This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.
For a majority of his life, Justin Kemp has kept his emotions and personal struggles to himself.
Kemp, 17, is entering his senior year at Germantown Academy, near Philadelphia, where he’s active in student government and the Black Student Alliance. He also has aspirations to go to a historically Black university to study political science.
He’s a studious and insightful young adult that’s had academic success and a supportive family network. But mental health has played an important role in shaping some early childhood adversity.
In a recent book he published called “Dear,” Kemp opens up about his struggles with mental health, suicidal thoughts, and how writing saved his life.
The 90-page novelette features four teen, minority characters who are facing mental health issues of their own, and how social media, racial violence, and school shape teen mental health.
“This book is written for teens to resonate with and to know that they’re not alone, but for adults to also understand the pressures that the world puts on teenagers,” Kemp said.
The book also features something deeply personal to Kemp — his own suicide notes.
It was seven years ago when Kemp noticed something different about his moods and behaviors.
He was feeling more sad and depressed than usual. He was sleeping longer than he normally did, and inexplicably, couldn’t find the motivation to simply get out of bed.
“I had never really heard much about mental health and the negative effects, so I didn’t think anything was wrong,” he said. “I was just a normal kid who was tired all the time.”
He never thought that poor mental health was the culprit, and felt too young to fully understand. But everything was far from normal. He began to develop a sporadic and inconsistent appetite. He would lose his cravings to eat for days.
“I was getting thinner,” he said. “I wasn’t eating at all. I can remember back a couple of years ago, I didn’t get out of bed for a week and I didn’t eat anything.”
Since Kemp was 10 years old, he has struggled with mental health in ways that have been difficult to overcome. Anxiety, in particular, began during middle school.
“Let me tell you, anxiety is the worst thing I have ever experienced in my life,” Kemp said.
What triggered his anxiety was feeling “forced” into crowded spaces like his classrooms. His emotions were usually followed by anxiety attacks. And he spent many school days going running into the bathroom in between classes to hyperventilate.
“I would have to go into the bathroom and just cry my eyes out before I could go and step in a classroom,” he said. “I did it because I didn’t know what else to do.”
Then, shortly after he turned 13, his mother and father – both practicing veterinarians in the Philadelphia area — got a divorce. For Justin, this marked a pivotal moment that took his struggles to an even darker place — looking for ways to end his life.
“I had gotten to the point where I would carry a bottle of Robitussin in my bag in case things had gotten so bad that I wanted to die,” he said. “That’s how dark it got. It was terrifying.”
Justin also began to take pills and cut himself. All he kept thinking about was how he “didn’t want to be around” anymore. He then started writing good-bye letters — or suicide notes — to himself and his parents:
Dear whoever is left to listen to me,
When I think back, I can remember myself sitting around a big boardroom table and shaking with the feeling of butterflies in my stomach. I can see myself in the grocery store standing in an aisle alone, scared that I might not make it home. I can relive that moment that I walked into the gym feeling no motivation to move. But the fact that the only reason I was there is because some guy on TikTok told me to get my ass up to work. I can see that time at Thanksgiving when all of my family had arrived and I couldn’t work up the strength to put on a smile. I can remember that it wasn’t because I wasn’t happy I could see them, but that I was tired of constantly being in pain.
Justin said he was very good at ‘hiding everything.’ No one at school knew about his emotional or behavioral health, so his suicide attempts mostly went unchecked, and he was never sent to the hospital.
Because his parents were in the middle of divorcing, they didn’t know what was happening either. That was until Kemp started seeing a family therapist.
“I actually started getting help when my parents got a divorce, and we started out by talking about my family situation,” he said.