By Paula J. Owen
Telegram & Gazette
LEOMINSTER — Sometimes all someone needs is for a friend to ask, “Are you OK?”
Teens at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster are learning how to identify symptoms of mental illness and how to direct other teens to help.
The training — the Swensrud Depression Prevention Initiative developed by Boston Children’s Hospital — is offered free to teens at the club. So far, 11 teens in Grades 9 through 12 have taken it.
Donata J. Martin, the club’s executive director, said staff members were also trained.
“We want to work with kids ahead of time,” Ms. Martin said. “They might not talk to adults, but they might talk to peers.”
The need for such training was underscored earlier this month, when a 12-year-old Leominster boy who was a regular for years at the club committed suicide.
“We don’t want kids to keep it a secret,” Ms. Martin said.
Funding for the training came from the SHINE Initiative, a Leominster-based nonprofit that tries to shed light on mental illness in children and young adults.
Paul A. Richard, executive director of SHINE, said more and more club members are showing signs of behavioral and emotional disorders that are difficult for staff, without proper training, to identify and cope with.
SHINE provided the club with $5,000 grants in 2013 and 2014 so it could to reach out to parents and bring in a consultant to help with training.
Arthur E. Baxter, executive director of Copetrainings, based in Fitchburg, ran the sessions.
He said the training teaches what depression is, what it looks like and what it feels like, and how to direct people to help.
He met with the teenagers last week at the club to review what they had learned and see if they had questions.
He asked them what they thought of when they heard the word depression. They responded with the words “sad,” “the color black,” “suicide,” “isolation,” “self-harming” and “stress.”
Mr. Baxter said he looks for stigmatizing words such as “crazy.” Part of the training is de-stigmatizing mental illness, he said.
All of the teens said they wished they could have helped the boy who had committed suicide a week earlier, but they didn’t know him well. Activities for high school kids are held in separate areas of the club from those for younger grades, they said.
Natalia S. Badenhausen, 14, from Fitchburg, a club member for five years, said the boy’s death upset her.
“I felt like if I knew him, I would have wanted to help,” she said. “I knew some kids on the younger side, but I never really knew him. When I heard about it, it struck me really bad.”
Mr. Baxter said about 40 club youngsters needed counseling after the suicide.
He said the training is geared toward high school-aged children because younger ones are not mature enough. He said he plans to offer training to eighth-graders in April.
“We hope the awareness itself trickles down to the younger kids,” Mr. Baxter said. “People don’t talk about suicide publicly. It is like the word ‘cancer.’ When you hear ‘suicide,’ people don’t want to talk about it and there is a lot of misinformation that goes along with it. With depression and suicide, there is never just one causal thing that does it.”
Leo J. Gonzalez, 15, from Fitchburg, who started going to the club six years ago, said he decided to go through the training because a lot of his friends were diagnosed with depression.
“I knew what it was, and knew it wasn’t a good thing, but I didn’t really know enough about it,” Leo said. “The training taught me how to really see what it felt like and how to identify if a friend really is depressed or just going through a tough time. It helps to be able to talk to friends about it, too, and helped me realize there are a lot of options, not just to keep talking to them. Talking is not always the right way.”
Natalia said she took the training to help some of her really close friends who have depression.
“Many more people suffer from depression than I imagined, and you can actually get help for them,” she said.
Charlette R. Lowell, 15, from Leominster, said the training hit close to home for her. Depression runs on both sides of her family, she said.
“Peer counseling is so important,” Mr. Richard said. “So many youth are dealing with some form of mental illness and have difficulty identifying what emotions they are dealing with. It is hard for them to explain or disclose it. With youth with emotions, it is hard to place trust in an adult, even a family member.”
He said the training will help teens guide friends who may confide in them to the appropriate resources and to reach out to an experienced adult or mentor.
“We want everyone to understand mental illness is like diabetes or asthma and want them to be able to talk about it and seek help that is available,” he said. “It is breaking through the stigma that has clouded mental illness for all time.”
Desarae M. Dudley, 16, from Fitchburg, said a movie the teens watched during the training affected her.
“A lot of the people in the movie had really good lives,” she said. “I thought people who had depression didn’t have the best lives.”
Gil Carta, 16, from Fitchburg, was the only teen who said he didn’t know anyone with depression.
He said he learned that anyone can have it. He said the knowledge he gained in training made him feel empowered to help someone in need.
Mr. Richard said the training can save lives.
“With depression the brain feels broken, kind of like a broken arm or leg,” he said. “We encourage people all the time, if you know someone who is suddenly withdrawn, is going through nutrition or sleep changes, is isolated from friends and non-communicative, these are signs that something is significantly wrong. Just ask, ‘Are you OK?’ Just ask, ‘Are you having thoughts of ending your life?’
“People who have attempted suicide say all they were looking for or needing was someone to ask if they were OK and to know people cared about them or loved them. Show some concern, offer to direct them to help and be a good listener.”
Contact Paula Owen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @PaulaOwenTG