Team Abby: Community walk unites friends, families a year later
When the life of a young person is lost, it tends to send ripple effects throughout a small-town community.
Unfortunately for Trumbull, vibrations of grief can still be felt from the loss of Trumbull High School sophomore Abby Anderson, who took her own life last June after battling clinical depression.
A year later, family and friends will gather once again at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s (AFSP) Out of Darkness Walk to honor the memory of the 15-year-old cheerleader who was regarded as bright, engaging and always positive by everyone that knew her.
“She knew how to laugh and how to live,” said Kathy Masi, whose daughter Libby was Abby’s best friend.
“The community understands a lot more about teen depression than it did a year ago,” she added. “And that’s a positive that has came out of this tragedy — that it has brought out this awareness amongst parents and amongst our children about what it’s like to struggle with mental illness and clinical depression.”
At last year’s walk, where Team Abby’s 300-plus participants helped raise more than $42,000 to help support suicide research, education and advocacy, there were tears as well as laughter — a sense of healing that was much-needed after a tumultuous emotional summer.
“My husband Charlie and I, and our son, Ben, were very open from the get go; we didn’t want this to be something that was hush-hush,” explained Gillian Anderson, Abby’s mom. “Clearly that past method of handling depression and mental illness — trying to hide it from others — doesn’t work.”
Anderson believes the openness has allowed her and her family, as well as Abby’s friends and the rest of the Trumbull community, to not dwell on the question of “why.”
“The question is ‘what next?’” she said. “It was shocking that this ‘normal,’ outgoing, beautiful girl could even contemplate taking her own life, let alone actually follow through with it. But that’s what depression can do, especially in teens. It can be masked as normal teen behavior, and not obvious.
“Even with therapy, medication, friends and family, and with love all around, it still can wreak havoc,” she added.
Taking it to the next level
Anderson stresses that her daughter just “closed up” towards the end of her life because she was so exhausted from dealing with the disease.
Both she and Masi are amazed by how the town’s youth has overcome the struggle, and how they’ve accepted the responsibility of making a difference at such a young age.
“The kids are left with Abby memories — that’s all there is,” Anderson said. “They’ve had to grow up quickly, and it’s incredible how they’ve handled this emotionally overwhelming situation and rallied together...
“Her friends want to push it to the next level,” she added. “They keep wanting to learn more and to expand their way of understanding how something like this could happen, and how they can prevent it from happening elsewhere.”
And the sky’s the limit, according to Masi, who compares this cause to what her generation had to go through with cancer.
“This generation will be the generation that brings mental illness to the forefront, like ours did with cancer,” she said. “They’re eager to talk about it; they want to go the extra mile to truly learn how to make a difference.”
Most important, they’re willing to talk about it — and keep talking about it, even more than a year after Abby took her own life.
“It’s amazing how much the word is still out there,” Masi said.
Suffering in silence
What makes teen clinical depression even more difficult is staying on top of it during the course of a school day. Anderson and Masi would like to see even more protective factors and open dialog in all schools, and more educated staff members, parents and students.
The main reason that spreading the word and increasing education is so important is because it can reach someone who doesn’t understand that they or someone they may know is clinically depressed, the Trumbull moms said.
“Why should you care about mental illness and suicide? Because it can happen to anyone,” Anderson said. “People you know could be affected, and they’re suffering in silence.”
For Abby, who was diagnosed at the end of middle school, she was always cheerful, outgoing, dynamic and fearless, according to Masi. However, that didn’t mean she wasn’t suffering.
“It sounds so cliche, but it can happen to anybody,” she said.
“She was the best friend anyone could ask for — she was the anchor in my daughter’s friend group,” she recalled. “But we now know she was good at hiding it. On the surface, she looked perfectly happy and that’s why it’s important that we try to make sure kids are more vocal about it.”
Good days, bad days — that’s the challenge with detecting clinical depression and other mental illnesses and finding the right treatment for the person suffering.
“We actually thought Abby was doing pretty well the month before she died,” Anderson said. “She had missed several weeks of school during the course of the year due to severe migraines; but she had made up the missed school work with extra help.
“We all worked on her depression, together,” she added. “As a family. She tended to put a lot of pressure on herself, and we always talked about that, too. But from the stories that I hear now, the depression isn’t always present every day, but when the depression hits, your life can grind to a halt.
“It’s debilitating and sometimes impossible to explain the pain — you don’t want to explain the pain.”
State Sen. Tony Hwang, who represents the 28th Senate District, believes that every person can make a difference to those in need.
“All it has to be is a small thing — a small gesture, like a smile or an extended hand,” he said. “You just have to let someone know you value them…
“Every gesture counts,” he added. “Something you do could be a deterrent for someone to take their own life; it could make a difference and it doesn’t cost us a thing.”
Hwang remembers meeting Abby when she was in high school and calls the Andersons a “beautiful, traditional family” with Abby as a positive cheerleader, her brother as a top-ranked wrestler, and Gillian and her husband as well-respected members of the community
“It can happen to any family,” said the assistant minority leader. “It can happen to people we know, people we think have the perfect life...
“Awareness is all about sharing the challenges with people who might be going through it alone,” he added.
Hwang, who participated in the walk last year, is also overwhelmed by the way that the Trumbull community, especially its youth, has rallied to support this cause.
“When I walked, I saw them fully aware of their vulnerability,” he said. “They really saw it as an opportunity to help others and make a difference — Abby meant so much to them that they don’t want anyone else to be lost.
“Over and over again, I heard young adults saying that ‘I can make a difference,’ ‘I can make sure this doesn’t happen to another person or another family,’ — that was extremely encouraging,” he added. “That moment struck me and really stayed with me.”
Removing the stigma
Part of this generation’s task will be removing the negative stigma that’s long been attached to mental illness and clinical depression.
Masi believes the younger generation is ready to tackle this challenge; Hwang isn’t as optimistic about the older population.
“A lot of people don’t want to talk about it,” the senator said. “A lot of people view it as a weakness — a job not well done as a parent or a failure of a town to help someone who was sick.
“What we have to remind ourselves is that tragedies can happen to every family, even the ones who love, support, and care for their children.”
The reality is that depression, especially with young adults, can be an exhausting, brutal war of the mind — something that’s completely separate from an external forces.
“It’s this repetitive cycle where your brain convinces you you’re not worthy,” Anderson explained. “And no matter what people say to you, no matter how many compliments they give you, the depression tells you otherwise.”
Anderson and Masi both acknowledge that Abby took her own life as part of a plan — not a rash decision made on the spur of the moment propelled by feeling weighed down and overburdened by one particular moment or experience.
“Libby and some of Abby’s other close friends knew that Abby was on meds but they may not have known about the severity of her illness,” Masi said.
Anderson recalls finding the scribblings of a handwritten note tucked away in Abby’s old school backpack after sorting out her things after she died.
“It was a goodbye note that was addressed to me, my husband and my son and it said ‘So sorry it had to end this way … you’ve always been there for me. Please don’t think that this is your fault,’” she said. “This was probably written six months before she took her own life.”
Since that fateful June day, Anderson has immersed herself in books and videos about clinical depression as well as attending monthly American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) meetings in Westport.
“Intuitively I know I’ll never know her final act but it makes me feel closer to her — reading about others and hearing them talk about what it’s like living in that dark hole,” she said. “I’ve heard it be compared to quicksand — you can’t function and you can’t escape it.”
Anderson believes that he more people discuss it, the more progress can be made.
“In order to help others, we need to understand it’s an illness just like cancer,” she said. “We need to give families of people who suffer a sense of relief — a sense of comfort that can only be achieved by opening up…
“The more we talk, the more we can connect with one another,” she added.
A prevention network
Anderson, Masi and Hwang share a similar philosophy that the best way to prevent more suicides is building a peer network for young adults that opens the dialogue and creates room for those suffering to come out of the shadows.
“We need kids to know it’s better to speak up than to remain silent,” Anderson said. “And how brave someone is to bring it to the surface rather than let it be suppressed by teen confidentiality.”
Hwang said that the life of a teenager can be stressful, and to keep that in perspective.
“Nobody’s ever perfect perfect in life,” the senator said. “It’s important that we recognize that, and stress it to our younger population...
“It’s really tough being a teen with the high academic expectations, the different roles you play outside of school and all the technology,” he added. “There’s a lot of self-esteem questions and a desire to fit in — it’s a terrible stage for someone with a mental illness because they’re already acutely aware of their challenges and insecurities, and then they have to worry about transitioning from being a kid to being an adult and going to college.”
A key thing for parents to do is not to accept one-word answers, Hwang said.
“We can’t accept ‘great’ as a response — we need to keep them engaged, this is an exercise that really matters,” said the father of two children, ages 21 and 16.
The senator stresses that someone struggling with onset of mental illness needs counseling and supportive resources available immediately, which is a responsibility that falls on his shoulders.
“We have the responsibility to ensure they have what they need,” he said. “Mental illness awareness is absolutely essential — there’s no more hiding from it; it’s equally as critical to legislators as any other issue and that’s why you’ll continue to see an extension of help towards suicide awareness, because it’s an extension of our state’s mental health network.
“The ultimate goal is ensuring the safety of every individual — making sure they live a happy and fulfilled life,” he added. “That’s our greatest constitutional right as a country and we need to continue to focus on making it a reality for everybody.”
AFSP is the leader in the fight against suicide, which is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
The organization, which is headquartered in New York and has 75 local chapters, is made up of hundreds of thousands of people whose goal is to raise awareness and funds that allow AFSP to invest in new research, create educational programs, advocate for public policy and support survivors of suicide loss.
More than 500 people throughout coastal Connecticut are expected to participate in the annual Out of Darkness Community Walk at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10.
Check-in and registration is set for noon Saturday with online registration closing at noon Friday, Oct. 9. Anyone who would like to participate can register in person at the walk from the time check-in begins until the walk starts.
Walk donations are accepted until Dec. 31, 2015 and may be made at afsp.donordrive.com under the Team Abby page.
For more information, visit afsp.org, call 516-869-4215 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK).