Paige Taylor struggled with a mild case of anxiety for a few years before she was diagnosed with depression.

By RIMSIE MCCONIGA
rmcconiga@leavenworthtimes.com


Paige Taylor struggled with a mild case of anxiety for a few years before she was diagnosed with depression.
 
The 16-year-old Lansing High School junior has been a Girl Scout since she was 5 and when her troop leader, Carla Wiegers first discussed the Gold Award project with the girls in her troop Paige immediately knew she wanted to focus on helping other teens who were battling depression.
“Depression has been something I have grown up around,” says Paige. Several of my family members have been diagnosed, some before they were even preteens. I wanted to do this project for them and for the things they struggled with, but after I was diagnosed I had a completely different train of thought. My thought process after being diagnosed was that there are kids just like me, just like my family that are struggling with the same things I’m struggling with and they very well might not know that this is what they are going through, whether it is depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness, simply because they aren’t informed about what mental illness is.”
It deeply pains Paige to think that a friend or a peer may be struggling and they may be thinking of doing something tragic because they aren’t being treated or they don’t know how or where to get help.

The treatment of depression is so important to her that she chose it more than a year ago as the subject of her Gold Award project and she is focused on depression screening and suicide prevention.

While the Boy Scout’s Eagle Scout Award involves earning merit badges in addition to demonstrating leadership to benefit school, community or a religious institution, Paige says the Girl Scout Gold Award has multiple levels.

“Earning this award is not just about the final product, it is the process along the way: research, developing, engaging others in the community, says Paige. Even before we are allowed to begin our project, Girl Scouts must attend a workshop to learn the requirements of the project. First, we have to decide on an issue that we noticed in our community that we want to change or raise awareness about.  It must be something that can be carried on even after the girl has completed her project with a sustainable impact. Second, it must have a community impact, for instance my sister raised awareness of human trafficking in the Lansing/Leavenworth area and my friend, Leah Wiegers, brought scoliosis screening back to Lansing schools. In order to even get our projects approved we have to present a proposal to members of the Girl Scout Council who can either approve the project, approve it with the addition of mandatory tasks that must be accomplished, or completely reject the proposal. At least 80 hours of work must be put into the project. At the end of everything, there is a final presentation to council members. At the final presentation, the Girl Scout states what she has done for her project, shows proof of hours completed, shows proof of sustainability, and shows proof of measurable community impact.”

She and her troop members believe that the focus of the Girl Scout Gold Award has more to do with leadership through civic engagement, while the Eagle Scout Award is more about survival skills and demonstrating leadership. Paige is confident that the dedication and hard work that is required to earn both awards reflects positively on the traditions and challenges offered by scouting.
Paige recently attended a proclamation signing ceremony by Gov. Jeff Colyer to recognize Suicide Prevention Awareness Month September 2018 and National Depression Screening Day, October 11, 2018, which culminates her project for completing her Gold Award objectives.
She will also speak on coping with teen anxiety at the Lansing Community Library, Sept. 18 at 5:30 p.m.

In her 11 years of scouting Paige says she has learned the value of helping others “over and over again.” And she has discovered a part of herself that she had no idea existed. “My troop leader has encouraged me and has helped raise me to be the person I am,” says Paige. “She has instilled a sense of family within my troop. The love for one another that she has instilled is something I won’t ever forget. There isn’t anything that I have learned as a Girl Scout that won’t be valuable to me later in life. I hope my troop members feel the same.”

Paige sees the motivation to attain the Gold Award for Scouts as similar to why elected officials make laws. “Elected officials attempt to help people or improve the environment. It's the same way with the Gold Award, but instead of politicians you have teenage girls, women of the future, looking around their community to identify an issue then developing a plan to help their community.  More often than not, through this process girls must engage and interact with some form of authority organization - school district, city council, state legislature, even engaging federal organizations to obtain support and seek sustainability for her project.”

Her passionate commitment to help erase the stigma associated with mental illness comes in part from her personal struggle, including misinterpretations made by those close to her. “I was 13-years-old, struggling with anxiety, and I had a friend of mine tell me, ‘People who say they have a mental illness are just trying to get attention.’ As a 13-year-old, I was shocked and upset by that friend. Now that I look back on that, I realize that that friend was probably just repeating something she had heard at home.”

She stresses that if the stigma is not abolished, people will continue to misunderstand and misidentify what many others struggle with on a daily basis.
“If a child goes to their parent asking for help with whatever they may be feeling, what’s going to happen if the parent responds, ‘You’re just trying to get attention,’” says Paige. “How is that child going to feel? They may ultimately be left untreated, never learning positive coping skills, and a tragic thing may circulate in their brain that they may act upon. All because their parent didn’t believe them or believed that this wa something that all people struggle with so they should just toughen up. I feel as if I can spot the disbelief in people’s eyes when I tell them what my project topic is. It is upsetting and infuriating, but the stigma definitely still exists. I don’t believe my project would be as important if this stigma didn’t still exist.  I think a lot of people are scared to say they have something ‘wrong’ with them. People live under this preconceived stigma that consumes our thoughts sometimes. No one wants to be an outcast, and it’s sad to say that if you are open about what you may be struggling with that people may treat you like an outcast.”

After living with depression, Paige believes it is an accurate assumption that people may feel uncomfortable around people who are depressed because they don’t understand it. “If people are going to treat you like an outcast, it is because they don’t understand depression. People don’t talk about depression because they are afraid someone may label them or criticize them.”
Paige continues to make presentations on mental health to groups in the area. At the Lansing High School Band Holiday Market in November a booth was reserved for her troop to share their projects with the public. “In that one day, I met so many people who in some way or another are important in our community. I remember speaking to Kansas Rep. Debbie Deere and her husband, who were both supportive of my project.  I also spoke with our school psychologist, Mr. Jake Hansen, who was an important resource in the early days of  my project.”

One of the most important parts of getting her message out and collecting valuable input and advice is to consult with people in all walks of life, including USD 469 school board member John Dalbey, swim coach David Bresser and even her life-long pediatrician.

One of her most memorable meetings was at the USD 469 school board in January, 2018, where she addressed board members. “I feel like I brought something to their attention that they may or may not have been aware of. I even addressed the new Kansas Education Systems Accreditation standards that support the Kansas public school accreditation cycle and highlighted that my issues really fit into current goals of preparing successful high school graduates with “cognitive preparation.”  When I spoke to Lansing High School’s new principal, Rob McKim, I felt nothing but support from him. I could tell from that meeting alone that he has the students’ best interests at heart. It was nice to see that. He, Carla Wiegers, my community advisor and our Lansing librarian Terri Wojtalewicz, and I had a very good discussion about what could be done in Lansing to destroy the stigma that exists and to help the students who are struggling with depression and anxiety. Mr. McKim referred me to the new Lansing High School social worker, Rebecca Davis, and she has been so upbeat and receptive to the message of my project.  So much so, that together we are gaining information about other already established programs at area high schools, and collaborating with other  interested students at LHS to create a sort of ‘positive squad’ to support our school culture in a productive way.  One of my other fellow troop members, Tristin Edwards, chose the issue of body positivity and this fits nicely under the positive mental and emotional support of this new positive campaign to make all students feel like they fit in.”

Through her inservice training that was designed to discuss ways to recognize anxiety and depression in schools she learned that further training on helping students with mental health issues was needed.

“I reminded/informed certain members of staff about the Jason Flatt Act that Kansas passed as a law in 2016. The act states that school district personnel are required to receive suicide prevention training annually. Currently, to my understanding, Lansing fulfills this minimum amount of time for the training by requiring that each staff member watch a video on suicide awareness. I have watched the video myself, and I believe it could be far more interactive so a person who is supposed to be learning is further engaged.  I believe that with the visible and public recent headlines of school violence around our nation, too many local newspaper articles about teens taking their lives, and even with celebrities like Kansas City native and fashion icon Kate Spade and TV personality Anthony Bourdain taking their own lives, we all need to open a conversation about anxiety and depression.  We have a lot of new administrators and teachers at Lansing High School this year, and so far, I have a really good feeling about their reception to new ideas and positive change.”
Paige believes that teachers being able to recognize signs of students’ depression is of the utmost importance since they often spend more hours each day with students than the students’ parents do, and even within the closest families, an evening’s homework can whittle away family interaction, and if a student is struggling with depression it will most likely be noticed by the people with which they spend the most time.

“Teachers must urge the students who are struggling to seek help from home, the school social worker or a trusted adult, because if they don’t, it is possible that no one else will recognize it, which means that no one but the teacher may be urging them to get help,” says Paige. “Teachers do not only teach their subjects, they are also the eyes and ears of what is going on in the culture of school and in the individual changes in the behavior of their students.  Observed changes in academic performance or social interaction could be a sign of concern for checking a little deeper.”
Social media is also a concern for Paige. “We see people on the internet who are seemingly living better lives then we are and we may fall into a depressive state because of that. I know that I was affected by social media this past summer. I saw my friends posting pictures of them together and I was never invited. It destroyed me a little bit. I saw a bunch of photos on one day, and I was in a depressed state for the rest of the day. I then decided to log off of social media for the summer and I was OK. I felt better.”

Paige believes that with the normal stressors teens have faced for generations such as good grades, scoring high on standardized tests to get into a good college, excelling at sports and preparing to get a good job, the added strain of keeping up with friends and fellow students on social media can result in transitioning from stress and anxiety into full-blown depression.
“There are also studies that show that depression has a genetic factor,” says Paige. One statistic that I found while working on my project was that if you have a family member with a mental illness, your chances of having one increases by 1.5 percent, which doesn’t seem like a lot but the number of family members who have a mental illness can add up pretty quickly.  I learned through my research that there is a new catch phrase in educational terms called ‘self regulate.’  I understand that to self regulate means to calm ourselves to improve our emotional wellbeing in order to take charge of our time, media use, being where we are supposed to be and being prepared for being there. Basically, demonstrating self discipline through good choices.  Learning to self regulate will hopefully lead to positive student habits and positive work habits as we plan for a meaningful life beyond graduation.”
And a meaningful life after graduation for Paige has been narrowed down to either practicing clinical psychology or school psychology. “I want to continue to help kids and teenagers who are struggling with mental illness and I want to continue to raise awareness.”  

Being ‘comfortable with being uncomfortable’ has been one of the greatest challenges Paige has had to face in her 16 years.
She knew that in order to help others she had to truly communicate her personal journey through depression.

“The rewards have triumphed over all of the uncomfortableness I have felt,” says Paige. “One moment that I don’t think I will ever be able to forget was during my school board presentation. My mom was in the room and half way through I began hearing her cry. It’s kind of odd to say, but when I heard my mom cry, I knew she was proud of me for what I was doing and she was one of the reasons I chose this topic to begin with as she had struggled for so long without being treated. The reward has definitely been knowing that I may be helping someone who, like my mom when she was younger, did not know what it was they were struggling with. I hope I have made my mom proud.”