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After 7 suicides in last year, Herriman residents gather for mental health documentary

HERRIMAN — Everybody has anxiety, said 13-year-old Kali Duerksen, but nature went and dialed her sensitivity level up to an 11.

Sometimes it's triggered by schoolwork, or loud noises, or spiders. Sometimes, there's no obvious cause.

The signs are clear, though. During an anxiety attack, her heart beats faster and she gets short of breath. She begins to sweat. Her mind "blanks out," and she momentarily sees black.

Before she was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder two years ago, "We weren't sure where to turn and how to get help," said Kali's mom, Trina Duerksen.

But therapy has since brought improvements, as has the understanding shown by Kali's educators at Elk Ridge Middle School and the downtime Kali spends at the end of each day petting her cat and watching science videos on YouTube.

People are becoming more comfortable talking to about anxiety, Duerksen said, and there's value in learning that "you're not alone, no matter what."

Randy Scott listens to the panel discussion after a screening of the movie

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Randy Scott listens to the panel discussion after a screening of the movie "Angst" at Fort Herriman Middle School on Wednesday, May 30, 2018.

That was the idea behind Wednesday night's free screening of "Angst: Raising Awareness Around Anxiety" at Fort Herriman Middle School, the second of two screenings sponsored this week by the Deseret News to spark discussion about one of the central mental health challenges facing today's youth. Over the next year, the Deseret News will be exploring why rates of anxiety and depression are rising among teenagers in Utah and around the nation, and searching for solutions from local and national experts.

As more than 250 people filed into the auditorium in Herriman on Wednesday, they passed a giant white word cloud populated by colorful little baby clouds, on which middle school students had written their dreams for life.

One wanted to be a zoologist. Another, a teacher. One wanted to go on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and have a temple marriage. One wanted to own 16 cats.

And on one little blue cloud, scrunched into the upper left, were the words "Overcome my Depression."

Karin Gornick, producer of "Angst," conceived of the film after struggling to find help for her teenage son before her search led her to Utah therapist Jenny Howe, who narrates "Angst" and joined Gornick and KSL Newsradio host Jay Mcfarland in a panel discussion after Wednesday's screening.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

"Angst" producer Karin Gornick hugs Ginger Hales after a screening of the movie at Fort Herriman Middle School on Wednesday, May 30, 2018.

"I learned how much help and how much hope there is, and just how treatable anxiety is," she said.

Up to 80 percent of teens with diagnosable anxiety disorders never receive help, according to a 2015 report from the Child Mind Institute. Untreated anxiety can beget depression or other mental illnesses — or worse.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Utah's youth suicide rate nearly doubled between 2011 and 2015, and preliminary state data shows 42 Utahns ages 10 to 17 died by suicide in 2017.

The issue is particularly relevant in Herriman, where seven teens at the local high school have died by suicide in the past year, prompting an investigation by the state's medical examiner and an all-hands-on-deck response from state officials and educators.

Herriman's Greg and Charity Schutz sat in the front and second rows Wednesday night with four of their five children, inspired to attend after a friend's son died by suicide.

As a family, the Schutzes speak openly about depression and anxiety, and Charity doesn't allow her children to use social media, where their peers are under the angst-inducing pressure of trying to measure up.

Audience members watch during a screening of the movie

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Audience members watch during a screening of the movie "Angst" at Fort Herriman Middle School on Wednesday, May 30, 2018.

Eldest daughter Ashley Schutz, 20, recently saw a counselor with LDS Family Services ahead of an upcoming mission, and was told to write down her worries and put them into a "Worry Box." She pulls out one at the end of each day. If she's over a particular worry, it goes in the trash.

She also learned not to let a single dark thought spiral downward into the abyss.

"For me, it's 'My hair doesn't look nice,' and then it gets down to 'I'm worthless,'" she said.

Instead, she's redirecting her mental energy to recognizing positives, like "I survived ice skating today!"

Mcfarland, the KSL Newsradio host who spoke on the panel, bared his soul about his own battle with debilitating social anxiety, which led him to plan his own suicide. What saved him, he said, was that he told somebody, and learned that he wasn't alone.

Audience members watch during a screening of the movie

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Audience members watch during a screening of the movie "Angst" at Fort Herriman Middle School on Wednesday, May 30, 2018.

"We live in a society where we believe religion solves all ails. I'm sorry, I believe that's a lie," said Mcfarland, who has three children with related struggles. "And we live in a society where we believe a good parent shouldn't reach outside for help."

After talking about his mental illness on his radio show, Mcfarland said he has been contacted by eight people who were actively thinking of taking their own lives. Now, they check in on each other through a text group.

To this day, Mcfarland won't get on an elevator unless it's empty because it causes him anxiety to be in crowded spaces, even though he is perfectly comfortable addressing masses of people.

"You're talking about things that don't make sense," he said.

Viewers enter the auditorium for a screening of the movie

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Viewers enter the auditorium for a screening of the movie "Angst" at Fort Herriman Middle School on Wednesday, May 30, 2018.

An anonymous questioner asked the panel if talking about anxiety can make it worse, to which Howe said that "being anxious about being anxious is a loop that many of us find ourselves in," but that everybody should find at least one person to open up to.

And Howe, who has worked with youth in the criminal justice and public school systems for two decades, thanked those present Wednesday for being generous enough to open up with her.

"If there's one thing I've learned, it's that coming to these things and having people share their stories and hearing their questions and learning from you has been just as much a significant part of my journey as my background and career."