Pushing Through Fear
Morgan – Kentucky
I open a text and it is a picture of a boy from my school. His eyes are closed and he has a gun to his head. Across the photo he has written, “It’s time to go.” I share that text with my mom and she calls 911. The police do a wellness visit to his house and call us to let us know he is still alive.
It isn’t the first time I received such messages or see them on social media. I have become the person to go to for teens in my hometown. Some of my friends have also come to me saying they need mental health services, but their parents won’t let them for fear someone may find out.
I started telling my story publicly eight years ago when I was just eight years old. I was diagnosed as clinically depressed as a third grader. My pediatrician encouraged my parents to remove me from school because he said I was emotionally unsafe there.
I didn't tell my parents about my bully at first for fear the bullying would get worse. By the time they discovered it, I was having stomach spams and panic attacks. I would sit down to dinner and would have to retreat to bed because my stomach hurt so much. My mom and dad had to make the difficult decision to put me on antidepressants when I was just eight years old.
But they also told me that bad things are going to happen in life and that I have a choice. They told me I could choose to ignore what happened to me, I could blame others, or I could choose to make a positive difference.
I chose to stand up and speak up and I think we need to encourage and celebrate young people who do. Eight years later, I continue to tell my story and I know it has given young people in my state the courage to do the same.
I started my own anti-bullying foundation and I have never hesitated in telling the mental health challenges I faced or about the need for medication. When I started my work, my state led the nation in teen suicide attempts.
We convinced our governor to appoint a statewide task force to study the issue of bullying and during that year of study, I learned a great deal about childhood adverse experiences and worked to open a youth mental health drop in center in my region. I use proceeds from our annual Kindness Walk to provide food and toiletry items for young people who visit it.
The Zone, as it is called, reaches students in an 18-county region. It targets 16 to 25-year-olds and we have expanded to also reach middle school students. They can participate in recreational activities from 3 to 6 p.m. each day. Participants are required to identify a goal. I have learned that young people who have mental health needs may also need access to services to obtain their GED, court services and grief counseling. All of this and more is provided. In fact, for those whose parents won’t provide the support they need, teens can sign for their own mental health services at age 16.
While serving on that statewide task force, I also learned my state had recently overhauled the juvenile justice system and saved millions of dollars. I also learned that many schools, including several in my own hometown, have entire schools who receive food through the free lunch program. Many or most of those students are eligible for Medicaid services. If my state of Kentucky will use some of the savings to match Medicaid dollars, we can provide every student in need of mental health services a pathway for help.
I was lucky because I had advocates that fought for me and helped me see I had a voice and I could use it for good. Not every child does.
In fact, I am driven to continue my work because of my Uncle Mark. He was also bullied at age 8. But he was bullied by a teacher. I know his story so well. I can see him sitting in a small classroom as he raises his hand to ask permission to go to the bathroom. The teacher coldly responds with one word, “No!” He sits there and urine streams down his leg. He sits in it all day. He struggles for many years. By age 33, he had attempted suicide 18 times in just 6 months. Most of the time, he took pills, would panic and then call 911. His stomach would be pumped and a judge often would send him to a mental health hospital two hours away for a 72- hour evaluation.
On his last visit there, he found a way to lock the door, he took a ceiling tile down and replaced it with his bedsheet. The sheet was too long and so he got down on his knees. He hung himself. He would live for five days but never regained consciousness.
Mark never could get the diagnosis he needed, no one wanted to talk about it, and everyone wanted him to act as “normal” as he looked.
I tell his story because it is important for all of us to know the impact of our words - - - of our actions. I am grateful that MY story is full of people who believed me AND fought for me.
There are a lot of Mark’s who need hope. What I learned is when others believe in you, you begin to see beyond your own needs and see the suffering around you. The more I lifted up the issue, the more I heard from kids who felt like no heard them, that no one believed them, — and that no one would help them.
Over the years, my story has often been misunderstood. It was never about a teacher, a school, . . . or even a bully. My story is about every one of us. It is about how we treat one another and what we put out in the world. It is about you setting an example you want me to follow. And it is about me taking responsibility for how I treat others. But most importantly, it is about us looking up and around and reaching out to help those who are suffering. We need to find creative solutions like the youth mental health drop in centers and utilizing Medicaid and state match opportunities to get young people (and particularly those who may not have the resources), access to mental health services. Let’s go!