Byram Hills Hosts Program
Recognizing the warning signs of depression in teens and eliminating the stigma of mental illness were among the key topics addressed at a special forum last Thursday evening at Byram Hills High School.
The event, “Helping Our Children: The Role of the Family in Addressing Mental Health Needs,” was made possible by the EVEN program, a trial collaboration between Byram Hills and the University of Michigan Depression Center. It featured a diverse six-member panel comprised of mental health professionals and those whose lives have been touched by mental illness. The discussion was moderated by sports broadcaster and former NFL star Ahmad Rashad.
It also capped off a Wellness Day for the entire school, where staff and students in grades 9-11 wore special T-shirts to commemorate the effort and focused on general awareness and education about mental health issues. Upper classmen discussed strategies to help them cope with the upcoming transition to college life.
“Tonight may not be fun, but it will be helpful and it will be emotional,” said panelist Harris Schwartzberg, an Armonk resident whose brother died seven years ago from a lifelong battlewith bipolar disorder and who started the Steven Schwartzberg Memorial Fund, which later evolved into the EVEN Program.
Speakers stressed that one of the most important steps for teenagers suffering from depression, anxiety and stress and their loved ones is being able to talk about the issue openly without the fear of ridicule.
A couple of the panelists also highlighted to the audience of close to 200 at the high school auditorium that finding someone--a friend, teacher, coach or friend’s parent--to talk to is often an essential step toward recovery.
“Find an adult you can talk to, someone you can have a relationship with,” said Dr. Carolyn Lanfredi, the psychologist for the Flexible Support Program at Byram Hills High School.
Former University of Michigan defensive lineman Will Heininger, who was also part of the panel, said he suffered from depression while in college, coping with the dual pressures of wanting to keep up his grades and playing big-time college football. At first he didn’t know what was causing his mood changes, but he agreed with Lanfredi that that the people who are the most active in one’s life should be the first ones to know, he said.
Still, there is a natural fear to expose your weaknesses, as though mental illness is a character flaw, Heininger said. However, it’s an illness, he stressed, and no one would think of telling someone to “get over” having cancer if that’s what they were diagnosed with.
Once diagnosed with mental illness, realizing that there is help available, often through a combination of counseling for a finite period of time and the proper medication, can restore a person to a productive life. It is estimated that roughly one-third of adults battle depression, according to Dr.Kate Fitzgerald, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and neuroscientist.
“Depression and anxiety are common, so common that they’re normal,” Fitzgerald said. “Depression and anxiety are treatable.”
Panelists mentioned that parents should keep a close eye out for significant behavioral changes in their child, which is often a telltale sign of problems. Abrupt shifts in sleeping and eating patterns, mood swings and sudden irritability are some of the more common red flags raised by people suffering from depression.
Panelist Ginny Neuckranz, co- founder of Erika’s Lighthouse, an organization she and her husband established in memory of their youngest daughter who committed suicide in 2004 at the age of 14, said parents who suspect there’s a problem with their child should continually check on them. Depression left untreated does not go away, she said.
A mental health services resource list was handed out which contained various phone numbers and websites to seek help. Schwartzberg said any Byram Hills student or parent with concerns and questions should reach out to Principal Chris Borsari at the high school.