Senior gains voice after vanquishing depression

Hunter Kent, a graduating senior at Cape Elizabeth High School, is no longer the shy, timid girl she was in her early teens.

Kent, who describes herself as once “introverted” and “lost,” was not just experiencing typical social-emotional development issues like her peers. She was also trying to physically harm herself.

Kent was diagnosed with depression in eighth grade.

“I started to feel off,” she said, describing her medical condition. “Everything felt kind of weird. I felt sad a lot, and started to isolate myself from my friends and my parents.”

Kent, who now exudes confidence, will be among 136 seniors to graduate from Cape Elizabeth High School at 1 p.m. on Sunday, June 7, at Fort Williams Park.

Though she is unsure of what she will study, Kent plans to attend the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor this fall. Her interests include human and environmental studies, as well as adventure education and wilderness therapy.

“Hunter is a student who has come so far, particularly in the last two years,” said Cape Elizabeth High School Principal Jeffrey Shedd. “For the first couple years she was here she wouldn’t even look you in the eye.”

But in the last two years, “she has found her voice through some social media outlets and is followed by a lot of our students here, and outside of Cape Elizabeth High School, as well,” said Shedd.

During a TEDx Youth conference at the high school last December, Kent gave an eight-minute speech about her medical condition to her entire school and other selected guests. TED is a nonprofit organization that is devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks. Independently run TEDx events, like the one at Cape Elizabeth High School, cover a range of topics, and spread ideas in communities worldwide.

Kent began her speech by saying that, although she had many friends as a child, she had to deal with family issues growing up that made her feel sad and lonely.

“My depression began taking a toll on me in eighth grade,” she said. “I rarely talked in school, and although my grades were good, I had no motivation. And once I was in that rut, it felt impossible to try and get out.”

In eighth grade, Kent felt irritable. She heard voices in her head that were “self-loathing and hateful. I cried almost every day at the littlest of things,” said Kent, whose grades began to slip in ninth grade. That year she also met with a therapist, she said, but she had no real interest in getting help.

Kent told the Current she found out about self-harm online.

“I thought, if other people are doing it when they are feeling this way, maybe it’s going to help me,” said Kent. “But it doesn’t – it really doesn’t. But that’s the mindset I was in. I just didn’t know. It was pretty unbearable. Some of my classes were really, really hard for me.”

Through sophomore year, Kent said, she starved herself and wore long-sleeve shirts to hide her scars from cutting herself. Eventually one of her peers made an anonymous call to 911 out of concern for her safety.

“Talking to my parents was the worst part. I felt like I had let them down, because I wasn’t as strong as they thought I was,” Kent said.

Between freshman and sophomore year – when her depression worsened – Kent created an online Instagram account, which now has nearly 3,000 followers, to connect with others who were also experiencing depression.

In 10th grade she was selected by her peers to be a member of her school’s Natural Helpers program after being recognized for her “empathetic listening skills,” Shedd said.

“They are kids who are identified (by other students) as somebody they would go to if they were experiencing some difficulties,” he said.

While she didn’t feel she was ready for Natural Helpers at the time, Kent now has a profound passion for helping others, she said, and continues to document her recovery on Instagram. She called the TEDx presentation last year her “breakthrough.”

“On the Internet, with friends, or people in school, I just want to show people that it is possible to overcome challenges like depression,” Kent said.

As a senior, Kent aims to spread “positive messages and positive vibes.”

Kent is also a member of the school’s Gay, Straight and Transgender Alliance, and is passionate about art, photography and creative writing. In her free time she enjoys camping, mountain climbing and reading.

‘Defining’ moment

Kent said she never took medication for depression, instead citing several life-changing experiences as a catalyst for change. Everything improved for Kent after she participated in a three-week leadership program at Tanglewood 4-H Camp and Learning Center in Lincolnville during the summer before her sophomore year.

“I did a whole bunch of wilderness trips there, and those were just really incredible experiences,” she told the Current, describing the camp as a “defining” moment. Kent plans to attend as a counselor this summer.

Kent had no desire to go to camp, but after getting to know the other campers, she had an entirely new perspective, she said.

“Every night we would cram into one tent, and two people a night would tell the group their life story,” Kent said. “I told them everything; it was incredible. They asked me questions and wanted to understand me more. They told me – and showed me – that they cared about me.”

She and some of the other campers have since become close friends. Because of her experience at Tanglewood, where she spent a majority of her time hiking and enjoying nature, she said she’s had a more positive outlook on life.

“You have to be in the mindset to want to get better,” she said.

Shedd called Kent’s experience at Tanglewood “transformative.” Referring to her TEDx talk, Shedd said, “her willingness to open up about the struggles she’s faced and overcome was a tremendously generous and courageous thing for her to do. It’s inspired other kids,” he said.

Scott Shea, a health teacher at Cape Elizabeth High School, said Kent has improved tremendously since ninth grade, academically, socially and psychologically.

“Most importantly, she has learned to see the support she has around her,” Shea said.

“Hunter’s growth during these last few years has been inspiring to us all,” said Daniel Menz, who has known Kent since elementary school and is also graduating Sunday. “She has blossomed into one of the most beautiful human beings I have ever had the privilege of knowing.”

Kent “radiates kindness, compassion and positive energy,” said Menz, a member of the TEDx Steering Committee, who helped organize the December TEDx conference.

According to Menz, “Hunter was chosen to share her story because of the perseverance and dedication she demonstrated. Her inspiring recovery from depression has driven her desire to help others who have similar experiences,” he said.

Menz admires Kent’s ability to share her “tragedies and triumphs” on stage in front of hundreds of students and community members.

“She has overcome her devastating experiences by opening up to others, by spreading her wisdom and by having an open heart,” he said. “For people that have suffered in the same way Hunter has suffered, it is beyond powerful to be able to hear someone say, ‘You are not alone’ and ‘You are loved.’”

Kent said she wants other students who may also be struggling with depression to realize that a lot of people do care about them – and there are ways to find help.

Her advice for other students is to “find something you’re passionate about, and go wherever you want with it, even if you’re not amazing at it. If it makes you feel good, that’s all that matters. All passions, particularly the arts, and even passions you can’t physically see, like helping others and being a good listener, should be celebrated.”

Hunter Kent, a graduating senior at Cape Elizabeth High School who suffered from depression in her early teens, and conquered her condition in recent years, is “inspiring” and “confident,” according to her peers.Staff photo by Kayla J. CollinsHunter Kent has gone from being a shy and depressed ninth-grader at Cape Elizabeth to a purpose-driven senior with much to offer.Staff photo by Kayla J. Collins