Anxiety and depression kept Nicole Keys from going into crowded and public places, like the grocery store, when she was in high school.
For a time, Keys said she never wanted to go outside. Her anxiety and depression started when she was a child, she said, when she was verbally abused by a relative.
The anxiety worsened when Keys started to be bullied in middle school, the result of a friendship that soured and grew toxic, she said. When she entered high school, the bullying became unbearable.
“I knew how bad I was and I knew I needed to find help, either way, to deal with anxiety,” Keys said. “I was very in denial about going to counseling. I was stereotyping it.”
Fast forward two years, and now she’s working at a grocery store, “a place that I feared,” the 18-year-old said. “I couldn’t go in there without having a panic attack. It honestly feels amazing.”
The turnaround came after Keys signed up to see a therapist at Kent Youth and Family Services, a nonprofit focused on healthy development for youth and families in South King County. The organization, which has existed for more than 50 years, offers counseling, education, and support services, and is one of 13 nonprofits that benefit from reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund for Those in Need.
The majority of the agency’s clients are people of color and low-income families, according to its 2019 annual report. There are six programs offered: After School Program; Behavioral Health; The Watson Manor Transitional Living Program; Early Learning Program; Commercially Sexually Exploited Children case management program; and LGBTQ+ youth outreach program.
One of the most popular programs is Early Learning, which served nearly 900 children in the 2018-19 school year. Almost half of those preschoolers weren’t English speakers or had limited English proficiency.
Hizbulla Abrahimy helps translate for other families from Afghanistan who are in Kent Youth and Family Services programs. Abrahimy, who came to the United States in 2014 from Afghanistan with his family after serving as a translator for the U.S. military, also has a 4-year-old son in the Early Learning Program.
“He is getting socialized with other kids and that is what we want, for our kids to be socialized in the community with other kids and other classmates,” Abrahimy said. “We have noticed a lot of good stuff going on with him while he’s been in these classes.”
Abrahimy said Kent Youth and Family Services also gave him a computer, so now he doesn’t have to go to the library.
The nonprofit also works with whole families and provides parenting help and resources, said Brenda Rogers, director of mental health services. The organization has been trying to reach more people and grow its art and therapy program.
“It can be really therapeutic to let out some emotions and experiences and release some of the stress they [clients] carry in their body so they can be better and work out their anger through the arts,” Rogers said.
One of the largest programs is the agency’s behavioral health program, which includes mental health and substance youth disorders services, said Lily Stellmon, director of fund development and community relations. The program serves about 500 clients annually.
Keys made huge improvements and is an example of the life changes that are possible, said her counselor, Kim Steedle, who is a youth and family therapist at Kent Youth and Family Services. “I think that she has believed in the process and believed that change is possible and she’s put in the work.”
Even before the pandemic started and schools were forced to turn to remote learning, Keys said her bullying and anxiety were so severe that she had started taking classes through an online school. Keys was on the verge of being expelled because she missed so many days, she said.
Keys said she didn’t want to be in crowds and she would get worried about what people would think when she walked by. During the worst of it, she lacked motivation, was barely eating, had suicidal thoughts, and was not taking care of herself.
“When I was walking into a grocery store it felt like I was walking into high school … I would be seeing everything negatively. I would be thinking of walking into school where people would make rumors and make fun of me when I walk in.”
Bullying affects students across the country, Steedle said. Even those who haven’t been personally affected may know someone who has, especially in the era of social media.
“It (being bullied) cuts down self-esteem but it really takes away your sense of power and agency and people start to feel helpless over time,” Steedle said. “A lot of kids do report bullying, unfortunately. ”
It’s common for anxiety and depression to stem from bullying, Steedle added.
One in five high school students in the country were bullied at school, according to a 2019 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bullying is also one of the most common discipline problems reported in public schools and “increases the risk for depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, lower academic achievement, and dropping out of school” in those who are targeted for abuse.
Through online classes, Keys was able to graduate in the spring. But managing her anxiety and depression is an ongoing process, and she’s had to block attempted contacts from her bullies.
“Healing takes time and you just have to go through what you’re doing with open arms and open eyes and you’ll get through it,” Keys said.
“I’m definitely happier than I was and that’s a big thing, but I could definitely be happier,” Keys said.
Keys said she hopes sharing her story will encourage other people to reach out for help when struggling with anxiety and depression.