Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Teenager's legacy sparks teens to 'SpeakUp' about depression

She was a statuesque teen, blond, classically beautiful, athletic, outgoing, funny, popular, razor sharp, compassionate, artistic, creative, so very much alive.

On a typical day, Cameron Gallagher awoke to an unexplainable darkness in her mind.

Sometimes, she couldn't get out of bed at her home in Richmond, Va. She'd pull out of school — or skip it altogether — if things were crashing. She couldn't hold a job. She wallowed in deep pits of sadness.

Nearly three years ago, at age 16, she died in her parents' arms shortly after finishing a half-marathon, leaving behind a grieving family, a devastated community, so many unanswered questions — and a cause.

Cameron suffered from depression, a condition that often lurks in the shadows. She knew its vast fallout was much larger than her own crippling pain. Even in the most desperate moments, she imagined ways to help.

Cameron's dream plays out again Oct. 22 when Tampa's Al Lopez Park hosts the SpeakUp 5K, a race that benefits the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. Proceeds will fund programs for teenage depression and anxiety while advocating for open communication and understanding.

"Her feeling was, 'I'm going to speak up about teenage depression and anxiety … you might not feel you can speak up because of the stigma, so I'll do it for you,'" said Grace Gallagher, Cameron's mother.

"She knew an event like this would bring a community together and shine some light on this. She knew it would help people."

Depression, the most common mental health disorder for young people, afflicts approximately 20 percent of teenagers before they reach adulthood. It increases a teen's risk for attempting suicide by 12 times.

"It's an absolute monster," said David Gallagher, Cameron's father.

Cameron hated that some kids lived in denial or shame, refusing to verbalize their needs.

She noticed that teenage cancer had vocal armies. Teenage depression was concealed with whispers.

So in the last weeks of her life, she built a plan.

• • •

From the moment Cameron came down the stairs, her family just knew.

"I could always see it in her eyes,'' Cameron's mother said. "It was like a strained look on her face.''

Many days, even medication and therapy were no match for the hopelessness felt by Cameron, the second of the Gallagher's five children.

"Depression is not some sort of character flaw, as if you could keep yourself from doing it," said Clara Reynolds, chief executive officer of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. "It's a biological-based disorder. If it's diabetes, if it's cancer, if it's high blood pressure, if it's any number of things that we often see on television, people understand. With depression and anxiety, people don't understand."

In her final weeks, Cameron ravenously attacked plans for her first SpeakUp 5K, working on everything from corporate sponsorships to the course layout to a speech that detailed how she coped with depression.

Her parents had no idea.

"We weren't saying no, but we weren't encouraging it, either," Cameron's father said. "She knew exactly what she wanted."

Cameron's final weeks were, in her father's words, "glorious." She was in great spirits, maybe because she was on the verge of earning her first car. Cameron's father agreed to buy it if she achieved a challenging goal.

So she entered the Shamrock Half-Marathon in Virginia Beach. She was a competitive athlete, winning awards for her swimming and drawing attention from college coaches. Running was her happy place.

Cameron's parents were also running the course, taking short-cuts here and there, snapping photos, shooting video, documenting their daughter's big day.

As she crossed the finish line, Cameron smiled at her parents and walked toward them. She quickly went into distress and collapsed into their arms. She was rushed to the hospital, but couldn't be revived. An autopsy detected cardiac arrhythmia, an undetected heart condition.

No one had ever seen a larger visitation. Her funeral drew a few thousand people.

• • •

About a week after Cameron's death, her parents worked up the courage to visit her room.

It was the way she always left it — a mess, clothes thrown here and there. But on her night table, in a carefully arranged stack, were detailed plans for the SpeakUp 5K.

When the parents shared the discovery with friends, there was a universal reaction.

"The community wouldn't allow us to just sit in our grief," Cameron's mother said. "They said, 'Don't go to bed and cry about this. It's a real problem. Do something. Take this ball and run with it.'"

The third annual SpeakUp 5K was held in Richmond on Sept. 10. Previous races were staged in San Diego and Boone, N.C.

Why Tampa?

It's the home of Denny Gallagher, Cameron's uncle and David's younger brother.

"It was a long time before I knew what Cameron was dealing with,'' Denny Gallagher said. "You don't even talk about it with family. I have been part of the other races. They are cool, even euphoric. Afterward, people pour their hearts out. They talk about depression and anxiety. They talk about their pain. It's very impactful.

"Cameron was so charismatic, such a wonderful heart. This is just a reflection of her giving spirit. I wanted to help the cause in Tampa."

There will be Cameron-inspired "Fun Stations'' along the course — some that shoot the runners with silly string, others that have electronic music and flashing lights, like a rave party.

There will also be large reproductions, in Cameron's handwriting, of the quotes she placed on the walls of her room. Even in her darkest moments, Cameron wrote down positive messages and leaned on them.

They are from songs or the Bible. Some were made up by Cameron. Many feature her own twist.

You Are Worth It All.

A Smooth Sea Never Made a Skilled Sailor.

Inside Of Us All Is A Wild Thing.

I Will Hold On.

Moments after Cameron died, her mother leaned on another message, a Bible verse from 2 Timothy 4:7.

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.''

On her headstone, there's another Bible verse, this one from Isaiah 66:9.

"I will not cause pain without allowing something new to be born."

"We look at those words,'' her father said, "as Cameron's legacy."

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