a teenager girl wrapping arms around her horse

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A child’s mind is not equipped to deal with the stress of adult burdens. When young people experience toxic stress and trauma, their brains struggle to reconcile their world with how they perceive their friends’ worlds. The weight of those heavy thoughts pulls on kids’ psyches and, often, they reach a singular conclusion: “I am bad. I deserve this. I am not worthy.”

Childhood trauma, adversity, and toxic stress have a dose-response link to depression and anxiety. This means that the higher the level of exposure, the higher the likelihood of developing depression and anxiety.

The really devastating thing about depression and anxiety for teenagers is that their brains have not yet reached a stage of development where they can recognize that their situation is temporary. For a teenager experiencing depression, it feels as though they will never be happy and there is no hope of getting better.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people 15–24 years old and it is strongly correlated with depression. When Idaho Youth Ranch has a client with a history of depression and suicide, we know the stakes couldn’t be higher. Our focus on “what happened to you” versus “what’s wrong with you” is critical to helping kids like Amber.

Amber is 15. She came to came to Idaho Youth Ranch for Equine Therapy following a suicide attempt and an in-patient stay at a medical facility. She was in day treatment when her family realized that talking was not enough to save their daughter.

Amber was experiencing high-risk depression and was so anxious she could not function in day-to-day life. When she first began treatment with Idaho Youth Ranch, she spent the first two sessions on the outside of the fence, which gave her time to get comfortable with the team and the horses.

Eventually, she gained the confidence to walk into the arena and start the long journey toward hope, healing, and resilience.

Amber came to recognize the benefits of her treatment and committed herself to being well. She worked with the horses and learned how to have healthy relationships with others, she practiced her coping skills in her sessions, and she built a tremendous amount of confidence throughout our time together.

When she started, she stated that her anxiety was an 8 on a scale of 1–10 every day. At graduation, she said it was a 3.

Amber now has a job, is learning to drive with her driver's permit, and is doing so well in school that she will be graduating a whole year early. At her equine therapy graduation celebration, we asked her to write an anonymous letter to future clients and asked her to tell them something that would have been helpful to her at her first session. This is what she wrote:

"Don't be scared. The people here are here to help you. You are strong. You are brave. Believe in yourself. Feel that love and believe that you can do whatever you put your mind to." 

As Amber and her grandmother left the ranch, her grandmother stopped to thank the staff and said, "We got so lucky the first time (referring to her suicide attempt). I don't think we would have gotten lucky a second time. She has had her ups and downs, but I think this saved her life. Thank you."

If you know a young person struggling with depression, click here to learn more about Equine Therapy