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DAV

Your entire life can change on a dime. For Dave Riley, the culprit was much smaller than that.

As a search-and-rescue swimmer in the Coast Guard, Riley knew there were risks involved in his profession. But it wasn’t a dangerous rescue that led to tragedy. In fact, the risk was completely invisible to the eye.

While Riley was vacationing off the shores of Dauphin Island, Alabama, bacteria in the water led to an infection which eventually turned septic. His body went into shock, and he fell into a coma. When he woke up three months later, he found all four of his limbs had been amputated in order to save his life.


“The way I felt when I first woke up from the coma was, I would say, despair and anguish … my whole body was falling apart,” he says. “[There was] that initial period of not wanting to be here.”

Recovery would take time, first in a hospital and then rehab. The infection dissipated, but his body was burned as a result and he was in incredible pain. He also had to learn how to live with these disabilities that he was in no way prepared for.

Thankfully, he had people in his life who carried him through those difficult months.

His wife Yvonne was there by his side through it all. Even perfect strangers, like a woman who read scripture to him in the hospital on a difficult night, and local veterans who were similarly disabled, helped restore him little by little.

But, ultimately, it was DAV (Disabled American Veterans) that helped him turn things around.

When Riley began struggling with depression after rehab, dissatisfied with his career and feeling aimless, his local chapter sent him to the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. It was there that adaptive gear enabled him to ski downhill. The thrill reignited him in a way he hadn’t felt in a long time.

“You get some adrenaline back,” he says. “It kinda makes you feel more alive.”

By finding a community and support system through DAV, and a newfound passion for adaptive sports, Riley started to feel like himself again.

And he wanted to find a way to give back to the organization that had given him so much, so he started volunteering for them.

As he rose through the nonprofit's leadership ranks, he had a profound impact on other disabled veterans and their families; in him, they’d found a kindred spirit and an example of resilience to follow.

That’s when Riley’s life changed again, this time, for the better. The organization that supported him in recovery wanted him to lead them.

His fellow veterans at DAV unanimously elected Riley to be their national commander, which he took on with the same enthusiasm he’d become known for. The role allowed him to travel and represent the organization at conferences and events, touching the lives of countless veterans and their families.

He testified in Congress on behalf of other veterans in February 2017, emphasizing the importance of supporting caregivers of severely disabled veterans. He even ate breakfast with the president in the White House.

And while serving his community was an incredible honor, it helped him just as much as it did them.

“When I was in my bouts of depression, it really helped me to be able to go out and help another person,” he continues. “You get a lot more back.”

Veterans helping veterans

After losing his limbs to an immune response, this vet dedicated his life to helping other disabled veterans.

Posted by Upworthy on Wednesday, July 11, 2018

It’s a calling that Riley continues to answer now that he’s a mentor to other injured veterans.

Riley is able to show struggling veterans the possibilities that exist for them, and how they might live life on their own terms. These veterans also find healing in connection and community — the same kind of community that helped Riley get through his darkest hours.

“For them to see somebody else out there, doing things, it kind of clicks in their mind, just like it did with me,” he explains. “That, ‘hey, he can do it, I can do it.’ . . . that’s my calling.” Moments like those, he says, remind him that he has something truly vital to offer others.

Riley has since taken up woodworking as well, a passion he was convinced he wouldn’t be able to return to, using equipment that is now adapted for his prosthetics. He invites other disabled veterans into his shop, and together, they construct beautiful wooden boxes to offer other veterans and their supporters.

It’s a unique gesture, but more importantly, it’s a tangible reminder that no veteran has to take on civilian life alone.

When tragedy strikes, everything can change. But it’s up to us what we do next.

When we’re staring down the impossible, we’re faced with a choice — we can sink or we can swim. Just like in his early days in the Coast Guard, when up against the unthinkable, Riley rose to the occasion.

For injured and disabled veterans facing the frightening unknowns of civilian life, Riley’s resilience offers hope. And if his story shows us anything, it’s that hope is one of the most powerful gifts we can give another person.

“It really allows me to have a sense of purpose in my life,” he says. “I think there's no greater calling.”

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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