As young girl, Lily Karnes was a happy-go-lucky person who loved making people laugh.
In fact, the reigning Miss Kenosha was an extrovert and enjoyed being at the center of attention, she told the more than 80 people who attended an annual Kenosha County Mental Health vigil Wednesday night at Civic Center Park, located Sheridan Road and 57th Street. The event was coordinated by the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Kenosha County and the Bridges Community Center.
But when Karnes was 15, her outlook on life changed for the worse. While she should have been looking forward to being a freshman in high school, Karnes said she noticed her mental health had begun spiraling downward.
“I was confused as to what was happening to me,” she said. “I didn’t know how to handle it. I faked a smile. I tried to be the fun-loving girl that everybody loved. But I spent my high school years just going through the motions.”
Eventually, for Karnes, who served as the keynote speaker Wednesday, her condition worsened to the point in which she no longer wanted to get out of bed or leave her room.
“I could not stand the fact of having to live to go through another day,” she said.
She said the part that frustrated her the most was her friends and family were supportive. She had a place to call home. Yet, she wasn’t happy.
“I was lost. Soon, my behavior turned from sad and upsetting to dangerous. I started thinking of my life as something that didn’t hold much value,” she said.
At a certain point, Karnes said, she just didn’t care whether she lived or died.
“I was at constant battle for me or death,” she said. “For a period, I didn’t know who was going to win.”
Karnes said she was just surviving, not living. Because she wasn’t aware of the signs that her mental health was suffering, she didn’t seek help right away and assumed she was alone in her fight and was too ashamed to say anything.
Then, one day, it all came out.
“I was crying and all those pent-up emotions that I had for years and years came out all at once, and once they did, surprisingly, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. For the first time in years I was able to breathe,” she said.
Karnes said her family rallied around her, and with her parents, she mapped out a plan for battling her depression and anxiety. At first, she resisted the idea of counseling, she said.
“I was not about it. I’m not going to lie. I did not want to meet with this counselor. I had known there was a stigma around (receiving) counseling and around therapy and really didn’t want any part of it,” she said. “I didn’t want people to look at me like I was crazy or that I was something that I wasn’t.”
What she did want, though, was her life back, and she was thankful she followed through with her parents’ advice to seek counseling. During the first counseling session, she was confused — the stigma still forcing her to hold back. Perceptions about being judged also weighed heavily. She thought it wasn’t really any of the counselor’s business to know what she was thinking or feeling.
But that wasn’t the case, and Karnes learned to work through the difficulties.
“The more that I got to know her, the easier it was for me to open up to her,” she said. “I found that she was there to help. She is a normal person. She is not judging me. If anything, she’s there for me.”
Following a few sessions, Karnes was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety. That diagnosis, at first, had her in tears, but the tears gave way to empowerment to learn about everything she could do to overcome it.
“Now, I had an advantage. I knew what was going on, and now I was able to put a name … to the monster that I had been living with,” she said. “In the end, I could’ve let it consume me. And let the sadness and death and despair take over.”
Instead, she chose to fight, and now she takes it to others in a campaign to educate people, especially younger kids. She said that having community and family around to support her got her through and convinced her to help others as well.
“I’ve had the opportunity to make so many close connections with people who’ve had their voice silenced by this disorder,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to speak to them and for them.”
Karnes, 18, is spending her yearlong reign educating students with her platform of knowing the signs of depression and anxiety and “dissolving the stigma” surrounding them. She’s also using social media under the hashtag #startanewchapter, to spread her message to adolescents.
“Not only do I serve as a voice for those who are not ready to speak for themselves, but it lets me come into contact with others who are suffering with depression, anxiety or both and help them take the next step for recovery,” she said.
Janet DeLeo, co-president of the local alliance, said Wednesday night’s event was one that serves to educate the public about mental health issues.
“We need to be able to talk about our struggles openly and honestly as we work to end the stigma that surrounds mental illness,” she said. ”It’s time to celebrate our success when living in recovery. You are here because you want to help others understand what you already know — that mental illness, like many other chronic illnesses, can be managed and that people with mental illness can do and do lead productive, happy and healthy lives.”