The problem is very real, but it still largely exists in the shadows. It is concealed, denied and hidden away — sometimes, until it is too late.
Teenage depression and anxiety are the causes behind the second annual SpeakUp 5K race, which will be held Oct. 7 at Al Lopez Park. The race benefits the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, while advocating open communication and understanding for kids who might be struggling in silence.
This year, even more young people are "speaking up.''
Tampa businessman Denny Gallagher, the race chairman, has enlisted the help of 18 teenage "ambassadors'' from 10 different high schools. Their charge: make people aware of the cause, drum up interest in the race through social media, seek more volunteers from their peer group and speak at their schools about the affliction of teenage depression, emphasizing that help is available.
"It's so cool for a group of young people from so many different high schools to come together and work on something that is so important and meaningful,'' Gallagher said. "I can deliver the same message. So can any adult. But it seems to mean more when it's coming from a fellow teenager.
"When you think about it, it's unusual for these kids to know someone their age with, say, cancer or diabetes. Those are generally things that happen to adults or older people. But depression and anxiety? Every teenager can relate. They might be dealing with it or they know someone who is struggling. So they can truly take ownership of this issue and know they are helping kids just like them.''
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.
The SpeakUp 5K was the brainchild of Gallagher's niece, the late Cameron K. Gallagher of Richmond, Va., who suffered from depression. She knew that other kids, while desperately needing to verbalize their feelings, often lived in denial or shame.
She wanted an event that would encourage people to speak up about depression — literally.
"Cameron was brilliant in that way,'' Denny Gallagher said of his niece, who died in 2014 at age 16 after finishing a half-marathon (an autopsy detected cardiac arrhythmia, an undetected heart condition). "Even through her own struggles, she wanted to help everyone else.
"Just like Cameron's concern for others in her age group, that's the idea we have for our ambassadors. If more teenagers are aware of the problems, if they know it's okay to talk about it and speak up and freely go to where they can get some help, everyone wins.''
SpeakUp 5K races have been held in Tampa, San Diego, Richmond and Boone, N.C. The Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation has implemented curriculum for Richmond schools, which could one day be utilized in Tampa, that provide education on teenage depression and anxiety.
Last year's Tampa event drew 650 runners and raised $10,000 for the Crisis Center. Gallagher said this year's goal is 1,000 runners and a $20,000 donation.
The SpeakUp 5K ambassadors are involved in several grassroots efforts, including visits to Bayshore Boulevard on Sept. 23 and Sept. 30, when they will distribute Gatorade and water to runners while passing out "save the date'' cards for the Tampa race.
"Just getting the word out there, just helping one person, can make a big different,'' Berkeley Prep sophomore Emma Pham said. "It's nice that we're all coming together for this. Being a teenager can be hard. On social media, honestly, any one word that goes around about someone can change their whole life. This is a way to build more understanding.''
Tampa Prep sophomore Morgan Kelley believes the mission can have a significant impact.
"I really like the name of the event — 'Speak Up' — because I think it is so accurate,'' Kelley said. "Talking about teenage depression can be a really uncomfortable conversation to have. A lot of kids don't want to talk about it if they are feeling alone. That's why it's so important for our age group to be educated about it. The barriers need to be broken down.''
That's what Cameron Gallagher had in mind.
"This means a lot to me because I have seen people with depression and anxiety,'' Sickles junior Preseley Pettit said. "It's more common than a lot of people think. It's important to show this happens to people and show them it's OK.
"A lot of people are struggling. If we can do things to help them speak up and know it's OK to not be OK, then that's a very positive thing. You hear adults talking about stuff. As a kid, I feel more understood talking to someone my own age. So I think we're doing a good thing. When you are having troubles and you talk about it, it always makes things better.''
The SpeakUp 5K ambassadors include Bennett Anderson, Camden Collins, Madison Decossas, Danielle Duarte, Spencer Farfante, Grayson Gallagher, Madeleine Gallagher, Dawson Geller, Morgan Kelley, Amanda Macchiarola, Elizabeth MacLean, Preseley Pettit, Emma Pham, Mason Stichter, Emily Surak, Andrew Watts, Evan Watts and Alexa Westmoreland.
Contact Joey Johnston at email@example.com.