Spreading hope for teens who feel they have none

By Charlotte Ferrell Smith, Charleston Daily Mail…

CROSS LANES, W.Va.—Suicide is the No. 2 killer of teenagers in West Virginia and throughout the country, said the Rev. Gary Nelson, who almost lost his own son to suicide.

Mr. Nelson now travels extensively to talk about teen depression and suicide, which is second only to automobile accidents in killing teens.

“Many teenagers use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate for depression,” Mr. Nelson said. “Depression could kill more teens than anything else.”

The new pastor of Cross Lanes UMC, Mr. Nelson is the author of A Relentless Hope, Surviving the Storm of Teen Depression (Wipf & Stock). Published in 2007, the book includes the story of his son’s battle with the darkness of depression.

Mr. Nelson offers free workshops and seminars at churches, schools, and a variety of professional and community organizations.

Called to serve

A Mingo County native who grew up in Parkersburg, W.Va., he has been a United Methodist pastor for more than 30 years.

That was not his initial plan.

He majored in biology at West Virginia University with the intention of going to medical school. However, the call to ministry continued to become stronger. During a biology lecture when he was a junior, he said he could feel God’s presence and became aware of the path that he would follow.

“It was a very spiritual moment,” he said.

He earned a master of divinity degree from Drew University and a doctorate from Boston University. He has had additional clinical training and extensive professional experience as a counselor.

He has served churches in New Jersey, Massachusetts and West Virginia. He has also worked at centers for pastoral counseling in Washington, D.C., and Virginia.

For the last six years Mr. Nelson has served Sand Hill United Methodist in Boaz, Wood County, while simultaneously working as a seminar and workshop leader on teen depression.

He and his wife, Patti, a critical care nurse at Thomas Hospital, often travel together for the workshops.

“We almost lost our son as a teen,” he said. “It was probably the most difficult time in our lives. It was a struggle for several years. It was also a blessing. It gave me a perspective as a clinician that I would never have had.”

Their son, Tom, was an honor roll student and excellent baseball player when he began to battle dark moods, frustration, anxiety and anger. His first fit of rage sent three baseballs through a wall. There was no one specific incident that triggered Tom’s depression, and that is often the case, his father said.

The fight against the darkness included everything from more structure through a job to stints of playtime as a family and medications. School became such a dark cloud that Tom withdrew and earned a GED instead.

As Tom began to emerge from the depths of depression and to share his story, his father asked if he could include the experience in a book. Tom agreed. Now 32, he has worked with troubled teens and lives near D.C. with his wife. They are parents of a new baby girl.

The Nelsons are also the parents of Rebekah, 28, who lives in Maine with her husband.

On the road

After the book A Relentless Hope was published, doors opened for Gary and Patti Nelson to travel throughout the country and reach out to other families struggling with the pain and danger of depression. The workshops are free.

Asked how they pay for these trips, Mr. Nelson said, “We work our day jobs and occasionally get a grant.”

While depression can be ignited by circumstances, genetics can also play a role, he said. Mr. Nelson said he suffered anxiety as a teen and has seen threads of depression in other family members.

Many things can lead to depression and relationships play an important role in fighting back, he said. During the seminars, he tries to help families understand the signs of depression as well as how to help those who are struggling with it.

Every 15 seconds, someone between the ages of 15 and 24 attempts suicide in the United States, he said.

“We lose 100 a week to depression,” he said. “For many, like Tom, it steals life from them. The American Pediatric Association says 20 percent of teens suffer from depression.”

Among symptoms are anger, eating disorders, self-mutilation, isolation, and drug or alcohol use, he said.

While the message is somber, the seminars and workshops are geared to help find solutions.

“There really is hope and hope for healing,” Mr. Nelson said. “We need to get folks identified. It doesn’t need to control life.”

Go to www.SurvivingTeenDepression.com for more information.

This story first appeared in the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail. Reprinted with permission.

Special Contributor to UMR

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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