DELPHOS — Zach Ricker was into sports, especially basketball, in high school. He was a good student, getting A’s and B’s. Corinne Johnson, a classmate of Ricker’s, characterized him as a nice, almost shy guy. He didn’t talk much, she said, and when he did, you almost always had to ask him, “What?”
Johnson was also active in sports. She played soccer and was a good student. She was outspoken in class and challenged her teachers with questions. She even received a student of the month award for standing up for a bullied peer. She worked to help support herself because she was raised by a single mother and had two siblings.
Ricker and Johnson both seemed like normal, happy teenagers.
No one knew they both wanted to kill themselves. Their loved ones didn’t know they were both suffering from clinical depression and anxiety.
Since the beginning of 2012, there have been 33 suicides involving people between the ages of 13 and 25, according to the Ohio Department of Health’s Bureau of Vital Statistics. That includes 15 suicides in Allen County, eight in Putnam County, six in Auglaize County and four in Van Wert County.
Mental illness and teens
According to the Allen County Health Assessment report, 29 percent of children between sixth and 12th grades felt hopeless or sad almost every day for two or more weeks in a row.
“This is the definition of clinical depression,” said Donna Dickman, executive director of Partnership for Violence Free Families.
Mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, can be created in the womb through a mother who abuses drugs, genetics, illness in the mother, and numerous other factors. They can also form later in life, especially in teenagers because their brains are still in development, by abuse, trauma, struggles with gender identity, lack of stability from family dysfunction, and substance abuse, said Valerie Mumaw, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner with St. Rita’s Medical Center.
Mental Illnesses are caused by the combination of chemical imbalances in the brain and social issues happening in people’s lives, Mumaw said. Illnesses such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder are not only caused and exacerbated by chemical factors in the brain or issues in a persons life, they are created by these things working together, she said.
If you were to line up a group of teenage boys, and they all smoked marijuana, not every boy would develop a mental illness, but some of them could, Mumaw said.
Hopelessness was the common thread between Ricker and Johnson. They both said they felt completely hopeless throughout their youth.
Ricker has clinical depression and anxiety issues.
“It was there,” he said of his anxiety. “I was known as a shy kid. When I go back to moments in my childhood, I would say it was there.”
Ricker said he used to take 30 to 40 Advil at a time. It was his way of cutting. It was easier to hide than the scars would have been.
“I was punishing myself,” he said. “I knew it wouldn’t kill me.”
Johnson recognized her depression and desperation in high school later.
“It’s definitely not something you realize in the midst of it,” Johnson said. “You just feel numb. You don’t realize why nothing satisfies you.”
She said high school did a number on her. It’s a show, and the only thing that really matters is putting on a good act so people will accept you, she said. She did things she wasn’t proud of to find that acceptance.
“When you start thinking someone cares about you, whether it’s a friend or significant other, it gives you a sense of satisfaction,” she said. “It’s something you want more of. Nothing really mattered because someone was showing interest in me.”
She did anything to feel that satisfaction, she said. She would lie awake at night feeling worthless and horrible for what she had done.
“How you treat other people is representative of who you are at your core,” she said.
Ricker added, “I felt there was no way out. I would have rather been dead than live the life I was living; hiding what I was going through.”
Forty percent of all adolescents with depression go untreated, Mumaw said.
Evidence shows the best treatment for metal illness is the combination of medications from a psychiatrist and therapy from a psychologist, counselor or someone else with mental health training, Mumaw said.
Medications help the mind and body find balance, and therapy helps people build stronger support systems, Mumaw said. A strong support system is just as important for a person with mental illness to find balance.
“Different combinations of medications affect the body in different ways,” she said. “If a person with depression comes in reporting thoughts of worthlessness combined with irritability, a psychiatrist will prescribe them combinations of medication to lift the patient out of the worthless feeling and at the same time suppress the irritation.”
Hiding the pain
“I hid it better than anything you could know,” Ricker said. “I didn’t ask for help until I graduated.”
For Ricker, the depression started to affect him sophomore year in high school, he said. He went years without letting anyone know he wanted to kill himself.
“There were times I would talk to my sister when I was upset,” Ricker said. “I hid the suicidal thoughts, though.”
Teresa Metzger, Johnson’s mother, didn’t know what her daughter was going through until recently.
“I didn’t know, not in the beginning. I suspected more to the end,” Metzger said. “I was a single mom raising her and her two siblings. She seemed a little withdrawn but was active in sports and pageants. She came on as so outgoing and bubbly.”
Mumaw added, “If you’re a teenager and you’re active in sports and have a girlfriend but you’re still depressed, how do you explain that to your friends and family? They can’t understand.”
There’s also the stigma attached to mental illness, she said. Popular culture and the media demonize people with mental illness and paint them to be violent and dangerous.
“Simply having a mental illness does not increase your risk or likelihood of committing violent crimes,” Mumaw said. “Certain illnesses, like schizophrenia, can be violent if they’re having certain hallucinations. It doesn’t make them automatically violent.”
Schools join the fight
Local schools such as Wapakoneta and Allen East high schools implemented measures in an effort to provide help to their students and to actively get students to look out for one another.
“We will have a full-time social worker this year,” said Wapakoneta Superintendent Keith Horner.
Social workers are trained to not only notice mental health issues but to notice signs of violence, substance abuse and other triggers for depression and suicide, Horner said.
After a student killed himself over the summer, Allen East will hire a second social worker, Superintendent Mel Rentschler said. When the school year begins at the smaller, rural school, the social workers will speak to each student to look for anyone else having suicidal thoughts or showing signs they might copycat their peer’s suicide, Rentschler said.
Both schools have student groups who receive a little training in spotting signs of depression and suicidal signs. Wapakoneta’s group is called Gatekeepers. Allen East’s organization is called Students Against Destructive Decisions. The names may be different, but their mandate is the same, Dickman said.
Both Gatekeepers and SADD watch out for troubled peers. If they have concerns about the well-being of someone, they inform an adult. They also schedule events with guest speakers to talk about their struggles with mental illness and how they overcame it with students.
“The Gatekeepers brought a guest speaker to address the school,” Horner said. “That was a large-scale event. We try to get parents involved too because we can’t do it alone.”
PVFF helps train these student groups, Dickman said. Student counselors lead the voluntary groups, although students do recruit from the student body if someone wants to join, she said. They’re trained to go directly to an adult if they suspect someone might harm himself or someone else.
“We will never put our kids in a role where they have a weighty decision to make,” Dickman said.
“It’s such a complex issue that no one entity can solve it,” Horner said. “We have to have everyone working together.”
Partnership for Violence Free Families has a Mental Health First Aid program used with teachers at a few schools so far, although the group seeks to have every teacher in every school in Allen, Auglaize and Hardin counties trained in the future, Dickman said. The program trains teachers and other school staff on the signs of depression and suicidal intent so they can notice it and act before a teen does something drastic.
The Partnership for Violence Free Families also has a hotline number answered by trained mental health professionals and a text number for the same service, by calling 800-567-4673 or texting 741741.
It also has volunteers who are called by local police departments to the scene of a suicide to provide comfort and assistance to the family suffering a loss. The volunteers themselves are people who lost someone to suicide, so they know what the family is going through, Dickman said.
Ricker finally told his parents how he was feeling and sought help for his depression and anxiety.
“Telling my parents I wanted to kill myself was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
After telling his parents, they took him to get help with therapy and medication. He is taking his experience and sharing it with others, hoping it will help other teens hiding their pain and hopelessness seek help.
Ricker is creating a nonprofit organization to help other teens and young adults suffering from mental illness and suicidal thoughts, Seek Help You Aren’t Alone. The organization is holding an event at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Delphos Jefferson Middle School.
He and other speakers will address children, teens and adults about mental illness in teens. He said he hopes the community will finally step up and take action to prevent more suicides from happening in Delphos.
“I’m really proud of him,” Johnson said. “That’s huge to take one of your biggest pains and turning it into your biggest passion.”
Johnson said her best friend’s father, Randy Bevington, who is a minister, changed her life and put her on a better path by telling her one thing: “You are accepted. Jesus wants you how you are.”
“I wouldn’t be where I am without him,” she said.
Johnson graduated from Indiana Wesleyan University early with honors and a degree in business management. She now runs a Christian retreat with her husband in Morgan Town, Indiana.
“This isn’t what I planned for my future,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful experience so far.”
As for hating herself and feeling worthless, she’s working on that. She still lies awake at night holding herself accountable for things she did as a desperate teenager, Johnson said. But now she holds herself more accountable and treats others as Jesus would.
People with mental illness are not their illness, Mumaw said. They have a disease. Like diabetes, mental illness cannot be cured, but it can be treated and maintained, she said.
Help is out there. It’s just a matter of taking the first, most difficult step: Asking for it.