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Event aims to break 'hush-hush' nature of mental health, raise awareness for suicide prevention

Peninsula Gateway - 9/7/2017

Sept. 07--Suicidal thoughts have been a recent struggle for Catherine Ryan.

The thoughts began surfacing earlier this year for the 15-year-old Gig Harbor teen.

"We spend six months in school talking about what cigarettes do to your lungs, but don't talk about what you're supposed to do if you can't get out of bed or stop crying," Ryan said. "It's really important that every kid needs to have some kind of tool and some kind of (safe) environment ... that it's not a localized event, that this is a sign that they might need help -- not just after an issue, but before anything happens. You need to set it up preemptively."

Support from her parents, with open conversations and doctors visits, helped Ryan gain the tools and techniques she needed to overcome these thoughts.

Rebecca, Catherine's mom, has worked to normalize conversations about mental health.

"We tried to normalize (the topic) in our house. I don't want mental health to be treated any differently than physical health ... we've done that since she was 8 or 9 years old," she said. "Catherine has struggled with anxiety for years. I also have struggled with anxiety ... I felt a sort of shame about my anxiety and when I was depressed, like I had to pretend to be happy. When Catherine shared her anxiety, something clicked with me that I didn't want her to feel like this."

Rebecca believes the stigma surrounding mental health caused her initial feelings of shame and growing up with her own mother experiencing mental health issues affected her response as an adult and mother.

"I think if we're open as a family in (our) household and don't make (mental health) a hush-hush thing, then it doesn't make her ashamed of it and it just lets us make it head-on," she said. "As a parent, seeing (Catherine) go through that was absolutely heartbreaking. It was difficult. But because we had already built that relationship where she did talk to me I felt more confident that when we went to the doctor -- those are decisions I made with the whole picture."

To reach others struggling in a similar situation, Catherine has decided to share her experiences through her writing. She will be performing a spoken word piece in Sunday's (Sept. 10) Take a Minute, Save a Life event hosted by the Gig Harbor & Key Peninsula Suicide Prevention Coalition.

"After I had gone through that (experience), I realized I had a lot of thoughts and decided I should make them into pretty words and write them down," she said. "Everywhere there has to be some kind of a safe conversation going that isn't anti-talking about your feelings and talking about what's going on."

Creating a safe space to talk and express these, sometimes dark, feelings is a goal of the coalition, which works in Gig Harbor and the Key Peninsula to educate, spread awareness and provide resources for youth experiencing mental health issues and suicidal thoughts.

Partners with the coalition and members of the board range across a variety of groups, businesses and organizations in the greater Gig Harbor area. Active in the coalition's board since its inception is Laurel Schultz, program director for Communities in Schools of Peninsula.

"We have site staff that serve in the schools themselves. They work with students on a caseload. Students are referred to our program, usually for academics, and as our site coordinators get to know them they support them in a multitude of ways," she explained. "We are really partnering together in a more holistic way to bring this to the community."

This free event will feature local teens sharing their music, poetry, written word pieces and artwork to reach peers and adults in the community. Music, a food truck and informational booths will be present to provide support for event attendees. A candlelight vigil will be held at the end of the event.

"Anyone can access statistics and numbers. This (event) is really meant to show the community that there are whole groups of people working in a prevention sense and to be supportive of one another," Schultz said. "I think that's why it's so powerful to have a big event like this for Gig Harbor."

The goal of community support and openness is part of why 17-year-old Alexis Adams will share her experience with self-harm at the event.

"I've been struggling with self harm since I was little. This is an important topic for me personally," Adams said. "There has to be someone to talk to. Even if it's one person, that's fine, there just has to be someone to talk to get (the feelings) off your chest."

A senior at Gig Harbor High School, vice president of the Interact Club and a founding member of the Poetry Club, Adams said that opening up with others about her feelings and experiences has been a difficult process.

"It's hard to tell someone about it, but once you do and there's someone to talk to they can hold you accountable and help," she said. "Although you may be scared and it may be so stressful, people do want to help you and get through it."

Adams wears a fake nose ring as a daily reminder not to self-harm, a technique she developed with her dad and maintains with his support.

Maintaining open communication is something that Rebecca offers as advice to other parents with teens struggling with mental health.

"There's going to be a mutual trust, a mutual back-and-forth about mental health. I think it's also ok to tell kids that it's okay to feel what you feel. If the world's feeling like too much, (then) it's ok to go to your room, turn out the lights and cry," she said. "I think parents need to be aware that when your kid get through a difficult time and then they're doing ok (again), that's the time to work on mental health. I think it's important to continually work on mental health."

Removing any stigma around mental health and talking openly with her family about her needs has helped Ryan cope with her anxiety and depression. She switched from Gig Harbor High School to homeschooling and has found a doctor that provides her supportive care.

"The best advice to give is to talk about it with whoever you can. If you need help from a therapist, which you probably do, get help from a therapist. I talked with my parents," she said. "It's a thing that happens and if you have an issue you should go talk to someone and get help. It's not a secret ... it's everywhere. You need to have some kind of underlying mental health conversations that this isn't something that has to be hush-hush. It isn't something to be embarrassed about."

Andrea Haffly: 253-358-4155, @gateway_andrea


(c)2017 The Peninsula Gateway (Gig Harbor, Wash.)

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