- Associated Press - Saturday, December 24, 2016

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Drew Bergman recalled the Catholic school uniform he wore as he walked down the halls of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia.

The long sleeves and long pants of his St. Joe’s uniform hid the self-inflicted cuts on the ninth-graders’ arms and legs, signs of a disease he battled during adolescence. He struggled to mask the limp that was caused by other self-inflicted injuries.

No one who brushed shoulders with Bergman in the halls knew that he had tried to end his life once and would do so again. He kept that dark side of his life silent, where he thought it belonged.

Today, Drew is 23 - and silent no more.

For the last five years, the Mount Holly, Burlington County, man has been shining a light on depression by traveling around the country speaking on behalf of the mental health advocacy group Minding Your Mind, which trained him as a speaker. He beams with excitement as he talks about connecting with people and making a difference in their lives. He also takes pride in discussing common misconceptions about mental illnesses so people feel less alone.

The Temple University student’s message is clear: “No matter how hard things seem in that (suicidal) moment, remember to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Things can and will always get better; as hard as it is, there are people and resources out there to get them the help they need.”

He didn’t always think this way.

“For so long, I thought I chose to be depressed and it was my fault,” said Bergman. “I realized later that it chose me; it ran through my genes and picked me. … We celebrate other physical illnesses in our society and raise money … like my grandmother died of breast cancer, but whoever talks about depression running in their family? There is this big fear that if you talk about it, a child will show symptoms.”

Bergman said depression hit him hard in seventh grade, when he was 12. The star soccer goalie stopped playing with his travel team. Soon after, he began missing school. Then, he stopped even trying to go.

“He stopped doing anything that was of interest to him,” said his mother, Jennifer Uhl-Bergman. “I couldn’t get him up out of bed.”

Afraid her son would harm himself, she made an appointment with the family pediatrician.

“He shuffled us out the door and told us to see a psychiatrist, but offered no suggestions other than ‘Check with your insurance.’ If my son had a tumor, he would have suggested other doctors. I was scared and didn’t know what to do, and there was no one to help,” Uhl-Bergman recalled, adding that finding a psychiatrist who will see an adolescent is difficult and many don’t accept health insurance.

When Bergman wasn’t in school, his mom stopped by the house from work to check on him. “I always feared that I would find him hanging in the closet,” she said.

One day when he was 12, he slashed his wrists and ended up in the emergency room.

In the years following that first attempt to end his life, he continued to struggle - especially as he made the transition to high school and faced increasing academic pressure.

“I was living, but I wasn’t getting better,” he said.

Bergman said when he was 16 and in the 10th grade he felt so depressed he tried to commit suicide again.

“All I was able to feel was the pain and sadness of that moment,” he recalled. “I wasn’t seeing the bigger picture to realize things might change. I didn’t think things would ever get better. I had really felt like that was it.”

The day after that second suicide attempt, Bergman said he awoke to find his family circled around his hospital bed.

“That moment, I could see how much pain I put them through, and I couldn’t do that anymore,” he said. “I used to think if I was going to die by suicide, it would end my life and not impact anyone around me. But that day, I saw how many people my depression was affecting.”

And that, he said, is when his recovery began.

Bergman spent two weeks in an inpatient facility in Pennsylvania, where he was protected from harming himself. He then went into intensive outpatient therapy four days a week for several months in Philadelphia and slowly began putting his life back together.

St. Joe’s Prep allowed him to put his health before academics, he said, increasing his workload at home in small increments and easing him back into the school day slowly.

“I had to start with achievable steps, doing 15 minutes of work at home at night - not the hour that I would talk myself out of,” Bergman recalled. “Getting sleep, eating a good diet and taking care of my mental health was first.”

When the 10th-grader returned to school a few months later, his guidance counselor, who also worked as a therapist, asked him: “What can we do to keep you alive?” That help included seeing a therapist at least four times a week after school and taking summer classes to catch up on the coursework he missed.

Bergman also began attending social events and talking with his classmates, though he never told them about the depression he battled. He called it the “other side” of his personality.

In 11th grade - one year and one month following his second suicide attempt - he broke the silence by speaking to his entire school.

“I couldn’t just tell a few people; the story would get misconstrued,” Bergman said. “And I knew that suicide was the second leading cause of death for students in school. I knew kids in my own school who cut themselves. If I continued to lie, it would not help them get through their suffering. And when I heard the numbers about suicide deaths in our country, I had to give a speech about it.”

Today, several years after he broke his silence, former classmates still approach him about that 17-minute speech. It earned him a five-minute standing ovation and pats on the back from fellow students. The day after the speech, he awoke to 75 texts and 200 emailed responses to his story.

Years later, one student who was in the auditorium told Bergman the speech had saved his life.

Positive feedback fuels Bergman’s purpose and brings him joy.

His mother, sitting beside him one recent day at a Bucks County diner, said she loves to see her son always smiling. Bergman said the reactions he gets from his talks partly explains why he’s so happy.

“On average, four to six people will (still) reach out to me through Facebook in a week, telling me that speech impacted them one way or another,” he said.

So, he keeps speaking, spreading the word about mental illness one heartfelt speech at a time. He took his story to Congress last year, asking lawmakers to make funding for teens with depression a priority.

“If I help one (person); it’s enough for me,” Bergman said. “At the end of the day, it’s one less life lost to this preventable death. What keeps me going is reading about tragedy after tragedy and nothing being done about it. I can’t stop until I begin to see change and our society makes this a national priority.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2i5VbXu

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Information from: Bucks County Courier Times, https://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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