News Article Details

She was 13 when she first attempted suicide. Telling her story has given her reason to live

Detroit Free Press - 10/9/2019

Oct. 9--Riley Juntti was popular at school, athletic, got straight-As, and had a supportive, loving family in the small northern Oakland County community of Oxford.

Still, she said, "I was dealing with a lot of loneliness as a child that I couldn't really explain. I had a lot of friends. I was a good student, but I didn't really feel connected to people and a lot of my relationships were superficial. Like, we hung out and went to the movies, but we didn't really talk about anything else."

Riley, who was carrying childhood trauma, was depressed and lonely. So she took pills. A lot of pills. That was her first attempt at suicide.

She was 13 years old.

"I was very afraid. And I don't think I wanted to do it. ... I was just very alone, and didn't know any other way out of my pain. I remember I woke up in the morning and my vision was all fuzzy and there was ringing in my ears and it was hard to walk."

Still, Riley went to school that day.

"I threw up in the school bathroom and called my mom or my grandma and said, 'Oh, I think I have a stomach bug. I need to go home.' I went home and the world continued to rotate and life moved on and they didn't know.

"I'm very, very good at hiding the symptoms that I'm feeling," said Riley, who is now a 20-year-old student at Oakland University. She went on to become the face of Netflix's "Tell Them" campaign, which was in response to the streaming service's popular show "13 Reasons Why" about teen suicide.

The goal of the "Tell Them" campaign was to encourage people to talk with friends, family members and mental health professionals about how they are feeling so they can get help rather than be so isolated that they feel as if their only option is to take their own lives.

Riley said she found power in talking about the struggles and traumas she faced in life, and how she learned to focus on why she wanted to live, instead of why she wanted to die.

"Vulnerability saves lives and storytelling saves lives," she said. "Being honest and open about our struggles and other people's struggles saves lives."

It's a suicide-prevention strategy that she hopes might help to slow the nation's swelling suicide rate, which has risen 33% since 1999, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

It's now the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34 nationally, and the 10th leading cause of death overall in the U.S.

Riley will share her story Wednesday night at The War Memorial in Grosse Pointe Farms during a program called, "13 Reasons Why NOT: Suicide Prevention and Creating a Culture of Support for Vulnerable Youth."

"The project that we started is what gets conversations going because people feel silenced when they're alone," Riley said. "And when you show them that they're not as alone as they think they are, they start speaking up more."

Her mom, Kym Juntti, will be there, too, talking about coping with suicide, depression and mental illness from a parent's point of view.

"It was hard because me and her father thought she was doing really pretty well and just progressing as a normal teen," Kym Juntti said. "Learning that she was struggling the way she was, there was instantly this feeling of shame and guilt. ... Why didn't I see the signs? Why didn't I check in with her more? And so that was really, really difficult for us as parents."

Riley acknowledged that she didn't make it easy for her family to spot the signs of her depression.

"I don't think my family was very aware of it because when I went home at night, I put that face on that I was this perfect daughter," she said. "So they were kind of blindsided by a lot of the struggles that I was facing."

Her parents discovered that Riley had been calling a suicide hotline, and that's when they learned how badly their daughter needed help.

Riley was admitted to an outpatient mental health treatment center, where she spent two weeks in intense therapy by day, but got to sleep in her own bed each night. Riley started taking antidepressants, too.

When the program was over, she said she was terrified about returning to school.

"In middle school, you never hear of anyone going away for two weeks and going to a psychiatric facility," Riley said. "My parents and the (school) administration at the time didn't want me to tell anyone. They were trying to protect me, and for good reason."

They thought it'd be better for Riley if she told the other students she was sick or had gone on a two-week vacation.

"I told a couple of close friends of mine" the truth, she said, "and they spread it to everyone. And then suddenly, I became the girl that was crazy and got sent away. That's just kids not being informed and being ignorant and not well-educated because they're so young. But it was very isolating. And then you start to actually think, 'well, am I crazy? Are these things that they're saying about me true?' It just takes a very negative toll on your psyche."

After a few months on antidepressants, Riley seemed to be coping a little better, so she stopped taking her medicine. Her parents, she said, didn't want her to be medicated.

"They've always just wanted me to go on the more natural route and exercise and eat healthy and go to support groups," she said. But Riley suffered.

"I went through my teenage years without medication, but still feeling all these things. ... In certain situations, medicines are not always needed, but my symptoms kept progressing as I got older."

In high school, Riley got into a relationship with a boy who was abusive. He threatened her and manipulated her, she said, and she didn't know what to do.

"You're obsessed with the idea of love," she said. "It's your first love, and you paint a picture in your head about what it's going to be like. But the only romantic love I ever really knew was violent and degrading, and that also took a toll on my relationships and how I view relationships. That greatly affected me and how I was able to form connections with people.

"I just had this idea that you had to brush it off and keep going and, you know, pretend like everything was fine," she said.

When they broke up, Riley said her behavior abruptly changed.

"After I got out of the relationship, I cut all my hair off and died it black," Riley said. "I started dressing a lot differently. I didn't want to play volleyball anymore. And I just became very isolated and introverted. So I would stay in my bedroom all day long."

Abrupt changes in behavior, outward appearance, and loss of interest in regular activities are all warning signs that a teen like Riley might be feeling depressed and/or suicidal, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Other things parents should look for are:

-- Changes in eating and sleeping habits

-- Withdrawal from friends and family members

-- Acting-out behaviors and running away

-- Alcohol and drug use

-- Unnecessary risk-taking

-- Obsession with death and dying

-- Physical complaints often linked to emotional distress, such as stomachaches, headaches, and extreme tiredness (fatigue)

-- Loss of interest in school or schoolwork

-- Feeling bored

-- Problems focusing

-- Feeling he or she wants to die

-- Lack of response to praise

-- Making plans about suicide or verbally saying things like "I want to kill myself," or "I won't be a problem much longer," or "If anything happens to me, I want you to know ..."

-- Gives away favorite possessions or throws away important belongings

-- Becomes suddenly cheerful after a period of depression

Kym Juntti said she and her husband carry shame and guilt for missing some of the signs Riley was showing then.

"It's a vulnerable time," Kym Juntti said. "You want to give kids that autonomy to kind of develop into a normal teen. You understand that there's a little bit of separation as they're building their own lives and their own worlds.

"At that time, she was dealing with this with some close friends, and sharing where she was at with them. Sometimes, she probably got good advice, and other times, she probably did not. Peers at that age probably are not aware of what those red flags are that this could be something more dangerous, something that maybe should be reported ... to an adult who can help."

For Riley, the feelings of isolation intensified.

"I started developing pretty severe depression, and then later in my life that turned into more serious mental illness," Riley said.

It helped, she said, when the staff at Oxford High School came up with a way to put a positive spin on the show "13 Reasons Why," asking 13 students to each record a story about a hard time they'd had in their lives, and how others helped them get through it. Every day for 13 days in the spring of 2017, one of the stories was played over through the loudspeaker through the halls of the school for all to hear.

Riley's story was among them.

After that, Riley mustered the courage to speak publicly more and more about her story. Then, Netflix offered her the chance to record her story for the "Tell Them" campaign.

It was bittersweet.

"I felt kind of fake, you know?" she said. "My speeches are all hope and inspiration and how there's a reason to live, and then at the same time, I was thinking about taking my own life.

"I kind of had to reevaluate what I wanted to talk about because I've tried to paint this perfect image of 'Oh, I'm the girl that came out on the other side. And now I'm cured' because I thought that's what people wanted to hear.

"I decided that I want to educate that it's not a linear line. There are highs and lows, and it is always going to be that way for me. I'm learning how to navigate those things in my life."

After high school graduation, Riley enrolled at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, where she began to study psychology.

But then, her lows got lower.

"It got to the point where I was like, 'yeah, this isn't just depression anymore,' " Riley said. " 'I think it's something bigger than that.' Not to downplay depression or anything, but those just weren't the symptoms that I was exhibiting."

Just before final exams in April, Riley began to have manic episodes, and she was once again considering suicide.

"My behavior was sporadic and not normal," she said. "I was not making the correct decisions. I had multiple people saying to me, 'I think you should go to the psychiatrist' or 'I will drive you to the hospital right now.'

"I was consciously aware I needed to go to the hospital, but I was like, 'No, I have time. So many other things are more important than this.' And then it got to the point where I couldn't control it."

Friends called police, and Riley was taken to a psychiatric facility, where she spent two weeks recovering. There, she learned she has bipolar disorder.

"Definitely, with mental illness, people think you can control everything you're doing, and you're making the conscious decision to do all these things," Riley said. "And that just wasn't the case. It is very hard to explain to people.

"Growing up in this society where we don't talk about mental illness, I had never met someone else who had bipolar disorder. I never saw a manic episode in my friends.

"In going to the mental hospital, there's a stereotype that it's crazy people banging their heads against the wall and screaming and being violent, but it was the most peaceful two weeks of my life. I got to meet people that had the same illness, and had been through the same struggle. And they were like, 'You know, I completely understand you' when I was sharing my stories. It was just so comforting to be like, finally, there's a name for something I'm going through, and there's other people that have the same exact thing I do."

Since then, Riley has moved back to Oakland County and now lives with her parents in Waterford. She enrolled in Oakland University, has started writing a book and is continuing to speak publicly.

Parents often approach her after she speaks, and say that they think their child might be depressed, but they're not sure.

"I'll ask them, 'Well, have you asked your child if they're depressed?' " she said. "And usually, they'll say, 'Oh, no.' "

But that's the vital first step in finding out what's really going on, Riley said.

"In reality, it's incredibly hard to be honest with someone and go up to them and be like, 'Hey, this is what I'm going through.' "

If a child is acting out, angry, shouting or defiant, she said that's often a clue to a deeper problem.

"Sometimes we attribute to it to the wrong thing, and think, oh, they're a bad kid, a bad apple," she said. "But a lot of the time, the anger and frustration stems from what they are feeling internally and the things that are going on.

"Recognizing stuff like that and not being like, oh, they're a bad kid, but asking, 'What's going on? Why are you feeling this way?' is really really, really important."

She hopes others will learn from her that they can help one another by listening, by being vulnerable and willing to speak honestly about trauma, depression and suicide.

"People with mental illness are capable of living a happy and healthy and productive life," she said. "Finding a person to tell your story to, it gives you power."

Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: 313-222-5997 or kshamus@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.

HOW TO GET HELP

If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255), or text TALK to 741741"

MEET RILEY JUNTTI

Riley Juntti will speak about mental health and teen suicide at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday at The War Memorial, 32 Lakeshore Road, Grosse Pointe Farms during a program called, "13 Reasons Why NOT: Suicide Prevention and Creating a Culture of Support for Vulnerable Youth." Her mother, Kym Juntti, also will be there to talk about the issue from a parent's perspective.

The event is free and presented by the Family Center of Grosse Pointe and Harper Woods, Kevin's Song, CARE of Southeastern Michigan, and Henry Ford Health System. To learn more or to register, call 313-447-1375 or send an email to Paige.domzalski@familycenterweb.org or go to https://bit.ly/2VqpFo4.

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