Cassandra was in the seventh grade when she first experienced major depression. "I was in a really low mood all the time," she recalls. "I liked school. I had a nice group of friends. My home life was good. But, I was depressed. Nothing had happened to trigger it, which was the worst part. I put on a really good front, so nobody knew anything was wrong. I was very good at hiding my feelings."In an attempt to reduce her pain, Cassandra started cutting. "The first time I self-injured, I thought this is gonna be trouble. I never used drugs or alcohol, but I continued cutting throughout seventh grade and kept it a secret from everyone."
Soon, Cassandra's arms and legs were etched with small, blood-stained slashes, while her inner turmoil worsened. To everyone else though, she continued to appear well adjusted. Her friends came to her with their problems because she had good advice. Her teachers, even her family, were unaware of her pain.
Then, Cassandra's little sister started asking questions. After Cassandra told her about what she was going through, her sister told her parents. "I was partly relieved and partly not," Cassandra remembers. "I was glad my parents knew, but I was scared, too."
Cassandra's parents immediately sought treatment for their daughter. Cassandra learned an approach called dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).
"Before I learned DBT, I thought cutting was helping me, but it wasn't," Cassandra says. "It was making everything ten times worse. I had to hide from everyone and lead a double-life. When I was depressed, I didn't think I was going to make it. I couldn't see the future. Now, I'm excited about school. I'm especially excited about helping people and easing their pain. When I have a bad day, I feel more confident because I have skills I can use and I also have a support system. My parents have been very supportive."
Another positive step Cassandra has taken is volunteering to help young people recognize depression, as a teen speaker for Families for Depression Awareness. Cassandra has spoken in front of groups of students in high school health classes and at parents' forums in the Boston area. "I feel good telling my story because I like helping other people. I wish someone had come into my school and told me about depression and cutting when I was in high school so I could have known what to do."
"Learning DBT skills is hard at first," explains Cassandra. "But after a while, they become second nature. I'm learning to recognize negative situations instead of being overwhelmed by them or hiding from them. Another skill I learned is to ask for what I need by talking to someone or calling my therapist. A skill I like a lot is called opposite-to-emotion-action. You do something you are totally not in the mood to do, like go to the movies when you want to stay home and be alone. I use that skill a lot."
Today, Cassandra is a freshman in college. She hasn't been depressed in a while and hasn't relapsed in over a year. She continues to work with her therapist and says that she is "pretty happy right now."
Cassandra's mom, Leslie, says parents need to know that they aren't alone. "Hang in there. Persevere. There is a light at the end of the tunnel," she says. "It's not about feeling guilty. There's no blame involved. It's not your fault or your kid's fault. It's about acceptance, understanding, and listening. I have five kids and I think that gives me a pretty good overview. I think people are born with or have a predisposition to mental illness. Having a support system is vitally important. Families for Depression Awareness is a great starting point."