By LIZ MACLEAN
On March 16, 2014, Cameron Gallagher crossed the finish line of her first half-marathon, a goal she had been working toward for months. Just moments later, she collapsed into the arms of her parents and passed away from an undiagnosed heart condition. She was 16.
Before her death, Cameron had been struggling with anxiety and depression. With such a small percentage of teenagers actually talking about their mental illnesses and receiving treatment for them, Cameron wanted to encourage others to speak up about their struggles. Her goal was to erase any judgements society may have toward those with anxiety or depression. Her dream came to fruition in the form of the Speak Up 5k, where several members of the US community will be running and volunteering on Saturday, Oct 22.
One-third of all US college students struggle with depression, according to the American College Health Association, and 75 percent of them don’t get help. Nationwide, there are 2.8 million teenagers suffering from depression. Between applying to colleges, attempting to fit in, improving resumes, and trying to define values, morals, and beliefs, teenage years are full of stresses and societal pressures. Yet, many have trouble talking about their struggles or negative emotions, and without help, they can fall into that one-third statistic.
The Cameron K. Gallagher (CKG) Foundation is aiming to change the stigma toward depression, get teenagers to talk about their problems, and help those with depression work toward a positive, hopeful mentality.
“There are so many pressures on teens and college students (peer, academic, social, socioeconomic, etc.) that depression and anxiety is affecting entirely too many of them,” said Dennis Gallagher, Cameron’s uncle and a promoter of the Speak Up 5k. “Our mission is to eliminate the stigma to this population altogether.”
After Cameron’s death, her parents found the plans she made for the Speak Up 5k and they immediately got to work. In September of 2014, in Richmond, Virginia, the first Speak Up 5k was held. 3,500 people participated in the race and their numbers have been growing each year.
“[It was] an overwhelming success; a success we could never have imagined,” Gallagher said. “First, Cameron had a lot of friends and she knew a lot of people. So people showed up out of love, support of the fact that Cam had passed away so unexpectedly. And second, I think people came out because we were opening the door to people so that they could come out and say, ‘I know someone struggling. I’m struggling. I’m doing this for my sister, my mother, my brother, and it feels good to be vocal about it.’”
Since 2014, the Speak Up 5k has spread to San Diego, Boone (North Carolina), Virginia Beach, and for the first time, Tampa. As part of their mission, the CKG Foundation offers free mental health programs to teenagers. They also partner with schools and mental health professionals to aid depression-prevention programs and cultivate conversations about teenage depression and anxiety.
“Hundreds of thousands of dollars in cities across the US have been raised and donated to facilities that support and treat people with depression and anxiety by the CKG Foundation,” Gallagher said. “This funding simply did not exist prior to the race series and our mission.”
The Speak Up team even had the chance to travel to Germany and participate in the DATEV Challenge Roth, a renown triathlon, and spread the message of the CKG Foundation.
The Speak Up 5k in Tampa will be held on Saturday, Oct. 22 at Al Lopez Park. In each Speak Up race location, a not-for-profit organization that helps teenage mental illness is chosen by the CKG Foundation. A portion of the money raised from the Tampa race will go to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, specifically toward the Healthy Transitions program that helps youth ages 16 to 25 with mental health conditions gain support services and treatment.
Alpha Chi Omega, a sorority on campus, will be volunteering at and running in the Speak Up 5k on Oct. 22.
“I thought it was a good idea to participate in this event because mental health is very important and more people should be aware of how prevalent it is in teenagers,” said Maya Mickel, a senior human performance major and vice president of philanthropy in Alpha Chi Omega. “I thought it was a good way for sisters to show their support for this cause and add a little bit of sister bonding as well.”
Alpha Chi Omega formed a team of sisters for the Speak Up 5k, and any students who are interested can form their own team, as well. CKGFoundation.org explains more about the race and how to register or volunteer.
“I think the Speak Up 5k is important because it raises awareness to the massive issue of teenagers struggling and fighting depression and anxiety,” said Monique Lesieur, a sophomore education major, who will be running in the race. “I want to participate because the story of the race is so touching and inspirational, as well as educational to people about the issues of anxiety and depression.”
Gallagher says that the Speak Up 5k in Tampa has had a huge turnout of people so far, with between 400 and 600 people signed up so far to either run or volunteer, which is exceptional for a first time race in a new city.
“We have had so many people sign up to volunteer that we’re literally making ‘cheer zones’ just to find places for people to come out and help,” Gallagher said.
The theme of the race brings awareness to the huge number of adolescents suffering from depression and anxiety.
“The top two diagnoses in college counseling centers are depression and anxiety,” said Connie McCullough, the director of counseling services at UT. “It’s been researched and proven that the neurological development of the brain between ages 18 and 24 is still shifting quite a bit, so part of it would be biochemical. The other piece is situational in that teenagers are going through a lot of changes physiologically, and college students are leaving home and on their own for the first time, which could be a peak time for anxiety.”
McCullough noted that the more students who are made aware of how many young adults struggle with depression, the more students will come forward and get help for their mental illnesses. By attending events such as the Speak Up 5k, which raises awareness and prevention for depression, more people will find the courage to talk about their struggles.
“When you come out and run the race, you’re making a statement,” Gallagher said. “You’re making a statement saying you believe in this mission, or you care and know about someone who is, and you feel great when you finish. It’s an experience of love, happiness and hope.”
Liz MacLean can be reached at email@example.com.