Sam Doesn’t Let His Mental Health Struggles Define Him

When Sam Duenwald, 18, was in seventh grade, he got sick and had to miss a couple of weeks of school.

However, a couple of weeks of missed school turned into three, then four, then five.

“It became a vicious cycle,” Sam said. “I was getting really anxious about going back to school because I knew I had missed a ton of homework and that was causing my grades to drop, so I decided to avoid going to school altogether. This of course spiraled into missing even more homework, making my grades suffer further.”

Naturally, the situation caused tension between Sam and his parents.

“There was a lot of stress at home, and I was fighting with my parents all the time,” Sam said. “They knew I needed help.”

Sam’s anxiety became so severe that his parents took him to see a psychiatrist at Seattle Children’s midway through seventh grade. He was prescribed anxiety medication, which helped Sam finish up the school year.

“Over the summer, I kept telling myself, ‘I need to go back to school regularly; I’m going to be in eighth grade and everything is going to be great,’” Sam said.

Spiraling out of control

Sam’s eighth grade year wasn’t at all what he had wished for.

“For the first two weeks, I was going to school regularly and things were going well,” Sam said, “then my great grandmother died.”

Due to funeral arrangements and other family events out of state, Sam had to miss almost a week of school.

This led to yet another cycle of Sam avoiding going to school.

“This time, depression really compounded the situation,” he said. “I was telling myself, ‘I’m missing school and I hate myself because of it,’ and as each day passed, I hated myself more and more.”

Instead of going to school, Sam stayed home and spent most his days sleeping.

“My dad would literally have to drag me out of bed and into the car to go to school,” Sam said. “I know he was just trying to do the right thing.”

Sam recalls a moment in the middle of eighth grade when he was in the lowest of lows.

“There was one day my dad managed to get me out of bed and drive me to school, and when we got there, I refused to get out of the car,” he said. “Then my dad called one of the school counselors to encourage me to get out of the car, and all I could think was ‘I can’t have them see me like this.’ I was a mess and felt ugly. I ultimately told my dad and the counselor that ‘I can’t do this and I’m not getting out of the car.’

Feeling completely defeated, that night Sam came up with a plan to end his life.

“I had been talking it over in my head for a while and was wondering if it was worth it to keep living,” he said. “I decided that I couldn’t keep repeating the cycle every day. That night, I tried to kill myself.”

Fortunately, Sam’s attempt did not work.

“It was the worst mistake of my life,” he said.

The next day, Sam came to a breaking point and told his dad what he had tried to do.

The day before mid-winter break, Sam was admitted to Seattle Children’s Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Unit.

“I spent a week there,” Sam said. “It felt weird being there at first, but I did get to meet a lot of people my age. It was nice to know that people like me were going through the same thing.”

The day he was discharged, Sam met with Dr. Carol Rockhill, a psychiatrist with Seattle Children’s Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine clinic.

“When I met Sam, I thought he was a smart kid with a lot of potential,” Rockhill said. “We had a lot of work cut out for us, but I knew with proper planning and extensive work with a mental health therapist, we could get him where he needed to be.”

Rockhill worked with Sam on a plan for how to get him back to school regularly.

“It was a lot of pressure at first,” Sam said. “I would still try to stay home, but the stress and anger that I felt from not going to school started to really get to me, and in some way motivated me to get out of bed and go to school.”

It was a slow process for Sam to start feeling comfortable being at school again.

“I would just sit in the office or an empty conference room all day,” he said. “Then I started helping the office staff with stuff to get myself moving around. Then finally, I attended classes for the last two weeks of eighth grade.”

Breaking the cycle

When ninth grade came around for Sam, things were still rocky.

“Starting high school wasn’t easy, as it was a completely new school with new people,” he said, “and my dad just happened to be the school principal.”

With the added pressure, Sam still refused to go to classes and would sit in his dad’s car all day.

At one point, Sam was able to get out of the car, but instead of attending classes, he would sit in a closet that was inside the school all day.

“All of a sudden, there was a moment that I just got sick of sitting in the closet,” Sam said. “I told myself, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’”

After that realization, Sam started going to classes.

“I was really fortunate that my teachers were supportive,” he said. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have been able to do work over the summer to pass my classes.”

A new beginning

Sophomore year was a turning point for Sam.

“I just did it,” Sam said. “I went to classes, started meeting new people and making new friends.”

Looking back, Sam realizes that it was deisolating himself that helped him come to terms with his mental health.

“All throughout middle school, I’d never told anyone the truth about what was happening with me,” Sam said. “Then all of a sudden, I felt like it was a lot easier to do. I met friends who I felt comfortable talking to about my depression and anxiety.”

Music and sports were also an outlet that helped Sam break out of his shell.

“I was in the orchestra at the time, and the orchestra was a very supportive community,” he said. “I also joined the track team my sophomore year, which is something I never saw myself doing.”

Being in social situations seemed to be the remedy for Sam to overcome his struggles.

“I found happiness being around others,” Sam said.

A hopeful future

Rockhill has seen Sam flourish into a confident young adult.

“We worked together for nearly three years to get him back on his feet,” Rockhill said. “It was pleasant seeing Sam grow and mature over the years, ultimately overcoming the many mental health challenges he faced.”

Sam is grateful for the help Rockhill provided him.

“Personally, medication has really helped me,” Sam said. “Seeing Dr. Rockhill every few months to talk things through and work on getting the right dosage of medication changed things around for me.”

Now, with his mental health in a stable place, Sam is a freshman at the University of British Columbia in Canada with hopes of going to med school in the future.

“I think about my depression the same way I think about my asthma. I take medicine every day so I can breathe and I take antidepressants every day so I can exist,” Sam said. “There are definitely days where it’s tougher than other days, but overall my mental health has been good.”

To help with his depression and anxiety, Sam has found coping methods that have kept him in check.

“When I’m feeling depressed, I like to play my bass,” he said. “For anxiety, breathing techniques help me a lot. I also find it really helpful to confide in someone about how I’m feeling.”

Although Sam continues to deal with his mental health issues, he knows his depression and anxiety doesn’t define him and that talking with people about your issues can help.

“It’s a part of who you are, but it doesn’t define you,” Sam said. “I have depression, but I’m not always depressed. Talking to other people about your mental health is important. Find friends to talk about it with and be open to telling them ‘hey, I’m not feeling great today.’ I learned that talking to someone and not just keeping it all bottled up can really change things.”

If you, your child or family needs help right away, call your county’s mental health crisis number. In King County, call 866-427-4747. You can also text HOME to 741741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255, from anywhere in the U.S. If you or a family member has a problem with a substance use disorder, please consider calling the Washington Recovery Help Line, 866-789-1511.