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Silicon Valley Teen’s Podcast Peeks Into The Minds Of Her Peers

May is mental health awareness month. It's an issue for people of all ages, including teenagers. According to the CDC, suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 15 to 24. And the rate is increasingA Los Gatos teen who experienced challenges of her own started a podcast to give her peers struggling with mental health issues a voice. 

Click the play button above to listen to the story.

"So, what does it look like for you, when the depression kind of spirals?," asks Los Gatos teen Casey Kamali to the girl sitting across from her.

"It was kind of a perfect storm honestly, that's, that's around the time when my grandmother passed away, I was switching meds …"

And that is the voice of a student from Los Gatos High. She's explaining what led her to become suicidal.

"I went through a really like horrible, horrible breakup. Yeah, like, I started self-harming. And it got to the point where, I felt like, nobody was there," she continued. 

Casey's classmate was hospitalized for a week.

This sounds like a late-night heart-to-heart chat between two teenagers, but it's actually an episode of Casey's podcast "Mind in Pieces."

"Mind in Pieces" is basically the life and mind of a teenager," Casey says.

Casey is 19 years old. Every weekend she and another youth from her community share their personal struggles. Her guests are anonymous. 

She records the conversations in the granny unit in her parents' garden. 

Casey and her guests chat in a dimly-lit space while seated at a dining room table with two mic stands sitting on top. 

On a weekend when I visit her in her home, she explains why she's doing the podcast.

"I really wanted to emphasize mental health and get a more in-depth look at the teenage mind, and all the struggles that we're dealing with — whether it's family issues, mental health issues, body image, just kind of all the things going on in our minds," she says. 

Casey lives with her parents and siblings in a spacious home. A yellow lab and an inquisitive grey cat greet me at the door.

Like a lot of families in the suburbs of Los Gatos, they look picture perfect.

"In Los Gatos, you want the other community members to think that you are doing great and your family's amazing, and look at how beautiful you all are! But in reality, none of us are that," she says. 

Casey, a senior, has gone through some rough times in high school. She was diagnosed with bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorder at age 13. In early 2018, during her sophomore year, she went on medical leave.

She suffered a series of concussions from soccer, which led to migraines. For months, all Casey could do was lie in bed in the dark. Exposure to light was painful because of her migraines. She tried homeschooling, but couldn't concentrate.

"I was in a dark box basically in my room for days at a time without really interacting with anyone other than my mom," Casey recalls.

She says the isolation was getting to her. and by the fall, she was having suicidal thoughts. 

"That period of time was particularly lonely for me," she says. "I basically was just building to the point where I didn't feel like I could keep myself safe anymore. And I went to my parents and I told them just that."

That's when her parents rushed her to a psychiatric facility. Casey was hospitalized for several days. 

Too much stimulation triggered migraines as she recovered. However, she could handle sound. 

"Podcasts were the one thing that I could do, I couldn't read books. So that was kind of the medium that I turned to."

That's where she got the idea for "Mind in Pieces." Casey says the intimate form on her favorite podcasts, inspired the "Mind in Pieces" format. 

"I wanted people to hear the voices of the students," she says. "I think hearing someone's voice is a way of connecting with them that you don't always get through different kinds of mediums. It just felt like I was with my friends."

Casey got better through therapy. then she launched her podcast last spring. She has recorded nearly 50 episodes. each averaging about 1,000 plays.

Drew Michaud-Goetz is a senior at Los Gatos High who listens regularly. He's also missed a lot of school because of migraines from sports injuries. He says the podcast provokes mixed feelings. 

"It was always really nice to listen to this podcast and know that I'm not the only one who goes through it. It is hard for me to listen to it though sometimes because it does bring up a lot of emotions of like, feeling trapped in this kind of condition" he says. "I love listening to her stuff, but I also don't like to at the same time."

Casey says many of her listeners are also parents and teachers in Los Gatos. The town is known for its affluence, but many students still wrestle with mental health issues. 

According to Santa Clara County data, teens are admitted into emergency rooms at almost double the rate of adults for suicide attempts and ideations. That's the largest of any age group in the county. 

But the CDC reports that suicide rates for the teens in the county are actually lower than the national average. that's likely due in part to the county's suicide prevention programs.

Several guests on "Mind in Pieces" have been suicidal for various reasons such as sexual assault, living with an abusive parent, and academic pressure.

But what they tend to have in common is they say their parents don't pay attention to them.

"When a parent comes into my office, one of the questions I asked them: 'Do you know your kids? Do you know how they hurt? Do you know what they like? Do you know what makes them happy? Do you know what their favorite color is?"

That's Christy Hyun, a local family therapist. She says her clients are professionally successful, but when it comes to parenting, "People are so busy just studying, achieving, you know, I don't know if people actually talk."

That's where she sees the power of Casey's podcast.

"I think that's why this 'Mind in Pieces,' maybe resonates with teenagers because somebody is actually listening to them. They're talking about something that they're struggling with."

Hyun says that public discussion of suicidal thoughts or other mental health issues helps to destigmatize them and enables sufferers to get help. 

Dr. Damon Korb, a developmental pediatrician in Los Gatos, agrees — with some caveats. It's important that interviewers in podcasts about mental health don't act as counselors, and to keep any biases at bay, he says. Counselors, he says, are also trained to be acutely aware of when some behaviors are dangerous. 

In this context, the show has sometimes opened the door for communications between parents and their kids. 

"It allows as a parent, a peek into that place that kids don't want to show you and don't want to talk about," says B, the mother of one of Casey's podcast guests. For this story, she's going by B to protect her daughter's anonymity.

B's daughter confessed something to her after Casey interviewed her. 

"A lot of what was on the podcast, I knew, I would say 90 percent. What I did not know, that she had been hiding, is that she had been starting with ... like … the beginnings of an eating disorder," she says.

Back at Casey's house, her mother Kris Kamali tells me "Mind in Pieces" is transforming her daughter. And the project has given Casey a renewed sense of identity.

"It brought her to a whole new place of being okay with what she's been through, knowing that there's a value in what she's been through," Kamali tells me.

Casey says she's in a much better place these days. A new drug has helped her to reduce her migraines. 

And she wants to keep the podcast going after high school and diversify her audience. 

"I think college will kind of give me the opportunity to do that and reach more people from other backgrounds," she says.

Casey plans on studying criminal psychology at Northeastern University this Fall. 

If you or anyone you know needs help, you can text RENEW to 741741, or call 1-800-273-8255.

Sarah Lai Stirland is a freelance journalist and editor living in the South Bay. Her reporting background is in technology, science writing, law and policy. For the past few years, she's written about issues related to aging.