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High School students reach out to peers to teach about depression

RELATED STORY: District partnership with U-M focuses on depression

By Casey Hans
AAPSNews Service

Emily Cepla has fought depression throughout high school and college. The University of Michigan senior said telling her parents about the problem was the best thing she did to put her life back on track.

U-M senior Emily Cepla speaks about her experience with depression to students at the Roberto Clemente Center. The Peer-to-Peer program in Ann Arbor high schools is part of the district's partnership with the U-M Depression Center.

“I thought if I told people, they’d think I was crazy or suicidal,” Cepla told high school students at Ann Arbor’s Roberto Clemente Student Development Center at a recent all-school assembly. “After I told my parents, they got me into therapy. It was the best decision of my life.”

Cepla shared her story with students at the culmination of the school’s Peer-to-Peer Awareness Campaign, which is part of the Ann Arbor Public Schools’ partnership with the University of Michigan Depression Center. Spring events also have taken place or are planned at Community, Stone, Skyline and Huron high schools, designed to raise awareness of depression and its symptoms and reduce the stigma of getting help.

Cepla told students she tried many different drugs and went to eight different counselors over her years of treatment with varied success. She said she has now found the right drug to treat her depression and sees a counselor she trusts.

“Only you know if something is wrong,” she told students. “Ask for help if you need it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. You deserve to be happy, you deserve to be loved and you deserve to get better.”

Cepla spoke at Roberto Clemente with Polly Gipson, a clinical child psychologist at the U-M Department of Psychiatry’s Child and Adolescent Section.

Gipson said that, although there is sadness in everyone, sometimes depression exhibits itself as irritable behavior and anger. “I know we all have periods of time we might feel sad of down and that’s to be expected,” she said. “It’s when we have it for weeks at a time that we get concerned.”

Some signs of adolescent depression include:
• Lack of enjoyment
• Weight changes
• Changes in sleep patterns
• Loss of energy
• Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
• Problems concentrating

She noted that young women are at a higher risk of depression and that sometimes living arrangements, parental relationships and a lack of self esteem can also play a role in depression risk, especially in African-American youth.

‘I think it’s very necessary. I know friends who are depressed and they kind of run away from it. Some of them do things like take drugs to hide from it. By informing people of it, you will help to save lives.’
– Richard Johnson III,  president of the Roberto Clemente Student Council who helped to organize the Peer-to-Peer awareness event

Gipson urged students who have signs of depression to talk with a school staff member, a parent or someone close to them such as an older cousin, sibling or youth minister to get help. “There’s a lot of people rooting for you,” she said. “Talk to someone you trust. Tell someone who can help you.”

Roberto Clemente junior Richard Johnson III is president of the school’s new Student Council and is one of several students that helped organize the Peer-to-Peer Awareness Campaign and event. The April 14 event included talks from experts, as well as some student and staff discussion and an impromptu rap poem by two students about “feeling good about yourself.”

“I think it’s very necessary,” Johnson said about the campaign, which educates students so that they can learn to help each other. “I know friends who are depressed and they kind of run away from it. Some of them do things like take drugs to hide from it. By informing people of it, you will help to save lives.”

Johnson said the program is important at a smaller, close-knit school like Clemente, where many staff and teachers serve as mentors and can be the type of person students will go to with concerns. “We’re family here,” he added.

Clemente Principal Ben Edmondson told students his personal story: When he and his family moved to the area 10 years ago, his wife became depressed and reached out for help. The move away from their family support network and the stresses it placed on her were just too much, he said. He encouraged students to pay attention to people in their life who might become depressed suggested students seek out help at school if they need it.

He also talked about himself and how he sought out a counselor when he attended the University of Virginia. “It was the best thing I could do,” he said.

Project Coordinator Stephanie Salazar has worked with Peer-to-Peer projects in Ann Arbor high schools. She also coordinates the Campus Mind Works Web project at the U-M Depression Center, which offers online assistance and education for college students seeking help for depression.

At Stone High School, the “Stressed and Depressed” program was a partnership between the U-M Depression Center, the Stone Youth Advisory Council and the Regional Alliance for Healthy Schools Health Center.

“It’s gone really well,” she said of the Ann Arbor Peer-to-Peer program. “It’s been nice to see it come to fruition.” She said the center staff is planning an end-of-school celebration to bring all of the high schools students together to assess the program.

Other Ann Arbor high schools have had activities or are planning programs as well:
• At Stone High School, the “Stressed and Depressed” program was a partnership between the U-M Depression Center, the Stone Youth Advisory Council and the Regional Alliance for Healthy Schools Health Center at Stone. It offered a skit performed by the Youth Advisory Council students as well as a student interviewing a small panel about adolescent depression.
• Community High’s program was part of the school’s lunch-and-learn series which spoke about the importance of good sleep habits for mental health.
• Huron High School had a speaker in sophomore health and wellness classes. Part of the program included a depression video made by students.
• Skyline High School plans an event in May to coincide with National Childrens Mental Health Awareness Day. Students are having t-shirts and bracelets made with their slogan “Stigma Hurts, Awareness Helps.”

More information and resources for adolescent depression can be found at the U-M Depression Center website.

Casey Hans edits this newsletter for The Ann Arbor Public Schools. E-mail her at  or call 734-994-2090, internal ext. 51228.

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