Books

Seeing classmates struggling, these 5th graders wrote a book of poems to inspire those with depression

There's a portrait of a blushing unicorn on the cover, and crayon drawings of pizza, puppies, and playdates on the pages inside, but the book created by a class of fifth graders at a South Philadelphia school deals with an undoubtedly serious subject: depression.

When the students at Eliza B. Kirkbride School noticed that some of their classmates were struggling, they wanted to learn more about depression and what they could do to help.

Research showed them that rates of anxiety and depression are on the rise among young people everywhere, and that children as young as age 9 are increasingly attempting suicide.

"What surprised us was many people don't really get help," said Venus Salas Rizo, an 11-year-old student from South Philadelphia. "We wanted to motivate (people with depression) and make them feel better."

After six months of research, hearing from mental health advocates, and investigating myths about depression, the students produced a book of poems, "Demystifying Depression: 29 Voices to Normalize Crazy Goodness." Their teacher, Lisa Yuk Kuen Yau, 53, got it printed through an online publisher for student work.

The book's dedication reads: "to people who feel the unbearable."

"We want them to know they are an important part of the world," Salas Rizo said.

Experts say this type of work that educates and engages children on mental health is crucial.

"We're not going to curb the suicide epidemic in our country until we approach it from a public health perspective," said Tami Benton, psychiatrist-in-chief at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "That means we really need to think about prevention at a much earlier stage."

Depression-like symptoms can appear in children as early as preschool, Benton said, and current guidelines recommend that doctors screen children for suicide risk starting at age 11.

But often, parents, teachers, and doctors shy away from the subject for fear it's too dark or scary.

When Yau's students told her they wanted to do a project on depression, "my initial reaction was 'Oh, no,' " she said. "I didn't want them to be going home sad after we talk about it."

But talking to students about depression or suicide will not put the idea in their minds, numerous studies have found.

And many students are already facing mental health issues. Suicide is the second leading cause of death (after accidents) among Americans ages 10 to 14, and the number of children visiting the emergency department for psychiatric concerns has risen 28 percent in recent years. Some children are cutting themselves and a growing number are trying to overdose on pills.

Children from low-income and minority communities are often at greater risk for mental illness, as they encounter barriers of culture, language, and poverty. At Kirkbride, 51% of students are Hispanic and 30% are Asian. Nearly half are learning English as a second language, and 100% are economically disadvantaged, according to school district data.

"That changed my mind of how important it is to do this," Yau said.

Not every student will experience depression, Benton said, but everyone can benefit from learning healthy ways to deal with stress and sadness.

Rather than listing mental illnesses or bad outcomes that could happen, she said, conversations with children should focus on ways to process their feelings, how to recognize signs of concern in themselves and others, and how to start a conversation with a trusted adult.

"No matter what, they need to know there is always help available," Benton said.

Through the class project, Ariya Kim, 11, learned that sharing her feelings with others can help ease her pain. Kim's parents split up in December. Her father moved to Georgia the day after Christmas, and she has seen him only once since.

"The fact that my parents are not together really hurts sometimes," she said.

She confides in three of her closest cousins, some of her best friends at school, and Yau. She also tries to focus on things that make her happy, such as listening to K-pop music.

"Everyone goes through hard times," Kim said, "but everyone has those happy, amazing moments in their life, as well."

That's the message she hopes to convey through her poem, "Happy = Sad."

"Kpop is my life I'm happy," it reads. "My parents are not together anymore I'm sad. My dad lives in Georgia I'm sad. I have a big family I'm happy."

The first poem in the book, "Everyone Is Here for You," is dedicated to Jordan Burnham, a mental health advocate who attempted suicide by jumping out of a nine-story building when he was 18.

"Don't be depressed, everyone is here for you," the poem reads. "Don't jump ... I'll save you ... You'll save you."

Burnham, now 30, shared his story with the students as part of his work with Minding Your Minds, an Ardmore-based nonprofit that aims to reduce stigma around mental illness. He told them about the beginnings of depression in high school, how he lost interest in golf and hanging out with friends, and how he turned to alcohol to cope. But after his suicide attempt, Burnham explained, he went to the hospital, got counseling, and learned better ways to manage his depression.

"The most important thing they learned from Jordan and this project is that it's OK to ask for help," Yau said. "All of them now feel this compassion for other people, as well as forgiveness for themselves."

Burnham often speaks with middle- and high-schoolers, but the Kirkbride students were one of only two elementary school classes he spoke with this last school year.

Many of the students' poems reference skills that Burnham discussed with them, such as spending time with family, listing things you're grateful for, and doing the things you love: soccer, anime, and listening to music, to name a few. (Burnham said the students introduced him to K-pop.)

When he read the poem the students wrote for him, Burnham cried.

Minding Your Mind plans to buy several copies of the poetry book and show it at future speaking engagements, he said. "It's amazing the effect the kids will have on people they have never met."

Yau and the students also pooled their money to buy copies of the book for other classrooms at Kirkbride. They hope to raise funds in the future to bring the book to other schools.

In May, which was Mental Health Awareness month, the students shared their research and poems in a presentation at their school, as well as one with Need in Deed, an organization that helps Philadelphia teachers organize service-learning projects, such as the one Yau did with her students.

At first, the students didn't realize how powerful their work was, Yau said, but it clearly resonated with others.

"It's kid-friendly because the kids made it," she said. "Kids speaking truth to kids."

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