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Student video puts spotlight on depression

AKRON, Ohio -- Jamal and Katie were best friends, helping each other with homework and school projects, playing basketball together, and sticking up for each other when someone teased one of them.

AKRON, Ohio -- Jamal and Katie were best friends, helping each other with homework and school projects, playing basketball together, and sticking up for each other when someone teased one of them.

They were friends through "thin and thick," as Jamal liked to say.

But then Katie, a middle schooler, changed.

"This touchy, moody girl wasn't the Katie I knew," Jamal said. "It wasn't even the Katie that Katie knew."

She was withdrawn, angry, argumentative. She started hanging with the wrong crowd, maybe even drinking and smoking pot. She was hiding self-inflicted cuts on her arm.


Katie, it turns out, was battling depression.

Fortunately, Katie and Jamal are fictitious characters in a new video by Mental Health America of Summit County, Ohio, that will be used in schools across the state -- and possibly the nation -- to teach middle schoolers how to recognize symptoms of depression and how to help a friend who's struggling with it.

The video -- "Thick 'n Thin: Understanding Teen Depression" -- stars Miller South School for the Performing Arts eighth-graders (soon to be Firestone High School freshmen) Kayla Johnson as Katie and Dierre Smith as Jamal. Amelia Britton and Nicholas DeShane, both of whom will be Miller South eighth-graders soon, worked behind the scenes as production assistants.

Each of the four students has his or her own idea of what the video's message is.

Smith: "It's really good to have good friends."

Johnson: "You should talk about stuff rather than keep it inside."

Britton: "Anybody can become depressed."

DeShane: "It's OK to tell other people" if a friend is depressed.


Put all four responses together, and that's exactly the point, said Penny Frese, who wrote the screenplay. The goal of the video is to show kids that depression is nothing to be ashamed of, and that help is available.

Teen depression

The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that one in every five teens will experience depression before they reach adulthood. Depression can lead to suicide, which is the third leading cause of death among adolescents and teenagers. (According to the NIMH, about eight out of every 100,000 teenagers committed suicide in 2000. For every teen suicide death, experts estimate there are 10 other teen suicide attempts.)

At one point in the video, Jamal worries that Katie is considering suicide.

"Katie, I don't want you to die," he tells her. "I want you to live."

"I want to live, too," she answers. "But not like this."

The video shows Katie eventually getting help -- with a therapist and medication -- and acting like her old self again. But the video also makes clear that Katie might not have gotten the help she needed without Jamal's persistence to aid a friend who didn't welcome the help.

The actors and production team worked 12 hours a day, four days in a row to film the video.


"We hope this makes a difference in other kids' lives," said Frese, who has a doctorate in psychology and has been a longtime advocate for children's mental-health services.

The video was made as part of the MHA of Summit County's Red Flags program, which is funded by the Ohio Department of Mental Health and endorsed by the Ohio Department of Education for use in all Ohio school districts.

Schools can be resistant

Even with state support, though, getting depression information into a school curriculum is a "difficult shell to crack," said Victoria Doepker, MHA's associate director.

Schools are so focused on state proficiency tests that making room during the day for a depression program can be a tough sell.

"Mental health is not a question on the test," she said, "so it's a matter of finding a passionate person to say, 'We're doing this at our school.'"

If test scores are so important, though, Frese points out that "sick kids don't learn."

Doepker said health class is the most obvious fit for the program, but it can be incorporated into science, history, literature and other courses. And schools shouldn't worry that they're being asked to diagnose kids with depression. It's simply a matter of students, teachers and parents knowing the symptoms and getting the depressed students directed toward the people who can help them.


Before acting in the video, Smith said he hadn't known anyone who suffered from depression.

"But if I did," he said, "I'd know what to do now."

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