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On Sept. 24, in addition to a documentary screening, students from Harmony Academy shared their lived experience with mental health and addiction. 

Stories of young peoples' experiences with mental health filled a small conference room in a downtown Portland hotel on Friday, Sept. 24.

Harmony Academy, a Lake Oswego high school dedicated to youth substance recovery, hosted an event that aimed at promoting an open conversation about mental health through a documentary screening and listening session.

According to Jeremy Ralls, outreach and admissions coordinator at Harmony, the event was seen as a chance for the different organizations to showcase stories from youth to the community, highlighting how mental health issues are prominent in children and how others can help.

The event kicked off with a screening of "Connecting the Dots," a documentary that sheds light on youth mental health from a global perspective. During the feature film, youth spanning from Canada to South Africa provided insight into the importance of mental health awareness, diving headfirst into subjects that can exacerbate adolescent mental illness, such as trauma, discrimination and stigma.

Listen to youth

After the film, three students who attend Harmony Academy or Newport Academy, another treatment program, were invited to share their stories.

"I think it was incredible, (the students) being able to control their own narrative and making other people aware of their strength," Ralls said to the Review. "What they have been through and what they're working through, it's admirable."

The students' stories differed from one another but centered around moments of addiction, depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation. All also shared how they showed signs of mental illness throughout their childhood, with substances helping them cope.

"I'm 17, almost 18, and mental health is a huge struggle," senior Emily Rask said. "It's still a struggle for me today."

Rask has attended Harmony Academy since her junior year. As members of the crowd shifted in their seats with interest, Rask shared her experience of feeling different as a young child and being bullied by classmates, which led to an addiction.

"Reaching out for help and admitting that it's not OK was the best feeling and best release I have ever (had) in my life," Rask said. "I no longer dread saying I'm not OK. I dread lying and saying that I'm OK. That's something Harmony has really taught me. That it's totally OK to not be OK. That's my story."

Another student, Dylan Struve, a junior at Harmony, shared how he'd felt "flat" for most of his life.

"I wasn't super depressed," Struve said. "I wasn't super happy. I didn't really have a lot of anxiety. It was just kind of flat."

The feeling led him to experiment with substances, his dependence on them strengthening over time. One day he thought to himself, "Oh man. This is kind of my life."

"I really thought, 'What am I gonna do when I'm older? Am I just gonna do this? Is this my life?'" Struve said.

He told the audience he didn't have a plan and wasn't sure he would live into "his older years." After Struve sought help, he attended Newport Academy before enrolling at Harmony Academy for the 2021-22 school year. He said he's grateful for the guidance and support he received at both places.

Reed Wilson, another junior at Harmony, shared the impacts of his parents' divorce and attending therapy since grade school but not getting the help he needed until Harmony.

"When I walk in the door, I don't have to put a mask on," said Wilson, sharing how the recovery coaches at Harmony are more helpful and "relatable," as they have lived experience in recovery. He likened the group of students and staff to a "family."

Despite the differences in what led them to Harmony Academy, the students all shared how much Harmony has helped them throughout their recovery journey.

"I remember that as soon as I walked in that building, it felt safe," Rask said. "As soon as I had those people who have been in recovery and who have dealt with the same things I did, I felt like I had this place and I had this home."

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