stays at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services. Over time, with professional and parental support, he learned how to cope with his feelings and “feel connected back to the world.”
‘Parents, your child is not trying to give you a hard time. Your child is having a hard time.’ — Jesliee Bonofiglio, clinical therapist
Like Annika, he also learned the value of opening up. After sharing his struggles in a class speech, another student told him it inspired him to get help also.
“That one person changed my life around,” Jared said on the talk-back panel. “I just wanted to do the same for everybody else.”
Afterward, Superintendent Michael Shibler thanked Jared and Annika for their candor and encouragement to other students in the audience. “You helped a lot of people out there,” he said.