By BRIAN CUNNIFF
Katya Simonsen seemingly had it all.
The now senior at Lower Cape May Regional High School was a three-sport athlete, was involved in other activities at the school and was popular among her classmates.
But everything wasn’t OK. In fact, far from it.
“My sophomore year, it started to get very hard to me to stay motivated,” she recalled. “My grades weren’t good and I fell behind in school. I had a hard time finding motivation for anything and I just didn’t feel good. My anxiety had gotten bad. I’d have anxiety attacks at basketball games (while cheerleading) and anytime I was around big crowds and in school.”
Simonsen was miserable.
“My parents (Erik, the athletic director at Lower Cape May Regional and the mayor of Lower Township, and Anna) say now that they saw the signs, but they didn’t really know it at the time,” Simonsen said. “I was irritable a lot, and they thought it was just part of me growing up. At first none of us really put it together. But my sophomore year, as my workload got more serious, things progressed and I got worse.”
With help from her family, Simonsen eventually went to see a series of psychiatrics and other therapists before eventually establishing a strong rapport with her current psychiatrist, Dr. Thomas O’Reilly. She also met with Liberty Witherall, an art therapist. Simonsen said Witherall asked her about trying art therapy. She was intrigued by the idea.
“I always liked doing art,” she said. “My dad was into it, so I learned a little bit from him. But I never thought of doing it as therapy.
“I went to a few therapy sessions and sometimes I’d have trouble conveying how I thought with words. That’s when (Witherall) started showing me how much art therapy could help. If I couldn’t talk about something, she’d give me prompts to write things down or draw them and it seemed like she could always analyze it.”
Simonsen quickly decided to join an art therapy group.
“I really liked it and there were a lot of girls that enjoyed it,” Simonsen said. “There’s five or six of us in the group. We’re not all exactly the same but we have similar problems. It helped a lot to find common ground and be able to share experiences with other people.”
Simonsen said she finds herself frequently practicing art outside of her therapy sessions as well.
“I do a lot of it at home and school now,” she said. “It really helps with anxiety and stress. It helps me relax.”
With the help of art therapy and daily medication, Simonsen is doing much better today.
“I’m doing a lot better,” she said. “I still take meds every day and I still go to the therapist and I still go to art therapy.
“I would say I’m fully recovered. But at the same time, I think I’m always going to have to do those things to keep me on the right track. I’ll always have to keep doing the things that help me mentally. I realize how important it is. I have to take it seriously.”
Simonsen has become an advocate for teenagers with mental health issues. In October, she was one of five presenters at a “TED Talk” event at Lower Cape May Regional. She used the platform to discuss mental health issues and how art therapy can help.
According to its website, TED (technology, entertainment and design) is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful speeches or talks. The organization’s mission statement says, in part, that “TED is a global community, welcoming people from every discipline and culture who seek a deeper understanding of the world. (The organization) believes passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world.”
Simonsen said preparing for and executing her TED Talk also served as therapy for her. (Video of Simonsen’s TED Talk is available below.)
“That was one of the scariest things I’ve ever had to do,” she said with a laugh. “At the end of my junior year I decided to be a speaker. My English teacher, Mr. (T.J.) Belasco, helped me with my speech and we worked on it all summer. We ran through the speech and tweaked it and went over it again and again.
“I’d never spoken before that many people before, but I really wanted to do it. I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I was going to get from it, but I was so pleasantly surprised with the reaction. People came up to me and said it really helped them. There’s still such a stigma to mental health issues. Just to have (the presentation) touch people was really good to know.”
In addition to basketball cheerleading, Simonsen also was a field hockey player and track athlete during her years at Lower Cape May. Prior to her participation in sports, she was involved in dance programs. She also serves as a treasurer of the school’s chapter of the National Honor Society, is the student body secretary and is involved with peer leadership. Simonsen also helped create the Mindfulness Club, which, she said, promotes stress-relieving activities such as yoga, meditation, art therapy and more.
Earlier this spring, Simonsen was presented with the South Jersey Coaches Association’s Most Courageous Athlete Award for bravely confronting her mental health issues and for helping others who’ve experienced similar difficulties.
Despite never playing field hockey prior to her sophomore year of high school, Simonsen became a strong enough player that she has earned the opportunity to play the sport for Cabrini’s Division III program.
Simonsen said she plans to study graphic design at Cabrini. She added that she hopes to eventually purse a master’s degree in art therapy.
“I think I’m in a really good place going to Cabrini,” Simonsen said. “It’s still going to be a little nerve-wracking because it’ll be a new experience. Any change can trigger that for me. But I think I’m very prepared for it. Being in graphic design and having a lot of art classes is going to help me. Plus, they have free counselors and psychiatrists on campus that I can go to. It’s a relief to know there will be someone there to talk to if I need it.”