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ReachOut Interview: Tamara Ireland Stone, Every Last Word

by RO_Meredith

Living with a mental health challenge can sometimes mean living with a secret.

For Samantha McAllister, the main character of the upcoming YA novel Every Last Word, this is all too true. In fear of her friends' judgment, which can flare at offenses as innocuous as wearing the wrong outfit,  Sam hides her Purely-Obsessional OCD and the dark thoughts and worries that come with it. Only her family and therapist know the truth. Until one day Sam meets a new girl at school who invites her to an underground poetry club where members reveal their innermost thoughts in verse and everything changes.

Intrigued? Read on for our interview with Tamara Ireland Stone, the author behind EVERY LAST WORD, and enter to win one free advanced  copy before its release date on June 16th by posting in the comments below! The first person (located in the US) who shares words that inspire them (it can be poetry, a power jam, or even a mantra you like) will be our winner.

ReachOut: In the process of researching and writing this book, did you learn anything that surprised you about teens who live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? What was important for you to include in your depiction?

Tamara Ireland Stone: From the very beginning, it was incredibly important to me to get the OCD piece of this story right. Every Last Word is told from the main character’s point of view because I wanted people to understand what it’s like to live inside Sam’s overly active, occasionally frightening mind. To pull that off, I had to do my homework.

I consulted with multiple mental health professionals, worked closely with the 16 year-old who originally inspired this story, and read everything I could get my hands on—especially articles and blogs written by teens with OCD—in an effort to understand this disorder.

What surprised me most was learning just how quickly a single thought can turn into a full-scale anxiety attack. In the book, I call them thought spirals. We all have the occasional weird, random thought—one that makes us pause and question, “Where did that come from?”—but an OCD mind latches onto it and doesn’t let go. An intrusive thought can turn toxic and take over so fast, there’s little time to calm down and gain control.

I truly hope this story empowers teens—whether they’re dealing with mental health challenges or not—to be kinder to themselves and to each other. As AJ says in the book, “Everyone’s got something.”

RO: The challenge of managing Sam's Purely-Obsessional Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is made easier by the tools and support provided by her therapist Sue. It's also implied that Sue has helped Sam's mom better handle the unwanted thought spirals Sam sometimes experiences.What inspired this mental health professional character and the relationship she has with Sam and her family?

TIS: A close family friend inspired this story. I call her C.

She’s now 16, but when she was first diagnosed at age 12, I remember listening to her mom talk about the way the family was handling it—meeting with psychiatrists and therapists, researching medications, and consulting with her teachers in confidence. And they were actively talking with their daughter, encouraging her to help them understand what was happening in her mind so they could learn how to best support her.

It would have been easy for C’s parents to dismiss the diagnosis, to chalk it up to “something that will pass”, but they treated it the same way they’d treat a physical illness. I remember being so impressed by that. Her mom has always been a parenting role model for me, and this time, I was even more in awe. I’m sure she’d say it’s not as easy as it looks, but I know one thing: she’s a rock for her daughter.

It took some time, but eventually, they found the perfect match in a psychologist. I’ve never met her, but I modeled a lot of the relationship between Sam and Sue on the real life connection C feels to her therapist. It’s a professional relationship, but there’s also a special bond there, and I wanted to capture and honor that.

Sam’s mom and Sue work as a team in Every Last Word, and C’s mom and therapist operate the same way. They communicate regularly and they’re always in lock step, working hard to stay on top of this disorder and be sure C has the tools she needs to manage it. It’s inspiring.

RO: Sam's circle of female friends is characterized as toxic to the point of negatively affecting her mental health. Still, their shared history makes it hard for her to even consider leaving. What do you hope readers who find themselves in similar social situations will take away from this portrayal?

TIS: We moved a lot when I was growing up, so I never really had that experience of long-term, consistent friendships when I was a teen. By contrast, we now live in a wonderful town and have no intention of moving, so my children will likely graduate from high school with the kids they’ve known since kindergarten.

I look around and wonder what that must be like. Moving all the time was hard, but I also had multiple opportunities to reinvent myself. My daughter is only in fourth grade, but she already sees herself evolving, sometimes in ways that aren’t in sync with her closest friends, and that worries her.

It’s easy to hold on to friendships because you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But it’s important to make decisions that are best for you—not best for everyone else. It’s not selfish.

If the people in your circle of friends don’t make you feel good about yourself, there’s probably nothing wrong with them… you might just be in the wrong circle. Take a close look at the people in your life, choose to hold on to the ones who really get you, and let go of the ones who don’t. It’s hard to do, but you’ll be a lot happier in the long run.

RO: Creative expression becomes a very important coping strategy for Samantha. As a writer, can you relate to this experience?

TIS: When I first started outlining this novel, I knew Sam would discover writing as a form of personal therapy. Like her swim routine, weekly therapist appointments, and daily medication, writing would become yet another tool she used to manage her mental health.

But the more I wrote, the more I began to realize that aspect of the story was taking on a life of its own. I was often in tears as I found myself tapping into my own personal experience with words and their healing power.

Writing—the simple act of putting words on paper and getting them out of my head—saved me when I was a teen. Even though I never let anyone else read my stories, poems, and journal entries, my notebooks were always my safe place. Words were my friends.

I simply love writing. I love finding that one word that perfectly fits what I’m trying to say. I love putting words together, flipping them around, playing with them. I love the cadence of a paragraph, when sentences work together so fluidly, they sound musical. I love it when words move me to tears and laughter and swoons and chills and… whatever they feel like doing. I loved making Sam feel all that for the first time.

RO: What message do you hope to send readers who recognize themselves in the character of Sam?

TIS: Sam's brain works differently than other brains. I surrounded her with three people—her mom, her therapist, and Caroline—to consistently remind her that, while her mind might be challenging, there are a lot of special things about it, too.

Throughout the novel, these three people are the carriers of my message to readers. At key points, they encourage Sam to find things that make her feel stronger—like swimming, writing poetry, and speaking her mind. They remind her to surround herself with true friends, people who want her to take off her mask and just be Sam. Sometimes they tell her she’s overthinking, making a big deal out of something that isn’t. They make sure she knows that her brain might be different, but she’s not broken.

For those readers who see themselves in Sam, but may not feel the same level of support, I strongly urge you to find someone to talk to. It doesn’t have to be a paid therapist. It can be a parent, a sibling, or someone outside your circle of friends at school. Look at your teachers, librarians, a friend’s mom or dad, someone in your community… anyone. But please start talking. The people around you can’t help if they don’t know you need it.

And if you're able to go to therapy route, I strongly encourage it. It may take some work to find the right fit, but there are so many incredible people out there who are dedicated to helping teens struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

ReachOut 2 Me: Support Makes The Difference

by Mere News


 

ReachOut Interview: Mariel Hemingway, Invisible Girl

by RO_Meredith

Mariel Hemingway was an Academy Award-nominated actress by the time she was a teenager. For many, this conjures up  images of a glamorous and carefree lifestyle straight off the pages of a glossy magazine. But the reality was far from that.

In her new memoir, Invisible Girl, written as a diary, she shares the truth of her challenging childhood. She explores the pain, heartache, and coping strategies she discovered growing up in a family disrupted by depression, addiction and chronic illness.

Below, we speak with Mariel about putting these experiences to the page, the gifts she found in nature, and what she would say to teens living in similarly chaotic households today. 

ReachOut: What inspired you to write a memoir for a young adult audience?

Mariel Hemingway: I was inspired to write the young adult book Invisible Girl because when I was young that was when I had the most questions about life, when I felt the most unseen/invisible and I choose now to give a voice to the young people out there who might also feel alone and confused about their life and their families.

RO: Looking back on your childhood, you say "obstacles are as much a part of [your] story as anything else."  How do you think those obstacles made an impact on your adult life, professionally and personally?

MH: Obstacles are what teach us and usually, especially in childhood, they don’t feel like obstacles, they simply feel like your life. You have nothing else to compare your life to at that time so your difficulties become your teachers. 

As you grow up you look at those obstacles or challenges and see them as experiences. You can feel how they inform who you are, and why you are where you are in your life. For example, I know why I married my first husband because he said he would take care of me for the rest of my life and because of not having anyone to do that when I was young that felt like the most incredible thing in the world. I also know why I made family out of movie set crews because they felt like what ‘normal’ was supposed to be even though a movie set is the farthest thing from normal. I know why I became obsessed with food, because my mother had cancer and I didn’t want to get sick plus with food I could make my own choices and therefore I thought I had control over some aspect of my life.

Everything about me has something to do with how I observed or reacted to my surroundings as a child. Everything about me now is the result of looking at my past, loving it, forgiving it and myself and knowing that I made a lot of past choices because I believed I had to. The beautiful thing about deep self-inquiry is that since I have done my excavation, the choices I make now are informed by the present. That is my reward. Plus being present is a satisfying place to live.

RO: When your family moved from California to Idaho you began to spend more time in nature and even called it "your very best friend." How did this relationship with the outdoors help you cope with the chaos that happened inside your house?

MH: Nature has always been “my best friend” and is to this day. The reason it helped me is because it filled me with wonder about how it worked, it never judged me and it’s elegant movement showed me how to observe. I spent hours watching animals or climbing in trees, making stick forts, jumping into rivers, doing things that had no time line and no need to be defined. Nature felt like love and it is where I understood that love existed and that if you understood love in nature then you could better understand love in life with people.

RO: The struggles of growing up in a family that "had a hard time staying happy" will be familiar to many of the teens and young adults who seek support in our forums.  What message are you hoping to send readers who still find themselves in that situation, whether it's due to substance abuse, chronic illness, or other obstacles?

MH: I want kids to know you can still love your families even though it looks and feels terrible, mixed up and wrong. I also want them to know even when there seems to be no love in return there are people out there, myself included who see them and feel their struggles and we are here to help them to find love, maybe even self love which leads to happiness. It may not happen overnight but the process starts when you are willing to share and be heard. I want young people to know their story matters and they are not alone.

ReachOut Launches Speakers Bureau!

by RO_Meredith Mental Health

Speakers BureauMoved by requests from schools and communities looking for youth to discuss mental health topics and break down the stigma around these issues, we're thrilled to announce the launch of the ReachOut Speakers Bureau*! Sponsored by the Each Mind Matters mini-grant initiative, ReachOut has trained a selection of youth volunteers passionate about mental health advocacy in California.

Available for speaking engagements for both youth and youth advocates, members of our speakers bureau have already delivered compelling presentations for audiences at the San Mateo Youth Conference and the 7th International Together Against Stigma conference in San Francisco.

If you have an upcoming school or community event that could use a youth voice keyed into the challenges of growing up today, check out the brief profiles of our speakers below and contact Michael Young, Youth Programs Manager to coordinate an appearance. 

Daniel

Daniel Robert Caldera Jr. is a research assistant and student at Pitzer College, part of the Claremont Consortium, studying Linguistics & Cognitive Science and expresses his lived experience with mental health challenges through writing and community engagement.

Mackenzie

Mackenzie Ellsworth is a jewelry designer and student at University of San Francisco studying Entrepreneurship and Innovation/Environmental Studies, and expresses her lived experience with depression through writing and design.

Emily 

Emily Pham is currently an undergraduate student attending San Francisco State University studying Psychology and Counseling. Emily aspires to become a school counselor and voice-over artist in the future. In her spare time, she enjoys listening to music, singing, dancing, exercising, voice acting and writing.

Estephani

Estephani Alanis is a Mental Health Advocate in Orange County California. Estephani is a Southern California Team Lead for Each Mind Matters Change Agents and is currently studying Behavioral Science at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, CA. She expresses efforts to reduce stigma and discrimination through Crisis Intervention Traning for Law Enforcement.

Kaila

Kaila Tang is a passionate advocate for cultural-competency and ethnic minority mental health who has struggled with major depression and other related stressors that have resulted in her interest in counseling and trauma work with women of color. Spreading awareness in regards to equal rights and treatment for under-represented and under-served populations has become very important to her.

Haley

Haley Adams is high school student in Redwood, CA who volunteers as a ReachOutHere Peer Supporter. She is passionate about helping her peers get through tough times and combatting the stigma surrounding mental health.

Jessica

Jessica Van Tuinen is a student at Modesto Junior College and works at Juvenile Justice where she oversees the youth leadership program, Youth In Mind, and mentors young adults who have recently been released from Juvenile Hall. As well, she is a CAYEN (California Youth Empowerment Network) board member. Her personal experience with anxiety has inspired her to help as many young people as she can. 

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*This program is funded by counties through the voter-approved Mental Health Services Act (Prop 63). It is one of several Prevention and Early Intervention Initiatives implemented by the California Mental Health Services Authority (CalMHSA), an organization of California counties working to improve mental health outcomes for individuals, families and communities. CalMHSA encourages the use of materials contained herein, as they are explained in our licensing agreements. To view the agreements, please visit: calmhsa.org

ReachOut Interview: Jennifer Niven, All the Bright Places

by RO_Meredith Interviews

In today's blog, we talk to Jennifer Niven, the YA author behind All the Bright Places, a New York Times bestseller and a novel that honestly and powerfully deals with so many of the issues we tackle on ReachOut. 

Beyond that, it's also a gripping love story. But while the chemistry between Finch and Violet is undeniable, so are the very real challenges that each grapple with on a daily basis. Finch with the unpredictable ups and downs of his own mind and Violet, who struggles to move past her grief and guilt over the loss of her sister. That's what brings them to meet under grim circumstances at school and propels them into a senior year of discovery neither saw coming.

Intrigued? Read on for our interview with Jennifer and enter to win one free copy of ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES by posting in the comments below! The first person (located in the US) who shares where they feel "unlimited, fearless and safe," words used by Violet to describe the online magazine she created, will be our winner.

Update: Our winner has been named but the conversation continues on the ReachOutHere Forums where we talk about books!

Trigger warning: The sensitive and realistic depiction of mental illness and suicidal ideation may be upsetting to some readers. 

ReachOut: What inspired you to write a story that dealt with suicidal thoughts, mental illness and grief from the firsthand perspective? How did it come to be a YA novel?

Jennifer Niven: Years ago, I knew and loved a boy, and that boy was bipolar. I witnessed up-close the highs and lows, the Awake and the Asleep, and I saw his daily struggle with the world and with himself. I’d always thought of writing something about the experience, but how do you write something so personal and so tough?

When I finally sat down to try it in the summer of 2013, I knew in my bones that I should write it as YA. I’ve always preferred first person narration because I feel it’s the most immediate, and most novels dealing with mental illness and suicide seem to be written from the outside looking in—the main character is either left in the wake of someone who has [died by] suicide or they’re observing that person from afar. We rarely get to hear from the character who’s actually going through it.

RO: The word “survivor” is used a lot to characterize Violet, and I know you have a personal connection with the term as well. What did you learn about that label in the process of writing this book? What was important for you to include?

JN: The first thing I learned, after all these years, was that I had a label. Survivor of suicide. All I knew was that I’d loved and lost someone who died too soon. And it was traumatic. And it was heartbreaking. And part of me will never get over it. I’ve lost so many people in my life— my father, my grandparents, cousins, friends, mentors, cats, and, most recently, my mom, who was my very best friend.  So much loss.  But through it, I try to focus on something Violet realizes in the book:  it’s not what you take, it’s what you leave.  Every person I’ve lost has left me so much—including this boy I knew and loved—and I like to think I carry them with me. I’ve also learned the importance of wandering the world, making it lovely, and leaving something behind. It was important to me to share that with readers.

RO: There are so many different types of adults that surround both Violet and Finch in the form of parents, counselors and teachers. Some are more involved and engaged than others, but all are flawed in their own realistic ways. What do you hope readers will take away from these portrayals?

JN: As Finch’s counselor says, sometimes we can only see what people allow us to see. People are very good at hiding in plain sight. I’m guilty of this too—like Violet I tend to smile a lot on the outside when I’m hurting the most. Recognizing that, we need to pay attention to the people in our lives. After reading my book, a teacher in New Zealand suddenly noticed that one of his students was acting a lot like Finch, and it turns out that the student was in fact suicidal and struggling with issues he didn’t understand.

We need to learn to be more aware, but I also hope readers will reach out. Speak up. Let someone know how you’re feeling, or if you’re close to someone who is battling mental illness and you’re worried about that person, reach out and speak up for them. I’m hearing from many, many teens who are either struggling with their own mental health issues or know someone who is, and the first thing I tell them is to talk to someone they trust, whether that’s a parent, teacher, counselor, sibling, or friend. Being isolated only makes things worse, and you really, truly aren’t alone.

RO: Violet creates the magazine Germ, “Because people my age need somewhere they can go for advice or help or fun or just to be without anyone worrying about them. Somewhere they can be unlimited and fearless and safe, like in their own rooms.”

First of all, I love this description (partly because it reminds me of ReachOut) and the fact that germmagazine.com exists in real life! Did you have a place (real or fictional) that felt like this to you when you were a teen?

JN: I think that place was my own imagination. I’d been writing stories from the time I could form words on a page, and my two amazing parents always encouraged me to write and to express myself. I also had a close-knit group of friends that were like my real-life ReachOut/Germ. Sometimes we wrote stories together, and it was a way to deal with the things we didn’t feel we were able to talk about or discuss with each other. During my senior year of high school, my two best friends and I were dealing with our own private, individual struggles, and we poured it out on paper in what became a long, sad, angry, often funny, very chaotic stage play. It saved us. Reading was also an outlet because books reminded me I wasn’t alone, no matter what I was going through.

RO: The internal monologues of Finch and Violet speak to the struggles of so many teens who may feel isolated by the darkness of their thoughts and the fear of unleashing that on those around them because of stigma. What has the response been like from teen/young adult readers who relate with your characters? Has anything surprised you in their reactions?

JN: The response has been emotional and overwhelming, and while I anticipated some of that, I had no idea just how emotional and overwhelming it would be. The thing I hear most from readers is that this book saved their lives in some way, big or small. They’ve thanked me for making them feel like someone gets them, and for reminding them they aren’t alone. One girl wrote to say she had been to the drugstore to buy sleeping pills because she wanted to die, and for some reason my book was sitting there next to them. She picked up the book and started reading and forgot about the pills. Hours later, after she finished, she wrote to tell me that she wants to be here in this world to find her own bright places and that she’d enrolled in a counseling program at school.

One thing I learned firsthand from my own experience:  losing someone to suicide is different from losing someone to cancer or a car accident or a stroke—or any other “acceptable” way to die.  There is stigma attached to mental illness and suicide, and if I was made to feel that way after losing this boy I knew, imagine how hard it was for him to find help and understanding when he was alive. I want readers to know that it’s important to talk about it, that help is out there, that it gets better, that high school isn’t forever, and that life is long and vast and full of possibility.

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