Tragedy to triumph – Suicide survivor starts teen depression support group in Murrieta

Sixteen-year-old Luke Maxwell of Temecula kept a deadly secret from family and friends—he wanted to kill himself.

Life changing event

On December 3, 2012, Luke attempted suicide by driving his family’s van head-on into a SUV on Rancho California Road in Temecula Valley Wine Country.

Miraculously, Luke survived the crash with only a minor scratch on his arm. The other driver Temecula resident Lenny Ross, 53, also survived, but sustained a concussion and broken sternum.

Following the accident, Luke was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and faced juvenile court charges. While undergoing treatment, he realized he wanted to live and needed to make amends with Ross.

Nine months after the accident, Ross met Luke and accepted his apology for the accident. Since then, the two have become unlikely friends and are working together to help teens suffering from depression.

Ross started the non-profit support group and scholarship fund Teens with Esteem and Luke organized a Teen Depression Support Group because none existed in the county. Luke’s group meets the first Saturday of each month at 10 a.m. at St. Martha Catholic Church in Murrieta. The groups are going well.

“We’ve never had a time where no one showed up, and the numbers have held steady at around a handful,” Luke said.“Teens with Esteem had their first golf tournament and now is working towards providing kids who are disadvantaged with computers, internet, and tutors to help them succeed in school and have a normal life. And we have big plans for the future.’’ ​

Luke is also working to offer teen depression support groups in San Diego County.

Journey to recovery

Luke’s parents Scott and Carol Maxwell weren’t aware that he had any issues before the accident. Looking back, his mother said that Luke liked to be alone.

“He would sometimes be quiet and want to spend time reading in his room,”she said.

The first few weeks of Luke’s recovery were scary for the Maxwells. “I watched Luke during the day to make sure he wouldn’t try to harm himself again, and Scott slept on the floor in the boys’ room, blocking the doors,” Carol Maxwell said. “Once he started treatment, realized we knew he was sick, and that it was treatable, his perspective started to change. He has responded very well, and thank God, he has not had a relapse.” Luke recently graduated from high school and plans on attending college.

Luke credits medication, therapy, healthy living, family and his strong Catholic faith for his recovery.

“Without my faith, I would not be anywhere close to where I am today. I feel God has abundantly blessed me, starting with saving my life in a crash I should not have survived,” he said.

Luke was 12 when he began feeling sad. He said his sadness worsened as he entered his teen years and he seriously began contemplating suicide about a year before the accident. No one knew how he felt because he kept it secret. Now he shares his story to help other teens with depression.

Luke has been interviewed for TV, radio and newspapers. He recently gave a presentation at the Catholic Family Conference in Ontario and plans on speaking at schools during National Suicide Prevention Week in September. He also has a website where he blogs and provides support for teens affected with depression.

“What I always say is first tell someone, preferably someone who can help,” he said. “You have a medical disease like diabetes or cancer, and with treatment, you can feel happy again. You’re not alone in this struggle, I’ve been there, but I got out, and so can you.”

Luke’s goals are to eliminate the stigma and shame of mental illness and help teens and parents.

“The world tells us that we should hide our mental illnesses, but hey, I’m going to be a sign of contradiction and say,‘No,’” he said. “Everyone gets sick. Some it affects their body, some it affects their soul and some it affects their mind. This really is no different than diabetes or cancer, except the world tells us that because it affects the mind, you should be ashamed of it and keep it hidden. And that just makes it worse.”

Making amends

Luke’s father asked Riverside County Supervising District Attorney Jeanne Roy, who handled Luke’s court case, if they could contact Ross. “She was skeptical, but soon after, Lenny called my husband,” Carol Maxwell said.

Scott Maxwell and Ross met first and then last August 31, Luke and his family met Ross.“It was very redemptive, and we’ve been friends ever since,” Carol Maxwell said.

“A lot of people ask how you can forgive someone who tried to kill you,” Ross said. “When you [forgive] there are blessings that come from that kind of compassion.”

Luke said it was amazing to be forgiven by Ross.

“I know as humans we sometimes underestimate the power of forgiveness, but it was like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I did a terrible thing to him, and to forgive me that really is a testament to his character,” he said.

“When I found out he was only 16 and that he was trying to kill himself, my heart really went out to him,” Ross said. “I wanted him to heal. I didn’t want any vindictive, punitive damages.” In court, Ross and Roy argued on behalf of Luke and he was granted probation.

Roy said that Luke and Ross’ relationship is an amazing example of restorative justice.

“Restorative justice is a concept that, in its ideal form, brings a perpetrator and his or her victim together in mutual understanding so that each can be made whole. It is often expressed as ARC: Accountability Restitution Competency,” Roy explained. “A minor is held accountable for his or her behavior, the victim is made whole and the minor leaves the system better than when he or she entered it. What I don’t think is contemplated is an ongoing relationship between the parties or that they will work together for the common good; that is why Luke and Lenny are truly amazing.”

Treating teen depression

In 2013, a national average of 29.9 percent of students grades 9 to 12 felt sad or hopeless every day for 2 weeks or more, which is how depression is defined, according to a recent study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Luke uses the slogan of “1 in 4” to emphasize the high numbers when he gives presentations on teen depression.

“I believe that teen depression is a significant problem,” said Lorie Lacey-Payne, who works as a parent support and training facilitator for the Riverside County Department of Mental Health. “I think that parents are not aware that their teen is depressed and may be looking at it as typical teen behavior.”

Lacey-Payne helps lead the group at the church. During the two-hour meeting, the teens and their parents are separated and both receive support services from RCDMH facilitators.

“The response to this group has been positive and there is a need for this type of group, especially in the southwest part of the county,” Lacey-Payne said. She believes it’s the only group of its kind in the county.

Carol Maxwell advises parents to have their child assessed if they notice signs of depression.

“Everyone is different, and some may be clinically depressed, but others might be in a difficult period in life. Once an assessment is made by a specialist, they can determine the best treatment, which varies for everyone. I strongly advise action to be taken before the child becomes a legal adult at 18. Once that happens, the parents have no rights when it comes to the mental health treatment of their child,” she said.

For more information, visit Luke’s website or contact Lacey-Payne at [email protected]

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