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Teen depression comes out of the shadows

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The dark moments were difficult.

They were difficult for Cameron Gallagher, who lived through them in her struggle with depression. They were difficult for her family, who sometimes felt the brunt of her pain. They were difficult for her friends, who saw her hurting and wondered what to do.

When Cameron died suddenly in 2014 at age 16 from an undiscovered heart condition after running a half-marathon, her difficulties provided the inspiration to help other teens suffering from depression. It’s what she wanted.

That quest has blossomed into a 5K race, a foundation, and a program to build awareness and support for teens who deal with depression and other mental health issues.

The issue cuts through all strata.

According to the 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, nearly 30 percent of high school students said they had felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks within the past year, to the point that they stopped doing some of their usual activities. Percentages were similar at each grade level.

Among female students, the percentage reporting such significant levels of sadness was nearly 40 percent overall. Among black students, the percentage was 25.2 percent; among white students, 28.6 percent; among Hispanics, 35.3 percent.

“There’s no easy button,” said Grace Gallagher, Cameron’s mother, in describing the lessons learned from her daughter’s struggles and the path forward.

“Love means doing the hard stuff.

“Sometimes it’s taking you to a doctor’s appointment that you don’t want to go to. There were some nights that were really, really hard — a lot of tears and not just from Cameron.”

And there were moments when life was good.

“Cameron dominated a room when she walked into it. She had a presence that was strong and powerful and impactful. Even today I say I’m so proud of her.

“She told me, ‘I used to ask God why did you put me on Earth to suffer so bad. When I feel better I know why. I can help people.’”

After Cameron died, her family found that she’d planned to develop a 5K race to bring greater awareness of teen mental health issues. Two and a half years later, the third annual SpeakUp 5K race begins at 9 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 10, in Byrd Park.

Other SpeakUp 5K races have developed in Boone, N.C.; Tampa, Fla.; and San Diego. Each race is accompanied by resources for teens, schools and families.

“We want to make an impact in their lives,” Gallagher said.

To do that, the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation has embraced monthly mindfulness sessions for students at its office and an in-school curriculum developed by Minding Your Mind in Philadelphia.

Alex Peavey, an upper school guidance counselor at Collegiate School, leads the Mindful Mondays sessions.

Minding Your Mind, an eight- to 10-week program developed in Philadelphia, began last year at Deep Run High School in Henrico County. It will expand this fall to Maggie Walker Governor’s School, Midlothian and Monacan high schools in Chesterfield County, and Trinity Episcopal School. In January it begins at Collegiate and Millwood schools. Talks are underway with Open High and Thomas Jefferson High in Richmond.

St. Gertrude High School, where Cameron had been a student, has a SpeakUp Club, as does Deep Run. Clubs are expected to develop in other schools.

Each Minding Your Mind program starts with an appearance by a young adult from the Philadelphia organization to discuss his or her own “lived experience” with depression and anxiety. Then the Gallagher Foundation follows up to teach the peer support curriculum, said Jodi Beland, program director.

The idea is to help students help one another, as Cameron’s family learned to help her.

“What you can do is just listen. Be there. That’s one of the things Cameron taught me,” Grace Gallagher said. “When I talked with her, I would try to tell her things. When she was in a good place she could hear them. Other times she would say, ‘It’s like you’re talking Chinese with me.’ I would just say, ‘I’m here with you.’

“Sometimes she asked me to just lay with her on her bed. She was scared. You don’t try to fix it. Just be there. Your job is not to have the answers. For this moment we’re together, and you’re going to be OK.

“I think we as a society don’t value the power of just being present. It’s a powerful thing. ... It doesn’t have to be the best moment in your life. It can be the hardest moments.”

Mindfulness helps develop that sense of being present in the moment, Peavey said. He incorporates the technique in his work with students at Collegiate, where two Gallagher children are now enrolled. Another Gallagher child is at St. Christopher’s, and one is at the University of Virginia. Cameron attended St. Gertrude and was a Freeman student the year she died.

The practice of mindfulness has a proven impact on depression, Peavey said.

A study at England’s University of Oxford in 2015 found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was just as effective as antidepressants for preventing a relapse of depression. In the two years after treatment for depression, 47 percent of the people who stayed on antidepressants had a relapse. In the group that received mindfulness-based cognitive therapy instead of continuing to take drugs, 44 percent had a relapse.

“Both are better than nothing,” Peavey said. “Mindfulness becomes a participatory healing. You’re not dealing with the side effects of medication. And, once you learn mindfulness, it’s free.”

Peavey became interested in mindfulness when he was a coach and read about its impact on Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

“What they said was mindfulness set them apart,” he recalled. “They set their goals and made their plans. When it came time to do the work, they were purely in the moment. ... Dividing your mind is dividing your ability to do it.”

For people dealing with depression, the ability to focus on the present moment can help stem the flood of debilitating stories about what happened in the past or what might happen in the future, he said.

“If we’re anticipating some horrible calamity — next week I have to do this and you think of the worst outcome — your body experiences it as if it already happened,” he explained. “If something happened in the past and you relive it over and over, something that happened once seems like it happened 100 times.

“It doesn’t mean ignore it. We all have automatic internal responses to emotional triggers. ... When someone says I have a heartfelt feeling, a gut feeling, a pit in my stomach, that’s literally a neurological experience. ... What mindfulness teaches us is to be aware of the response and let it go. You experience your emotions, but you are not overcome by it.”

Mindfulness can also help people deal with truly difficult situations, such as a death or divorce, Peavey said. “It doesn’t make all the horrible things in life go away. It helps us navigate through them.”

The first step is “flat-out acknowledgement of what is. ‘OK, this stinks.’ ” If your parents say they’re getting divorced, for instance, “acknowledge the reality and then turn to the physical.” If you’re feeling angry, determine the physical location of the anger. Do you feel it in the pit of your stomach? Have you tensed your shoulders or clenched your teeth?

“Any of these emotional events in our life trigger (the automatic response of) ‘fight or flight.’ It’s a biological response. You need that when a bear is chasing you,” Peavey said. “You’ve always heard, ‘Hey, take a deep breath.’ When you do that followed by a long exhale, you are triggering the relaxation response in the brain. It’s the opposite of fight or flight. Divorce is tragic, but it’s not life or death. You need to trigger the relaxation response. Acknowledge it and then take a long breath.”

He suggests that people practice mindfulness in small moments every day.

“Not everyone can sit for 30 minutes. What are everyday things that pop up? Brushing your teeth, washing dishes. When you have them come up you can practice mindfulness; focus on the five senses. The idea is that the senses only exist in the present moment. Focus on the sense of touch, smell, sound. You’re doing an active meditation even if it’s only two minutes.

“When you’re walking to the house, focus on mindfully walking, feeling the breeze, smelling the air, feeling your feet touch the ground. You’re firing the brain for the present. When you get to a place where you just got news that a divorce is happening, if you’ve been practicing while walking to school, you’re more likely to be able to practice mindfulness in that moment.”

In the hustle and bustle of daily life, people spend about half of their waking hours with their minds not in the present, Peavey said, based on another study. Groups with a higher tendency toward this auto-pilot mind wandering demonstrated higher levels of depression.

“The only time reality exists is right now,” he said. “We get so caught up in the past and future. Take the wisdom of the past and preparedness for the future, but live right now.”

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