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Teens reach out to help peers with depression

By By T.J. BANES

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — At her worst, she felt isolated. Cutting her body was a way to feel alive — even though there were days when she wished she were dead.

"I believed I was worthless, unloved."

Sarah Wood, 17, hid her inner pain well. So well that the day after she was released from the hospital for the outer, physical pain, a classmate told her she had never looked happier.

But it was a best friend — someone who had known her since third grade — who recognized the warning signs. Audrey Muston, 18, was the one who first sought help for Sarah.

That was nearly six years ago. Now the two seniors at Lawrence North High School are weeding through college applications and counting down the days to graduation.

Wood's depression didn't stem from a traumatic loss. Instead, it just appeared and enveloped her as she entered her teen years.

"My family was there for me — I have the greatest family in the world," she told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/VluInZ ). "I know they felt guilt that they didn't recognize things, but it was easy to hide it.

"Depression is a mental illness. It can hurt anyone."

The memory still burns in the minds of Sarah's parents, Jim and Karen Wood.

"As any parent knows, it is very hard to see your child in pain," Karen Wood said. "My husband and I were unaware of our daughter's pain for months before she started to reach out for help. As soon as we did know, we wanted to fix everything as quickly as possible. We soon realized that we had to go through the pain and depression with her and live through the process of recovery."

A key part of Sarah Wood's ongoing "recovery" is through a program she started three years ago with Muston. Together, the two have reached some 3,600 Lawrence Township middle school students struggling with depression, self-injury and thoughts of suicide.

Wood was one of five students across the country recently recognized with a Power of Children award by The Children's Museum of Indianapolis. Each recipient was given a $2,000 grant toward his or her work. Recipients included a teen who helped military veterans find jobs and a young woman who helped East Coast schools recover from Hurricane Sandy.

Although Wood's efforts are directed toward middle school students, she's also helped educate teachers, administrators and parents.

"It goes beyond words to say how grateful we are that we still have our daughter and that she is using God-given talents to help others," Karen Wood said. "We are very proud of Sarah and are confident that her story of finding hope will allow other families to be open with each other when help is needed."

Using the slogan: "Speak out. Get Help. There is Hope," Wood and Muston produced a video where people of varying ages held up hand-painted signs that read, "We Support You," ''You are Different" and "You are Loved."

The idea is to illustrate that depression spans all ages.

And for teens, it's often a taboo subject. When they relate their story, the two friends both stress how it felt to be in Wood's shoes (the one battling depression) and how important Muston's role was (to seek help for your friend).

"Looking back she didn't want to do anything like go to the movies," Muston said. When Wood asked her friend how many pills she would need to kill herself, Muston immediately talked to her parents, expressing her concerns. She then sought the help of a school counselor.

"I tried to hide everything," Wood said, as she talked in a secluded room at Lawrence North and fidgeted with a three-ring binder. On the cover is a message in her handwriting: "Life is Worth Living."

She acknowledges there is "a lot of stigma" about mental illness. But she's quick to point out that one of the challenges is that the people who survive the pain often don't talk about it. That's where she's different.

"I look back, and I'm thankful I went through it. I see it as a blessing, because it's shaped who I am."

When the girls present their story to middle school health classes, they are accompanied by a mental health professional who answers questions and offers information about recognizing the warning signs of mental illness along with the crisis hotline number.

"In the way that they talk about it, it's more comfortable coming from your peers," said NaKaisha Tolbert-Banks, director of education and public affairs for Mental Health America of Greater Indianapolis.

"I think early on in their journey, there was some resistance. People thought if you talk to kids about suicide, then the kids might attempt suicide. That's like saying if you talk to your kids about sex, they'll have sex," Tolbert-Banks said. "That's how it's all changed over the years. . . . Sarah and Audrey understand the importance of this issue and the difference they've made. They've touched the lives of many students."

And with just a few short months until graduation, the girls are already looking at the future of their program. Wood has plans to study psychology and work with adolescents; Muston is looking at a career in foreign language. Both hope that underclassmen and others at the school will keep the program moving forward.

But if they don't, Wood says she finds peace knowing some parents and students have called her or stopped her in the hall to say, "Thanks, you helped me or my son or daughter."

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com

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