CT News

Are you happy?

Teen author to discuss her struggles with mental health at 3rd annual “Embracing Possibility” event 

By Stacey Dresner

WEST HARTFORD – On the face of it, Sophie Reigel appears to be the picture of a perfectly happy, high-achieving teen. At 18, she is valedictorian of her high school class headed for Duke University, an All-American race walker and a published author.

It’s hard to imagine that Sophie has also struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD, anxiety, panic attacks and self-mutilation. 

But she did – and on Thursday, May 16, she will talk about her experience at “Embracing Possibility for Mental Health Awareness: Are you Happy?” the third annual mental health event hosted by Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford (JFS) and Tara’s Closet, a JFS initiative that helps those coping with mental illness. The event, which marks Mental Health Awareness Month, will be held at Kingswood Oxford School at 7 p.m., and will also feature a conversation between Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University, and guest moderator Elizabeth Vargas, former anchor at ABC News and the author of the memoir, Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction detailing her struggles with anxiety and alcohol.

“Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood,” said Barbara Roth, founder of Tara’s Closet. 

“This year we decided to turn the conversation to what makes people happy, because mental health is a very important component to one’s overall well-being. Scientific evidence suggests that being happy may have major benefits for your health, it helps combat stress and increases your life expectancy. I founded Tara’s Closet to honor the memory of my daughter Tara who suffered from depression and bi-polar disorder. Our goal is to break the ceiling on mental health because people are very much afraid to talk about it; it is crucial to openly discuss and normalize the conversation,” she added.

Riegel published her book Don’t Tell Me to Relax!: One Teen’s Journey to Survive Anxiety (And How You Can Too in January 2019. She began to write the book when she was just 14 years old, a couple of years after she was diagnosed with OCD and anxiety disorder. 

Elizabeth Vargas

While Sophie says she began realizing she might be different from other kids around the age of 10 or 11, it was confirmed for her after a bad experience with some schoolmates.

During a game of “Truth or Dare” at a sleepover, Sophie shared the “truth” that she was afraid of glitter. The next morning she awoke to green glitter that had been dumped all over her head. Crying and hyperventilating, she tried to scratch the glitter out of her hair so hard that she began bleeding.

This led to other instances of bullying from her schoolmates.

“I think part of the bullying was that I think I was more mature than the kids my age and didn’t really fit in that well with them. And anyone who is different is not treated as nicely as people who fit in. But I think a big part of it was that they saw my fears of glitter, red markers and germs, and they didn’t necessarily think of that as a disorder, they thought of it as a funny thing to exploit. So they would chase me around with red markers, put glitter on my desk and my hair, try to make me touch things that had germs on them.”

By that time Sophie had diagnosed herself with OCD. She shared this with a favorite teacher who suggested she talk to her parents. Her mother, Deborah, took her to a therapist and Sophie began her journey into treatment.

Through therapy and medication, Sophie began managing her disorders. But it hasn’t been easy. It has taken a while to find the right medication and dosage.

Her supportive parents have made her struggle much easier.

“When I speak I get a lot of questions, like what should I do if my parents aren’t supportive,” she said. “It’s very challenging for me to answer that because I haven’t experienced it but I’ve seen a lot of kids, especially teens, who don’t have the support of their parents and that makes the struggle even harder.”

Riegel suggests that teens whose parents don’t understand, talk to a “trusted adult.”

She has also learned to express herself and to share information about her disorders. The first time she did that was when she made a presentation to her middle school class about her OCD and anxiety, explaining to her classmates that these are serious disorders and not something to mock.

Dr. Laurie Santos

“Most of them understood,” she recalls. “The girl who put the glitter in my hair actually apologized after that, which was nice. I didn’t quite forgive her but I understood where she was coming from. And it was definitely helpful for me because it was the first time for me expressing that I’m not perfect; that I have multiple disorders. Really letting other people into my private life was really eye-opening for me and that feeling was such a relief that it made me want to write the book.”

The book, she says, is written for teens who may be able to see something of themselves in the experiences she shares. It also provides readers with tips, tools and techniques for managing their own struggles, as well as advice to parents and loved ones of those struggling. 

Today Sophie, who lives in New York with her parents, twin brother Jake and her rescue/therapy dog Nash, is president of the board of directors of Here. Now., a Jewish mental health advocacy organization. She has spoken about her struggle with anxiety and panic disorder to groups all across the country – including BBYOs International Conference, the JCC in San Diego, UJA-Federation of New York; and she did a webinar with the Jewish Experiential Educational Network.

“I’m doing really well,” reports Reigel. “I’m working closely with my psychiatrist and my therapist on finding the right balance of medication and therapy. My parents are very aware of everything that has gone on with my life and are able to talk to me about how to prevent a panic attack before it happens. So, I’m doing really well and I think that helps me be even more excited to go to college.”

Dealing with mental heath in college is the specialty of Dr. Laurie Santos, who will also be speaking at the “Embracing Possibility” event.

Santos teaches a course at Yale called “Psychology and the Good Life,” which covers what psychological research says about the things that make us happy and how to put specific happiness strategies into practice. She started the class to help students navigate stress, depression and other mental health challenges. 

Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The New Yorker, New Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, and Discover Magazine, as well as on the History Channel, NPR and NOVA. 

Santos was named one of Popular Science Magazine’s “Brilliant 10,” and a TIME magazine “Leading Campus Celebrity.” Her TED Talk has more than a million views.

Tickets for “Embracing Possibility for Mental Health Awareness: Are you Happy?” are available by calling JFS at (860) 236-1927 or can be purchased online at http://bit.ly/JFSMENTALHEALTH. For more information, visit jfshartford.org.

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