Emily Coon, Mandi Fealks and Brandon Klein shared personal stories of mental illness and resilience at the Teen Shabbat Dinner.

Featured photo courtesy of Eileen Plunkett

By Jenna Anderson, Special to the Jewish News

Three young speakers presented their stories of resilience at the third annual Teen Shabbat Dinner on Friday, Nov. 22, at Friendship Circle. About 200 teenagers heard from Emily Coon, Mandi Fealks and Brandon Klein.

Coon, 16, spoke about developing depression after losing her sister to suicide.

“Her laugh was contagious. It could make anyone happy even on their worst day,” Coon said of her sister who was 18 years older. She passed when Coon was 5 years old. When she was 6, Coon was diagnosed with depression.

“Losing someone you love is the feeling of not being able to breathe,” she said. “The worst part is losing someone who didn’t want to stay.”

When she was 9 years old, Coon’s struggle with mental health turned into a physical battle. She experienced extreme pain in her legs with no known cause. After a few weeks, she lost the ability to walk.

“I could barely stand or take more than two steps without my legs turning to Jello and collapsing beneath me,” Coon said.

It took months of hospital visits and countless tests, but a doctor finally diagnosed Coon with conversion disorder, a condition of paralysis or other neurological symptoms that cannot be explained by medical evaluation. This is usually brought on by mental illness.

Coon said it only took one night of happiness to get her walking again. When she went to a concert with her mom, she entered the venue in a wheelchair and left on her own two feet.

She was improving, but she started to harm herself in 2014. With support from her best friend and family members, Coon spent five days in a mental hospital in 2016.

“I felt refreshed and ready to continue fighting the battle in my mind because life really is worth living,” she said. “I am here for a reason.”

Fealks, 16, opened up about her cousin Allison who committed suicide in the summer of 2018. Fealks was away at summer camp, so she never got to say goodbye.

“What if I had texted her? What if she knew I was there for her? What if she knew I was struggling, too?” Fealks said. “I have always struggled with anxiety and depression, but after that summer, my depression episodes got worse.”

She struggled through the school year with little improvement until she returned to camp in 2019. Her friends and counselors encouraged her to write a letter to Allison, tie it to a balloon and let it go.

“I will move forward, and I will go on with my life,” Fealks said in the last line of the letter.

Klein, 26, explained how he uses meditation and journaling to live with obsessive-compulsive disorder. The Jewish News featured Klein when he left the University of Michigan to create the WiseMindGentleSoul meditation center.

“In my mind, I would get running, running, running thoughts. Obsessive thoughts,” he said. “By tapping into my breath, by noticing my thoughts, by not pushing them away but not diving in, I felt better.”

Klein had little success with therapy and medication. Luckily, he discovered meditation when he was 20 years old. He said he found a way to handle his mind, but his struggles didn’t go away.

“This is not the end of the story because I’m still living it,” Klein said. “Suffering is inherent to human existence. We’re all suffering. One way you can suffer less is to shine light on the darkness.”

Two professional football players, Miles Killebrew and Trevor Bates, spoke at last year’s Teen Shabbat Dinner. The teens were excited but, ultimately, they preferred hearing from their peers, said Yarden Blumstein, teen director at Friendship Circle.

“Teens want a setting they created that’s theirs,” he added. “It’s a story-sharing platform to show strength and hope. They can open these dialogues.”

Audience member Lindsay Zousmer, 15, was moved by the speakers.

“The way they explained their stories was so raw and real,” she said. “Never be afraid to share your story. You never know the impact it will have.”

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