SALT LAKE CITY — Kimberly Esquer and her friends at Highland High School in Salt Lake City might seem carefree. But they share a common bond: depression.
"I suddenly got reclusive," said Esquer, a 16-year-old sophomore. "I didn't want to talk with anyone."
Esquer's depression began in the fourth grade, and she started to isolate herself socially. Her symptoms continued into middle school when a teacher, Stephanie Hunt, reached out.
"She was the first person to notice that there was something wrong with me," Esquer said. "She actually gave me hope. She made her room a safe place for me."
Esquer was nervous about sharing her struggles with friends. But being honest brought them closer. She realized she wasn't alone. Sofya Akhetova, a sophomore at Highland, said, "I was like, 'You have depression. I have depression, too. We're in this together.'"
The friends now look out for each other and find creating art is therapeutic.
Kim Gardner, interim director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Utah, said nonjudgmental encouragement is vital for teens who have depression. "One of the huge, protective factors is support: supportive, loving, trusting relationships," he said.
Along with professional help and family support, opening up through friendship is key. Knowing when it might be a good time to take that risk is something that happens over time, he said. "We kind of have to trust our gut instincts as human beings, including parents and kids about, 'I think I have this relationship where I can open up.'"
Gardner said teenagers are under more stress than ever. Keeping an open dialogue is important. "Number 1, just having the conversation, just talking. It's amazing. All of us have lost the art of kind of talking to each other." He suggested parents might say, "It's OK not to be the superstar at everything. But you just be yourself." Also, he said parents should tell their teen, "We are not alone and that there is hope and that treatment works."
Esquer is now thriving thanks to a little help from her friends. Brooke Davis, another classmate and friend, said, "Whether you like it or not I'm going to tear you out of this pit," Davis said. "If you slip, or you fall again, your friends are there to catch you like a safety rope."
Experts say adult could learn something from these high school students: That reaching out to trusted friends can be healing.
"It's nice to know that I can have someone I trust in my darkest times," Esquer said.
And by sharing your pain, you might help someone else as well.
NAMI Utah offers mentoring and education about depression. Call 801-323-9900. Or if you or your teen is in a crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK.