Doable: Teen to share story

Published in the Asbury Park Press 03/30/05

A year ago, Nicole Johnson was experiencing overwhelming waves of sadness. She said she was sure her friends hated her, "and my self-esteem really dropped."

She had been showing signs of depression for months, "but I didn't want to admit it," the 18-year-old said. "I hid it from my friends and family because I thought if I wanted to be happy, I could be. But I really didn't have control."

In less than a year, Johnson progressed from diagnosis and treatment to advocate and activist for children and adults with mental illness.

This Sunday, she'll join a list of speakers that includes New Jersey first lady Mary Jo Codey and NAMI NJ (National Alliance for Mental Illness of New Jersey) president Mark Perrin at a free forum, "The Truths & Myths About Teen and Adult Depression," at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Beth Shalom, 193 E. Mount Pleasant Ave., Livingston.

Johnson agreed to talk publicly about her experiences to encourage others to seek help.

"It's just a chemical imbalance you have and it's treatable," she said. "It's not the end of the world."

Johnson found her way to diagnosis and treatment fairly quickly, in part because her younger brother has bipolar disorder and the family had been attending joint therapy sessions. Her parents convinced her to see a psychologist and psychiatrist, she said. "I didn't want to take medications at first, but I did it to make my parents happy. After you are on medication for a while, you realize how sad you were before."

Today, Johnson offers tips to help parents recognize the disorder in their teens. "They may think their child is just moody, but there are little things you can notice the slightest mood change, or if they're irritated a lot, if they want to stay home, or if they become isolated," she said. Grade changes, obviously in any direction, are another sign.

Johnson shares what she has learned about depression at school assemblies, "because sometimes these kids are labeled as bad kids. And because sometimes teens listen more to their peers."

She plays softball, is a Girl Scout and earned a silver award for working with special education students.

She's also part of a nationwide NAMI group of 30 teens who conduct conference calls to come up with projects to reduce the stigma of mental illness among teenagers.

Linda Walls is a parent and grandparent of people with disabilities ranging from deafness and Tourette's syndrome to cerebral palsy and epilepsy.. Write to her or e-mail or call her at (732) 449-0696.