Claire Wright remembers standing at the top of the stairs in her two-story house and letting herself fall. She was a junior in high school and struggling with anxiety and depression, which was intensified by a toxic friendship that ended badly. She thought causing herself physical pain might somehow replace the emptiness she felt internally.
“I just stood at the top and fell,” explained Wright of Virginia, now a sophomore in college in North Carolina. “I felt something, but it wasn’t what I wanted to feel. I still felt empty and I don’t think it registered that I made myself fall down the stairs.”
That fall wasn’t her only attempt to feel something and fix what hurt on the inside. She also tried cutting - a coping mechanism for negative emotions that includes using sharp objects to make cuts or scratches on the body. Some people like Claire use this form of self-harm to counteract a feeling of emptiness or to distract from anxiety and depression.
“I didn’t feel any relief from it and felt very guilty after doing it,” said Claire. “I guess I wanted something to show that I was hurting on the inside.”
Claire’s mom Laurie recalls how Claire changed that year from a “happy, energetic, involved, safe, studious, motivated high schooler into one riddled with crippling anxiety, depression, anger, self-harm, isolation and desolation.” Every time Laurie and her husband asked their daughter to talk about this noticeable change, Claire got angry and insisted she was fine. Her parents desperately tried to get her the help she needed with doctors, therapists or medication but Claire refused it all.
“I feel like I have a really strong sense of independence and for me to lean on someone is super hard for me,” Claire explained. “I thought, ‘I can do it by myself. I don’t need anyone to talk to.’ I also didn’t think anyone would be able to understand. I was just trying to fix it on my own and my coping skills weren’t healthy.”
Those unhealthy coping skills also included isolating from her parents by hiding in her room, skipping family meals, and remaining angry at those closest to her. Claire continued to withdraw from family and friends and refused to attend school. One day, she overheard her mother discussing these issues with a friend which angered and upset Claire. Feeling desperate and hopeless, Claire consumed a bottle of pills and climbed in her bathtub to wait for the effects. It soon registered what she’d done and she had instant regret. She told her mom who frantically called 911 and Claire’s dad. Sobbing, Claire apologized to her dad on the phone and described the aftermath of what she’d done as the “the scariest part.” She spent four days in a psychiatric hospital and reverted to her old ways of refusing help.
Her mom recalled the scary experience.
“I’ve never been more frightened than when she admitted she took the pills,” Laurie said. “My heart tore to pieces. I struggled to grasp that her pain was so big that she’d ‘want to go to sleep and never wake up.’”
Claire returned home but continued to struggle with anxiety and depression. After several more incidents of dysregulated emotions and unhealthy coping skills, which included shattering a vase and making suicidal threats, Claire was once again in the ER and psychiatric hospital. Desperate to help their daughter, Laurie and her husband decided to send her to Open Sky Wilderness in February 2020.
Claire’s parents used a teen transport service to get her to Open Sky in Colorado. The service is designed to provide safe transportation and therapeutic transition to programs like Open Sky. It’s often a last resort for parents with a struggling child who refuses help. Though the service has a reputation of being aggressive since it was initially used to transport combative teens, the field has expanded to support families by offering safe travel with interventionists who are trained to de-escalate combative situations and treat the teens with respect.
Claire said the experience - called “gooning” by teens in wilderness programs - was traumatic but she understands now why her parents chose that route.
Her first week at Open Sky, Claire was mad and “in shock” as she settled into the outdoor routine that included five days out in the field and a day at base camp for showers. The backpack was heavy and it was difficult for her to part with her beloved stuffed animal which was left behind in a box with her belongings. But once she settled in, and stopped telling her therapist and guides what she thought they wanted to hear, Claire started to do the work.
“I definitely learned how to ask for help starting with the physical things,” said Claire. “You have to ask for help out there. That led into me being able to ask for help with my emotions, too. I got more comfortable sharing hard feelings which is hard for me.”
Another turning point for Claire was reading out loud the impact letter from her parents. Participants in wilderness programs communicate with family members through letters which also serve as part of the therapeutic process. The impact letter from her mother described in detail Claire’s behavior and emotional pain that led them to send her to Open Sky.
“I was still pretty angry but I knew my parents weren’t making a decision because they wanted to,” said Claire. “They made an educated decision. That’s what I really love about my mom. When there’s something going on in our family, she’s going to do the research and she’s going to make a very educated decision before she does anything.”
Following wilderness therapy, Claire attended Vista Dimple Dell in May 2020, a residential treatment center for teens in Utah. (Vista Dimple Dell has since closed and is facing allegations of physical and verbal abuse between 2003 and 2019. But Claire said her experience there was positive and she never felt mistreated.)
“My parents were grasping for straws and this is what they came up with,” explained Claire. “Yes, it was drastic but it was much-needed. It was hard and sometimes it sucked but I feel like I had a good outcome and I honestly wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for these programs.”
Claire returned home with a few months left of her senior year. Instead of hiding her experience, she decided to post her journey on social media. She said she was nervous to share but was amazed at the support she received. With that positive feedback, Claire decided to turn the anniversary of the day she took the bottle of pills into a celebration of life by spending the day “hanging out with people I love doing things I enjoy.”
She’s also grown in her relationship with her mother. Parents often unintentionally enable a child in crisis in a desperate attempt to ease the child’s anxiety and Claire realizes now that her mom was only trying to help.
“She was trying to fix everything for me,” said Claire. “She was trying to rescue me from all my emotions instead of just letting me feel them. I know it was so scary for her and I don’t blame her at all but I just think that other people’s emotions aren’t our responsibility. We just have to let them feel them. Coming in with a listening ear instead of trying to fix it is a big thing.”
Laurie, who's now working on a Masters degree in counseling inspired by her experience, recalls what it felt like as a parent to see their child suffering as she described Claire's fall down the stairs.
"At that point, I was just so lost," explained Laurie. "I knew she was in danger, but I also knew it was beyond my control or knowledge, to help her. I was almost as lost as she was! I had nowhere to turn. We’d been to the emergency room, she was refusing therapy, and we’d been to her primary care doctor. No one was offering her, or me, a life rope. No one within 90 miles was helping us. No one! It shouldn’t be that way for any adolescent, young adult, or parent."
With her Masters degree, Laurie hopes to bring more "comprehensive therapy opportunities" to the rural area of Virginia where she lives. She's also working on her own therapy which has improved her relationship with her daughter.
"I think I parent better - with a better ability to validate Claire’s emotions, a better listening ear and more clear boundaries," said Laurie. "I will never take the calm days for granted ever again. I love my family fiercely!"
Claire said she still struggles with anxiety and depression but she now knows how to manage it. If she starts to feel depressed and that old urge to hide in bed returns, she’ll use her healthy coping skills starting with the little things like taking a hot shower, getting dressed and going outside. And she offers advice for teens going through something similar.
“I encourage them to reach out for support and remind them that it does get better and I know that’s so cliche’ but I feel like it just takes time and it takes you being willing to share how you feel with others because that really does help.”
And for parents?
“Have a listening ear,” said Claire. “Don’t judge what they’re going through and don’t tell them they’re overreacting. Just be there with them. Just sit there and listen.”
Graden Herrell of Indiana attributes his mental health issues to a series of bad habits when he was in high school. Playing video games for hours every day, a bad nicotine addiction and a diet of junk food led to failing grades in school and depression. He said Covid accentuated a lot of the issues but then a friendship he outgrew made him really reevaluate how he felt.
“I had a lot of bad habits that I couldn’t seem to shake,” the 18-year-old explained. “I was failing classes and in a continuous cycle of comfort with no accountability or purpose whatsoever. I was very depressed.”
Unhappy with his current situation, Graden decided to refocus his interests and channel his energy into something positive and creative. He set aside the video games, started listening to inspirational Ted Talks and podcasts, and used his creative side to make a difference.
Inspired by his own experiences with mental health, Graden started printing t-shirts with the message “areUokay.”
“I started it with the intent of spreading mental health awareness to as many people as I could using my shirts as a medium,” said Graden, who learned to print through an internship at a screen-printing shop. “As I kept going, I started to see improvements in my own mental health. It’s provided me with an outlet and has opened me up to more conversations about mental health that I otherwise wouldn’t have had.”
Graden said his generation is challenged with mental health issues because they’ve had what he describes as a “distraction machine in their pockets,” referencing the cell phone with internet access, for most of their lives.
“The objective of these apps is to keep our attention and to do that, they pump out constant stimulation,” Graden said. “It’s super easy for an impressionable teenager to fall into this trap and I was one of them. I’d be on Instagram or TikTok for hours at a time and wondering why I’m still scrolling and not stopping.”
Graden said the unrealistic standards put out by social media profiles make it harder for teens to enjoy the simple things in life. He said his generation faces constant pressure to live up to those standards because they face it every time they get on a phone app.
To move past those pressures, Graden said to focus on the small things and to start appreciating the present. Make your bed in the morning, clean your room, make a smoothie or light some incense. It’s the little things that can make life better.
He’s hoping his brand and fashion line will also open up conversations about mental health. It did for him while offering a creative outlet to share his graphic designs. He continues to create and sell his fashion brand while attending college with an interest in graphic design and visual communication.
“The sooner you can build good habits and find enjoyment from the little things in life, the better,” he said. “If you are really struggling, never be afraid to reach out for help whether it be from your friends, family or a professional. Life is just too short and too precious.”
Because all designs are created and printed in his basement, Graden offers a limited number of pieces. To see what’s available and to place an order, please visit …https://areuokay.shop.