Friends Jennifer Leonforte and Gabby Bennett who have both struggled with the challenges of mental illness. (Supplied: Jennifer Leonforte)
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How could two best friends, who first met in Year 6, end up so depressed in their teenage years that they both tried to take their own lives?
- Friends Jennifer and Gabby both stuggle with mental health issues
- Jennifer has told their story in an award winning short film
- New data shows 38 per cent of young women have psychological distress
Brisbane schoolgirls Jennifer Leonforte and Gabby Bennett’s friendship blossomed in an age of Instagram, Facebook and smartphones.
The pair were inseparable.
They soon became obsessed with body image and would air-brush selfies of themselves they posted online.
They had a favourite game to find as many things about themselves they could hate.
This self-loathing led to self-harm and ultimately attempts to kill themselves.
Now both aged 21, they’re getting help and sharing their story with the world.
“I know very few people who have not experienced quite severe mental anguish. A lot of us had early experiences that started off very early in high school,” Jennifer Leonforte said.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
“At the beginning of Year 7 I started to experience anxiety and depression. In Year 9 I started self-harming because I did not have an emotional outlet and had not come to terms with my own sexuality.
“For me it took getting to the darkest point, realising I did not want to die, that I did not want to be unhappy anymore, for me to actually want to make that change.”
Gabby Bennett also suffered — first from bulimia, and then depression.
Jennifer documented their story of anguish in a documentary called “But Honey, You Look Fine”.
It opens with video of a bubbly, seemingly happy, teenage Gabby.
“To whoever. I’m sorry. I have spent more time wishing I never existed than I have being happy and I just can’t do it,” she says in a voice-over.
“I know I have a wonderful family who care about me, but it does not outweigh the pain of living in my head.”
The film shows clips of the pair as teenagers teasing each other’s appearances and details Gabby’s struggles with bulimia and depression.
It also shows the affect watching her go through the ordeal had on her family and friends.
“I want her to live, I just want her to know how much she is so loved,” her mother Karen said in the film.
“She’s everything, she’s our baby, and she always will be.
Gabby and Jennifer were best friends but would play games where they would find as many things about themselves they could hate. (Supplied: Jennifer Leonforte)
They are among the 38 per cent of young women who have psychological distress — for men, it’s 26 per cent.
The figures released by the National Youth Mental Health Foundation found one in three young Australians (aged 12 to 25) were reporting high levels of anxiety and depression.
It is an alarming increase from 9 per cent in 2007, with the figures trebling over the past decade.
Is social media or technology to blame?
Headspace CEO Jason Trethowan said technology was partly to blame for the confronting rise in the number of young people struggling to get through each day.
“Whilst we know there are many positives around social media and the role of technology, there has obviously been a significant increase in screen time,” he said.
“Binge-watching, gaming and scrolling impacts.
Jennifer and Gabby both says they have had an obsession with presenting perfect images on social media. (Supplied: Jennifer Leonforte)
“Certainly in the last decade we have also noticed young people are sleeping less, they are less active and healthy than previous generations.
Ten tips from Headspace
- Get in to life
- Stay positive and have fun
- Learn new ways to handle tough times
- Build close and connected relationships
- Do volunteer work
- Stay active
- Get enough sleep
- Eat well
- Cut back on alcohol and drugs
- Do stuff you love
“Certainly the expectations of study and achieving through work are also weighing in on young people.”
The study released at the start of National Mental Health Week also found the most vulnerable times for young people was between 18 and 24 years of age.
“So what that is saying is those people in transition from school or university or work are experiencing the highest levels of distress,” he said.
Headspace therapist Vikki Ryall said the obsession with self-image in the online world has certainly been damaging for young women.
“It is really alarming. The range of factors that have changed in our world in the last decade include relationship difficulties, peer difficulties, increase in social pressures puberty being earlier,” she said.
“There seems to be a whole lot of things coming together at once to make things quite difficult.”
The data also found 75 per cent of mental health issues emerge before the age of 25.
‘Reach out and ask for help’
After all they’ve been through, Jennifer said their friendship is strong, describing Gabby in the documentary as her “soul mate”.
“We can’t live without each other,” she said.
“I’ve realised I can’t save her, it’s not up to me. All we can ever do is be there, listen, and love.”
Both women said their lives can still be an emotional rollercoaster but they’ve also both sought help through therapy and have high hopes for the future.
They are grateful their documentary has just won the youth 2018 Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival award and the New York City Changing Minds Mental Health Film Festival.
Gabby has moved overseas to live, and is working on curbing her obsession to present the perfect image on social media.
Jennifer Leonforte’s short film has won awards and is now being shown in some schools. (Supplied: Jennifer Leonforte)
“I always felt you had to put yourself out there and that you were being left behind if you didn’t,” she said.
“Super young girls are seeing all of these TV shows and following Instagram models and are basically being force-fed self esteem issues, which is why everything goes to shit.”
Jennifer believes we are battling a mental health epidemic.
“What I went through is a part of me, even if it was just teenage angst. I still have an addiction to self-harm,” she said.
“It is tough, but it is not a sign of weakness to reach out and ask for help.
“If we want to get better and progress as a society we have to take care of how we are feeling.”