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Standing up to anxiety in the Tri-Valley

New foundation in son's memory aims to erase mental health stigma

The Feb. 20 "Angst" screening and discussion panel featured (from left) film producer Scilla Andreen, Steve Nimmo, Samantha Nimmo, Dr. Tracy Foose, counselor Sabina Kratzer-Carter and film producer Karin Gornick. (Photo by Mike Sedlak)

Editor's note: Anyone in need of support can contact Crisis Support Services of Alameda County's 24-hour confidential crisis line at 800-309-2131 or CrisisSupport.org, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, via text at 800-799-4889, chat or at SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.

After their 14-year-old son died by suicide last year, Pleasanton's Nimmo family took on a personal new mission to sound the alarm about the impacts of anxiety.

As part of their family's campaign, Steve Nimmo and his daughter Samantha appeared last month at a screening of the documentary film "Angst" at the St. John Paul II Activity Center in Pleasanton, where they used time after the film to remind everyone that "it's OK to not be OK."

"My goal is to try and inspire all of you to go get help," said Samantha Nimmo during the well-attended panel discussion Feb. 20. "It's OK to not be OK, and I think that the biggest part for me is just how many people are struggling."

Anxiety played a large role when Samantha's younger brother Zachary took his own life last October, just days after his parents actually saw "Angst."

"(The movie) really described him well," Steve Nimmo previously told the Weekly.

The Nimmo family hopes to erase the stigma of anxiety by talking about it more and teaching others how to recognize the signs and symptoms.

Zachary was diagnosed last summer and received psychiatric treatment for anxiety, an "emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure," according to the American Psychological Association.

Anxiety disorders, including the severe social anxiety that afflicted Zachary, are also the most common mental health struggle in the United States. Although Zachary seemed to improve, the Amador Valley High School student was still struggling even when he stood up for a friend being bullied on the day that he died.

"That's what we're doing here, we're standing up to anxiety and trying to help kids through this," his father Steve told the Weekly.

Anxiety is normal and even helpful as an emotion, but is amplified for people struggling with an anxiety disorder, according to mental health experts. The panelists said everyone experiences anxiety and that feelings can't be stopped because they "speak to the need to have a balance of different emotions" that "teach us how we're learning from the world."

What determines if a person is experiencing normal anxiety instead of an anxiety disorder is a "gray zone" of how afraid a person is of their anxiety, they said.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that nearly 32% of youth ages 13 to 18 suffer from some form of anxiety, but only 20% of those teens receive help. The Nimmo family recently formed the nonprofit Z Cares Foundation -- named in honor of Zachary, or "Z" as his family called him -- to create public awareness about mental health and connect communities to resources. It's one way the Nimmos are "trying to find our new normal" these days.

"It keeps us connected to Zachary and this is something he would want to do because anxiety is the thing that ended up taking him from us," Steve said. "These numbers are so staggering and that's what we're trying to cut into. We're not mental health professionals, but we're trying to help educate the community and build some partnership in the mental health area. We want to get into the schools, into the sports clubs and build a support structure where at a minimum the kids have a safe place to talk to each other."

Professionals at the "Angst" screening last month emphasized that, while very treatable, anxiety can set people up for depression if ignored.

The difference between the two, they said, is that "anxiety makes things feel daunting" while depression "makes them feel like they're in the realm of you not being capable to do them" and also "changes beliefs you have about yourself." Depression also starts to change the brain, body and sleep cycle.

Parents like Toni Gatzke called the film "an eye opener for everyone"; her friend Andrea Kettenhofen said mental health education "should start in middle school and high school."

"We have PE in schools, but we don't have mental health class," Kettenhofen said.

The Pleasanton Unified School District has held showings of "Angst" for students at Foothill and Amador Valley high schools, and Steve said Thomas Hart Middle School is looking at having one, as well as schools in Livermore, where it will also be specially screened at the Bankhead Theater later this month and again at the Las Positas College Main Stage Theatre Building next month.

Like at other "Angst" showings, a discussion panel with Steve and Samantha and mental health experts will take place afterward. They will also have a pediatrician on the panel for the first time at the Bankhead showing; Steve said pediatricians can be a great resource for detection because they're generally easier for parents to access than mental health specialists.

"What we're finding is early detection happening at the pediatrician," Steve said. "When Zachary was diagnosed, he was diagnosed by a pediatrician."

Screenings and panels are "only a start" to their mission, which Steve said he has plenty of work to do in honor of his son's memory. "It's a big task to take on but we knew this is what Zachary would've wanted us to do."

"Angst" will be shown on March 26 at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore, 2400 First St., and April 10 at the Las Positas Main Stage Theatre Building in Livermore, 3000 Campus Hill Drive. Both showings start at 6:30 p.m. and are free to the public. To RSVP for tickets, visit angstmovie.com. To learn more about the Z Cares Foundation, visit zcares.org.

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