Students speak out about mental health awareness

by Sarah Peterson
Sun Newspapers

Four high school-age students, three of whom had attempted suicide, took the stage Feb. 27 at Fridley High School to talk to a crowd about their personal histories with mental illness.

They came with warning messages for both parents and teenagers, based on their own experiences: Be aware of warning signs and take mental health seriously.

This was the third public health forum in a series called “Let’s Talk About It, Anoka County,” which featured a resource fair and free pizza in the school’s cafeteria, followed by a program with various speakers, a youth panel and an adult panel.

A question-and-answer session with the panels closed the event.

Students’ stories

Jessica Ktytor, Anoka High School graduate, said she had been on the “Let’s Talk About It” youth panels at previous events and wanted to help spread awareness of mental illnesses.

At first, she said she started experiencing a loss of interest in what had been her favorite activities.

“My mom noticed, but I didn’t say anything about it, I just brushed it off,” Ktytor said.

In 2009, she experienced “extremely bad depression,” she said, due to a too-strong prescription for Prozac.

“I started getting suicidal, I attempted suicide three times and that was before I told anyone, so as far as anyone else knew, I was just smiling Jessica,” Ktytor said.

“When I told my mom I was sad, she would tell me, no, I wasn’t, because I would always smile, but it was not a real smile.”

After being hospitalized for a week after a suicide attempt, peers called her names, she said.

When others in the school were also hospitalized for suicide attempts, people started apologizing, Ktytor said.

“And it was kinda too late for an apology,” she said.

Andy Johnson, from Spring Lake Park High School, said he was participating in the panel to spread awareness of the seriousness of mental illnesses and to tell parents to watch for signs in children’s early teenage years, when he said he began to struggle.

“My battle with mental illness really began when I was young,” he said, describing how he was diagnosed with ADHD and felt judged by others for it.

Later, depression followed.

“In 2010, I went through a teen pregnancy and lost a child. And I began to use [drugs] on a daily basis, it brought me down to my lowest point in my life,” Johnson said.

He was a three-sport athlete going into high school, he said, but when things went the wrong way, he quit.

“I had no motivation to do those activities I had been involved in before…. I just really gave up on a lot of close family and friendships,” Johnson said.

Samantha Ferdelman from Fridley High School said she wanted to sit in on the panel to share her experiences and advocate for those who don’t want to speak up for themselves.

“With my social climate at school, it’s hard to admit that you have any sort of weakness, because then you can be labeled, you can be preyed upon, and it makes it difficult to show any sort of vulnerability,” she said.

Ferdelman said she’s been struggling with severe depression since early childhood, with anxiety added in as she’s grown older.

While in sixth grade at Fridley Middle School, a fellow student committed suicide, and that brought the topic to the surface.

“People were able to talk more about it, so I sought help with a school psychologist, and I have been talking with different school psychologists since then, basically,” Ferdelman said.

She said she experienced a loss of interest, isolation from social interaction, withdrawal into herself, quitting activities she liked and ceasing to talk to others except to put herself down or say things would be better without her.

In May 2009, she attempted suicide and was taken to the hospital. After that, she received state-ordered therapy and medication.

“I was diagnosed with a disorder that has a high rate of suicide because it’s a weird form of depression,” she said.

Max Mars from Main Street School of Performing Art said his goal was also to speak up for those who don’t feel like they can.

As for his experiences, he said his mother was the first to notice changes in his routine because he was so “absent-minded from everything” that he didn’t realize he was changing anything.

He would come home from school, go to his room and sleep, he said. He said he didn’t drop any school activities but put in less effort and didn’t talk with friends as much.

Mars said he had “gotten done with a super high point” in his life, which suddenly came to a close.

“Then I was left to sit and think, and from all that thinking and being left alone in my own head, I came to the conclusion that I shouldn’t be here anymore,” he said.

He attempted suicide, then called “the only person I knew to call, ’” his mother, who got in touch with the right people, had Mars hospitalized and welcomed him back into an environment of supportive friends, family and teachers.


Tough topic to talk about

Ktytor said it was hard to talk about depression with friends, family or teachers because she didn’t want her parents to hear about it from someone else and she was worried those who heard wouldn’t understand.

“And I wouldn’t want to put it on them to understand my depression and my anxiety,” Ktytor said.

Mars said he thinks teens are scared to talk about how they’re feeling because they don’t want to be labeled as weird or different.

Ferdelman said that part of the barrier for discussions is the negative stigma that kids are claiming to be depressed just to get attention.

“We’re humans; everyone wants attention,” Ferdelman said. But when it comes to mental health, the perception needs to change, because even if someone is seeking attention, it may be for a good reason, she said.

“That might be their way of reaching out [for help],” Ferdelman said.

Mars agreed and said that if people are doing a lot to get attention, it might be because they want someone to know they’re hurting.

“No one, all of a sudden, starts cutting or burning themselves and runs up to somebody and says, ‘Hey, look what I did,’ if they just want plain, old ‘Oh, good for you,’ attention. They’re doing it for a reason that says, ‘I need help; please help me.’ That’s the only way those people know how,” Mars said.

Advice from experience

In their advice, the youth panel emphasized being proactive and connected.

“Listen to your child,” Ktytor said. “If they tell you they’re sad, look into it; don’t blow it off.”

Johnson advised parents to watch for warning signs. “With mental health, you’re not crying wolf,” Johnson said.

“Not everyone is going to come forth looking for someone to help them…. Watch your close loved ones; if you notice anything off about them, just ask them, ‘How are you doing?’ That kind of thing, that can go a long way.”

Ferdelman said teenagers need to get a bigger perspective on their lives.

“We haven’t lived very long. There will always be more moments, and things can always get better…. If you give it any sort of thought, you can see things will get better and that, if you reach out, you can make your life better,” she said.

Mars said he thinks teenagers also need to realize that adults will listen and can help.

“All we have to do is ask. It’s really hard, it’s easier to say, but just ask,” he said.

Editor’s note: Sarah Peterson is copy manager with SunFocus Newspapers.

Sarah Peterson is at [email protected]