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Podcast by Ft. Madison Teens Honored in NPR Competition

What started as a class assignment ended in national recognition for several Ft. Madison High School students.  They received an Honorable Mention in the NPR Student Podcast Challenge.

Their podcast Life Ain’t Easy features two teens talking about stories of mental illness in their families. One of the teens, Chris K., said he had not previously shared his story with many people so it was difficult to talk about it for the podcast.

“I just put it out there to hopefully help myself in the long run and to let people know not to keep it to themselves,” he said.

“It’s better to have someone help you so that you don’t suffer alone and that you can maybe get some help and get some closure about it.”

During the podcast, Chris said his older brother’s behavior started changing around the time he entered fifth grade. Chris said his brother struggled with depression and anxiety and things got worse in middle school.

“I shared a room with him at that time and he always threatened to stab me and kill me in my sleep. So I was always scared to go to sleep or do anything because I didn’t feel safe around him,” Chris said during the podcast.

English & Language Arts teacher Sara Ljungkull came up with the assignment as a senior project for a couple of her classes. Students formed groups and completed the podcasts in March, shortly before everything shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She allowed each group to choose their own topic.

“When I heard Chris’ podcast, it was heart-wrenching. I let other students listen to it in other classes and everyone felt something from it,” Ljungkull said.

“To hear from the perspective of two young men who have experienced it in their family was really unique and might help open other people’s eyes.”

She said after listening to the first take, she worked with the group to help them edit and polish it a bit. She said she felt strongly that it needed to be heard and kept telling them that they could win the NPR contest.

“I was so proud of them that they received an Honorable Mention for this because it was an honest podcast and they really put themselves out there in order to tell their story,” Ljungkull said.

She said this was the first year she assigned students to produce podcasts. Now she expects to do it every year.  She said students loved the assignment and she hopes the podcast by Chris’ group raises awareness of mental health issues.

Chris said his brother has been in and out of mental health facilities and he has not seen him for a couple years.  Chris said despite the rough times, he still considers his brother part of the family.

“I hate to see him like that. I just wish that it never happened and that I could actually have a normal brother,” Chris said at the conclusion of his segment of the podcast.

He believes you can help someone coping with mental illness: “Just be there for them and help them in any way you can.”

Chris said it is a difficult issue to address because there are so many different mental illnesses that affect people in different ways. He said some kids deal with depression and anxiety and no one knows about it – not even their parents or friends.

“It’s just really tough because you never know what’s going to happen.  My outlook right is just to be kind to everyone because you don’t know what battles they’re fighting on their own,” he said.

Chris graduated from Ft. Madison High School this spring and planned to start an apprenticeship to be an electrician, though he said that’s been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This story was produced by Tri States Public Radio.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.