June 2, 2023
Peer Mentor Aiden DeCaro collaborates with Amy Kerr on “I Am More Collection”

We are so excited to share a new piece in Amy Kerr’s “I Am More” collection made in collaboration with our Peer Mentor Aiden!

Even though it is not the case now, I am no stranger to feeling less than. A lifetime of dealing with the fallout of mental illness has left me with many moments I’ve felt hollow or broken. Now though, a few years into genuine recovery, I can finally say I know what it’s like to feel whole. It’s been a long journey with a lot of ups and downs that I’m still on today, but I can say with certainty that I have found hope and peace through my symptoms.
My first experience struggling with my mental health was in elementary school when I began feeling paralyzing stress that made it difficult to stay in class. Up until this point, I enjoyed school. I loved learning new things and was excited even then to attend college in what seemed like a lifetime away. Through school I discovered my passion for drawing and delighted in all opportunities it gave me to be creative. Art class was always the highlight of my week. Even with all that I liked about school, I began feeling sick during classes. Constant nausea followed me throughout social situations, a lead ball churning in my stomach and chest that left me scared and choking on my words. By 6th grade I was regularly attending therapy, where I learned that this feeling had a name: social anxiety.
My diagnosis left me conflicted. On one hand, it was a relief to know there was a reason I felt this way, that maybe it could be treated and I wouldn’t be stuck in this constant state of fight or flight forever. On the other, it felt sort of hopeless. I spent so much time trying to figure out what caused me to feel this way, and to find out that it was something inherent to me made me feel broken. I searched for the rationality behind it, only to learn that anxiety disorders are, by nature, often irrational. My anxiety did not listen to reason, even as it was named and attempted to be treated. Instead, it spiraled as my symptoms worsened into depression.
At age 12 I was hospitalized for the first time after expressing suicidal ideation to a school counselor. I felt overwhelmed by everything in my life to the point of wishing I could just disappear from it. This began years of being in and out of mental health counseling. Therapists, hospitals, and partial programs all began blurring together as I spent weeks at a time away from home and school. New diagnoses began cluttering paperwork handed from hospital to hospital. Generalized anxiety, treatment-resistant depression, and PTSD all became facets of my identity. Every treatment seemed to have merit for a short time, but almost all made little progress in alleviating my symptoms long-term.
In the uncertain gaps between treatments, my grades suffered and my mornings were almost always a struggle between my mom and I over whether I would get out of bed and attend school. When I did attend classes, I didn’t have trouble with academics, even acting as a tutor to younger students at one point. Even though I knew I was capable of passing, I began failing most of my classes as middle school progressed. Over and over my teachers would ask me with pity why I wasn’t applying myself, and over and over I felt I had no answer for them. I felt as though I was trapped in a fish bowl, my family and teachers standing outside and telling me to swim up as I just laid down and drowned. Accommodations were put in place but ultimately proved fruitless as I spent most days out of class, even on the ones I dragged myself to school.
Throughout all of this though, drawing remained a constant for me. Whether at home or using supplies that had to be locked up at the end of the night in hospitals, I would draw how I felt. At this time, much of my art felt dark. Everything in my life felt out of control, including my thoughts, but art gave me an outlet to express them healthily. Many of my drawings depicted figures adorned in pink and purple marker bruises, something I can now read into as expressing my feeling of being broken.
I felt like a wounded animal, one that not only stood no chance of keeping up with my peers but who also lashed out and behaved inappropriately out of fear. Frequent meltdowns made it hard to make friends and pushed me even further into the feeling of isolation as the gaps between hospital programs became shorter and shorter. At some points, I would spend more time away from home than in it.
All of this is to say, my permanent withdrawal from school at age 15 did not come as a surprise. Though still plagued by frequent panic attacks and depressive episodes, I was hopeful that without the stress of school I would finally be able to fully devote myself to treatment. It was around this time that I was able to name a source of grief that had been contributing to my instability for years: a period of grooming and sexual assault that had occurred when I was 13. A weight was lifted off my chest as I was finally able to receive trauma-specific therapy. For the first time, it felt that things were looking up, therapy was working and I began to enjoy parts of life again. Another source of hope was that soon I would be old enough to begin a program working towards my GED, a representation of a new beginning in my mind.
In March 2020, I turned 16 a week into lockdown. Cautious optimism toward a new beginning turned again into hopelessness as my GED program announced it would be fully closed until COVID-19 case numbers dropped. The last few months of my life had been spent at home, largely inside, and almost always alone. I didn’t mind this at first, especially when I was fresh out of school and didn’t have to deal with the associated social pressure. This isolation was intended to be temporary though, having a specific end that was not far out of reach. I was looking forward to the change that was coming in my life and was now being told that everything was going to remain as it had, friendless, isolated, and stuck. Long gone were the dreams of college that I had during my childhood, I was sure I had no future.
I spent New Year’s of 2021 three weeks into a month-long hospitalization after a suicide attempt. The alone time I had so desperately craved during my time in school proved itself hopeless rather than peaceful. I could not imagine my life moving forward and was resigned to feeling burdensome, friendless, and miserable. Even after my discharge that month, I felt unable to see a happy future. I would spend almost every night sneaking out of my house around midnight, feeling as though I would suffocate if I spent any more time inside. I would wander through the streets of my hometown, snow falling softly and silently around me. I wondered why I had spent so much time inside when there was so much beauty around me. I would sit on the docks and look out to the water, thinking for the first time, there is so much more than this.
The next day I attended a group at a local teen center, one that had recently reopened as the pandemic’s current effect began to lessen. Anxious and still contemplating this decision as I opened the door, I sat down and introduced myself. I did not expect this to be my new beginning, I had learned not to get my hopes up about things changing, but sometimes things change for the good as rapidly as they tend to devolve. I spent that night at the docks, snow still falling silently but this time it swirled around more than just myself. I was invited out by a group of teenagers my age who had known each other for far longer than I had kept any friends. We kept in touch over the coming months and for the first time in my life, I felt true belonging.
This belonging brought hope and change, a certainty that even if these friends weren’t forever, they were here now and they were out there. By definition, giving up hope makes it seem like finding hope will be much harder than it often is. I learned that there is always a path forward, there is always a new beginning, and that there truly is more out there than you may be expecting. I’m still close with the friends I made that day, and I will always be grateful for their role in teaching me this lesson. By the time my 17th birthday came that March, my life felt so distant from what it had been just a year ago. I spent that night sharing cake with my friends and feeling more grateful than they will ever know.
A lot has changed since that night when I first found true hope. Along with new social support, I’ve found meaningful treatment through therapy and medication that I consider life-saving. I’m 19 now and have since graduated from my GED program, even having the opportunity to present a speech at our graduation. I have since spent time interning at the same access center, YOUnity Drop In Center in Gloucester, MA, that completely changed my life just a few years ago, running therapeutic art groups for teenagers that I often saw a younger version of myself in. I’m proud to now work at a mental health awareness and suicide prevention organization, The NAN Project. There I use my lived experiences to help inspire middle and high schoolers through their own challenges. I am excited to begin my freshman year of college this fall, where I’ll be majoring in psychology. I have found purpose through helping others and hope to become a therapist and advocate for mental health community services to further this goal.
My passion for art has persisted as maybe the one true constant throughout my life, and I am happy to still be drawing and painting today. Even now I find it easier to express myself through creativity than anything else. Today my style is an amalgamation of every style it has taken to express my past emotions, as well as ones I find when navigating new ones.
It has taken a long time and a lot of pain to be where I am now, and I know I will never be completely rid of my symptoms, but I finally feel that I am so much more than my diagnoses and the years I spent battling them. I am more than the nights I spent hopeless and feeling trapped in my own head. I am more than I used to be because my experiences have built me into the person I am today. Through my past, I have learned compassion, determination, and a firm belief that there is always hope in dark times. I am a friend, a family member, a leader, an artist, and now strive to be a source of hope.
“Aiden” by Amy Kerr and Aiden DeCaro, 2023. Colored pencil and acrylic on paper, 24x34in.
May 31, 2023
Mental Health Leadership Institute Conference

Today Jake and Karla presented at the Mental Health Leadership Institute Conference at the Essex North Shore Agricultural & Technical School

May 26, 2023
Mental Health Fair Tablings

This week, we had the pleasure of tabling at a mental health fair in Brockton sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health and BAMSI, as well fairs at North Andover High School, Greater Lawrence Technical School, and Methuen High School. It was great to talk about our work with those who visited our table, as well as reconnect with some of the team that helped us recruit for our peer mentor training at Massasoit Community College!

May 24, 2023
Presentation at Youth At Risk Conference

Today, Jake and Karla presented at the Youth At Risk Conference at Endicott College about the kinds of mental health questions we receive from students at schools and how best to respond. Thank you to everyone who came out to support us!

May 23, 2023
Presentations to Medford High School

For the past two days, our peer mentors have presented at Medford High School and it was great to be back! 

May 19, 2023
First Presentations at Christa McAuliffe Charter School

Today, our peers presented for the first time to Christa McAuliffe Charter School in Framingham for their mental health awareness fair. We appreciate their efforts to highlight mental health this month!

May 18, 2023
22nd Annual Massachusetts Suicide Prevention Conference
This week our team had the pleasure of exhibiting at the 22nd Annual Massachusetts Suicide Prevention Conference. We were grateful to connect with the familiar faces and learn more about best practices in suicide prevention from all who presented!
May 11, 2023
Presentations to Over 200 students in Stoneham, West Boylston, Winchester, and Wenham

This week our peer mentors presented to students at Stoneham HS, West Boylston Middle/High School, and McCall Middle School in Winchester. We also presented to The Academy at Penguin Hall for the very first time, and our bilingual outreach coordinator joined a group of Spanish-speaking students as they completed a training led by Kim Bisset of the GIFT program! It was great to be in so many different communities this week and to reach over 200 students!

Presentations in Woburn

Today, our new Peer Mentor, Eric, shared his comeback story first time at Woburn High School. It was great to be back at Woburn and to introduce him as part of our Peer Mentor team!

May 4, 2023
Presentations in Everett, Andover, and Medford

This week we presented to 230 students at Everett High School, Andover High School, and at Tufts University! Our team also tabled at resource fairs in Revere and Haverhill. It was great to share our mental health resources and play games with the youth that visited our table.

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