Weeks away from graduating with high honors from Metea Valley High School in Aurora, Allie Tatar is smart, eloquent and outspoken.
She's also one of an estimated one in five teenagers struggling with clinical depression and anxiety.
And because she agreed to sit down with me one day recently to talk candidly about those battles, I'd also describe her as darn courageous.
Tall, slender and sporting bright fuchsia hair, Allie is well aware of the stigma attached to depression and anxiety. She knows the risk involved in going public – especially in her hometown paper – about the hurdles that have made her adolescent years extra challenging.
But she also knows how important it is to speak out if we really want to affect change. Just as it seems to be taking smart, eloquent and outspoken teens to get our attention on controversial subjects like gun control, perhaps it will require more brave youth such as Allie to help us understand that just because you can't see someone's illness does not mean it's not there.
Both Allie and her mother Sherry say they have spent much of the last six years working with Indian Prairie School District 204 to get that point across. While there have been many wonderful and understanding administrators and teachers, they say there has also been push-back – in large part because despite bouts of depression and/or anxiety that made her miss so much school, Allie continued to do exceptionally well in her classes.
It's because she made such high grades, even while taking honors classes, district officials would tend to disregard their requests for special accommodations in the classroom that would help her deal with anxiety and depression, said her mother.
Sherry Tatar describes herself as having always been "extremely active" in her kids' schools and "a huge supporter" of the district, which she considers among the best in the state. But when it came to understanding her daughter's mental health issues, she said, the district often fell short.
"It took us bringing a hospital person with us" to a conference when Allie was a freshman, she said, in order for the school to agree to a plan for her under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of physical or mental disabilities. "And we had to hire an advocate, at considerable cost to us, to represent us at meetings because they would not listen to us."
One of the big issues they've had to deal with even recently was discipline over the number of absences – 24 days this year alone. After missing more than nine days, the school required a doctor's note for each day absent. Not only is it "not feasible" for Allie to get in to see her therapist each time she missed school because of an anxiety attack or depressive episode, said Sherry Tatar, "why does Allie still need a doctor's note when she's dealing with a significant documented disability?"
"Our number one goal was not to get her in school but to keep her alive," she said.
While the district could not comment on this individual case, Executive Director of Communication Janet Buglio described the district's mental health staff as a "very dedicated group that works hard to provide support to our students and their families."
I also got a chance to speak in general terms about students and mental health with District 204 psychologist David Koopmann, who works at Waubonsie Valley High School. He told me the district has always looked at mental health issues as disabilities, but only as it has become more prevalent have they started "looking at the intensity and severity of that disability."
A school district can only do so much with prevention, he said. But when it comes to intervention, a "fine line" can exist when trying to prioritize what is best for the student.
For example, if AP classes are making school too stressful, counselors can suggest taking it down a level. But the student, especially one who strives for good grades, may not want to do that, and taking those easier classes could bring on more anxiety.
"The silver lining is that there is always help," he said. "No matter how bad things are, they can be fixed."
Although it's been two years since her daughter stopped self-harming, Sherry admits "I feel like we are always near the edge of a cliff."
And she also worries about the kids whose parents are not as comfortable communicating with school officials, do not get educated about mental illness and don't know how to advocate for their children.
For that reason, she and her daughter have talked about writing companion books on what they have gone through these past few years. And in 2016, Allie did author a detailed account of her struggles in the bi-monthly magazine "Your Teen; for Parents."
Her issues with school started in seventh grade when she'd be in the nurse's office weekly and miss at least a few days of school every month.
"My teachers would yell at me for being lazy," she wrote, "and my friends would judge me for being childish. I felt helpless and hopeless."
Diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder in eighth-grade, Allie also wrote about how she began engaging in self-arm, cutting herself on her upper legs to hide it from her parents, and refusing to go to school. She entered an outpatient hospital program where she learned cognitive behavior therapy and coping skills, and went on what she described as her "first good medication."
But adjusting to high school was the most difficult period of all, and included several suicide attempts. It was in her freshman year, Allie wrote, that her parents hired an advocate who helped her get a Section "504 plan" put together. According to documents that are among the hundreds of pages of medical records her mother keeps in thick folders, some of those accommodations included back-row classroom seating, exemptions from group work and the option of doing presentations via video rather than in front of the class.
While most of her teachers were "phenomenal," Allie said she learned how to become an advocate for herself in situations where she felt staff did not understand that, despite those good grades, she struggles with a "chronic illness just like cancer or diabetes."
Getting past that stigma is the most important hurdle of all, they insist.
Sherry said she told no one about her daughter's stay in a hospital out-patient program because "I didn't want it out there. So we went through hell and had no support."
It was only later, when she shared her story on Facebook, that "all sort of people responded ... many admitting they too had gone through similar struggles."
Allie, who speaks comfortably about her multiple diagnoses and does not hesitate to show me the self-inflicted scars that cross her upper legs, says her senior year has been one of her best. She traveled to Spain last year with Metea Valley, had a great time at the school's recent prom – her dress matched the color of her hair – has a job as a nanny and is excited about starting fall classes at Aurora University, where she plans to major in Spanish and business.
"Recovery isn't attainable but I'm at a steady time in my life and I'm better than I've been in years," she had written in the magazine article. "A lot of things are triggering for me; and my life will always be a little more difficult because of my illnesses and disorders, but I never struggle with self-esteem or social situations. I learned to love myself, and I know that everybody can."
While that paragraph still holds true. Allie says she realizes setbacks are inevitable. But when she talks about her battles as "never-ending," her mother quickly counters.
"It will get better ... maybe not totally better," she tells her daughter. "But things are never the same as when you are 18."
That's why Sherry feels it is so important for the rest of us to understand that what these kids are feeling is real, it is serious. And it deserves the support of a community.
"We need to take it seriously," Sherry said. " ... to look in every direction for whatever help a child needs to get through their struggles."
The Beacon-News is a Chicago Tribune publication.