Caitlin Neumann was 15 years old when she attempted suicide.
“I was officially diagnosed with depression when I was about 15, and that stemmed from a personal experience dealing with trauma back when I was in high school,” Neumann said. “I didn’t see a point in anything. I was lethargic. I didn’t want to leave my house, and everything just seemed pointless.”
Three years later, she is one of two peer advocates on the child and adolescent psychiatric unit at BryLin Hospital. A freshman at Erie Community College, the 18-year-old is studying social work. Once lost in the thickets of depression, she is now an invaluable source of faith for those who struggle as she once did.
“I’m just there to offer a symbol of hope to them and their families,” she said.
Depression is not as uncommon as social misconceptions may lead us to believe; though by its most blatant definition, it leaves no physical scars, it is detrimental to the quality of life for those living with it.
“Depression kind of lingers … It’s a constant battle for people to shake a lot of the time,” said Neumann, a 2013 graduate of Kenmore West High School. “It isn’t only being sad when something’s wrong in your life, it’s being sad when everything in your life is going right.”
Recent research and statistics expose the harsh realities of teens and depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 11 percent of adolescents have experienced some form of depression before they reach the age of 18, and teenage girls are twice as likely to be affected by depression. Depression among young adults can lead to self-induced isolation, decaying relationships with friends and family and substance abuse.
Maura Kelley, founder and director of Mental Health Peer Connection in Buffalo, works to get people struggling with mental illnesses out of hospitals and into communities. Mental Health Peer Connection (www.wnyil.org/mhpc/) is part of the Western New York Independent Living family of agencies. It connects people with mental illness with others who have been through similar experiences.
“Everyone that works at Mental Health Peer Connection, including myself, has lived experience with a mental illness,” she said. “So everyone knows what it’s been like.”
Kelley, who has struggled with alcoholism since adolescence and has been hospitalized 13 times, now runs the nonprofit organization to help individuals with mental illnesses gain independence.
“I felt ashamed and I didn’t want to tell anyone, and it’s like I’m a bad person. But really I wasn’t. I just didn’t know,” Kelly said. “No one talked about it. It was a secret. I didn’t know that it wasn’t my fault.”
Jenny Laney is director of the Child and Family Support Program (www.eriemha.org/programs-child-family-support.php), a peer run program through the Mental Health Association of Erie County that offers a variety of services including support, advocacy and education to those who have a family member suffering from a mental illness.
“It’s time to get help when you know it’s impacting your daily life, where you’re not sleeping. Maybe it’s affecting your grades. You can’t study, you can’t focus,” Laney said. “That’s when it’s the point to talk to someone or get some help. It is much more common in today’s society than we think.”
Laney has been director of the program for seven years. She previously was employed as a pastry chef before she was launched into the mental health system by way of her daughter.
“She struggled with depression, having a hard time getting out of bed,” Laney said. “Learning to navigate the system, I worked with other family members who were doing what I now do, providing education, information, support.”
Neumann first shared her experience with depression at the Erie County Mental Health Awareness Conference in May 2013. Her moving speech about deterioration, strength and triumph brought the audience of more than 400 spectators to its feet.
“I believed that there was something wrong with me and that I was the only person in the world going through something like this, because I never even knew what depression was before I had it,” she said. “Once I started to talk to people more and more, and educate myself and figure out what was going on stemming from my past trauma, that’s when I finally realized I had depression and there was something I could do about it.
“I shared my story to help other people, and in return I helped myself,” she said.
Now an international advocate for mental health awareness, Neumann’s horizons have expanded remarkably since then. In addition to having traveled to Amsterdam for a mental health awareness conference in October and maintaining her position at BryLin, the Kenmore-born advocate is the president of the board of directors of Youth Power.
Youth Power, as she describes it, is a “New York State network for people who have been labeled in a child-serving system.”
Neumann plays a significant role in advocating for the rights of youth in civil service systems, specifically youth with mental illnesses.
“It’s an empowering thing to help other people,” Neumann said. “If I can change one person and they can change one person, then I want to help everybody that I can.”
Kelley has similarly turned her situation into a mechanism for assisting others.
“The shame was taken away by being with other people like me that I have the same experience,” Kelley said. “I’m glad I went through that, to help other people.”
Despite depression’s ubiquity, stigmatisms about the mental illness fester in society.
“It’s not a life sentence,” said Laney. “One of the biggest issues is the stigma that they’re afraid that someone’s going to think they’re crazy or that it’s something they can’t get over. And they certainly can. It’s when they don’t accept or ask for help that it can become a problem.”
“Just talk about it and talk about it, until you feel OK about it,” Kelley said. “Because isolation is the worst thing for me in my life. People shouldn’t have to feel alone going through any illness.”
“The biggest message is that it is treatable,” said Laney. “It affects so many people, but then they’re still able to participate in life. It’s just like any other illness.”
Neumann’s story is one of survival and an unbreakable spirit.
“I battled my depression, it brought me here, and now I have the strength to help others,” she said.
Rachel Whalen is a junior at Williamsville South High School.