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‘Help keep a life’: Sage Hill senior Param Desagani launches podcast to spread mental health awareness

Irvine resident Param Desagani, 17,
Irvine resident Param Desagani, 17, sits at his dinning room table where he hosts his “Help Keep A Life” podcast. He created a podcast and website to help bring awareness to suicide prevention and mental health for teens.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Param Desagani was 14 when he realized there was a problem.

“My freshman year, I met with my advisor and he encouraged me and served as a big influence, not only in terms of my education and high school life, but encouraged me to look for solutions,” said Param, now 17. “Around then, I learned about high rates of self-injury and so I researched depression and what leads people down a rabbit hole.”

Suicide, Param said, is a major public health concern. The Orange County Health Care Agency reported in 2019 that the county reached an all-time high of 10.8 deaths by suicide for every 100,000 residents in 2018, with deaths of adolescents by suicide accounting for 11.1% of total deaths in the county between 2014 to 2018.

Param, who lives in Irvine, said he started developing a website and launched it at the end of his freshman year at Sage Hill School. With help to develop the site, he called it helpkeepalife.org. The goal is to provide information and advice to teenagers on mental health. This last summer, Param launched a podcast on the site, which now has four episodes online that interviews professionals on mental health that he produces himself.

Param, now a senior, said he felt it was the best and safest way to interview subjects during the pandemic to provide resources to people who might not have frequent access to professionals or are not able to access them.

“I’m a teenager myself. I can see how the pressure mounts,” Param said. “This year, I’m doing five [Advanced Placement] courses on top of a sport and ... everyone has different challenges. Some people might be really stressed about classes. Some people might be working two or three jobs to keep afloat. It really depends.”

He added that the pandemic led to social isolation and that he felt teens might feel more stressed out because of it. He interviewed Jessica Borelli, an associate professor of psychological science at UC Irvine, on the effects of COVID-19, but also spoke with other experts on social media, hopelessness, the role of schools in suicide prevention and depression and depression outcomes.

A screenshot of Param Desagani's website that he calls 'Help Keep A Life.'
The “Help Keep A Life” website run by Param Desagani aims to provide information on depression and resources to teenagers.
(Screenshot by Lilly Nguyen)

He said his hope was that the podcast and website could reach as many people as possible and help other teens understand depression so that they could get help.

“Knowing your battle is half the fight,” Param said.

Borelli said that, while a professor, she was also a practicing psychologist and was moved by what Param hoped to do by interviewing her and other experts in her field.

“I’ve seen a lot of teenagers and kids’ lives really crumble during this time and during many different times and I think that’s really inspiring to see someone kind of standing up in a different way to try and do something, to go against the grain and to make the change for the better,” Borelli said.

As Orange County Supervisors begin discussing the approval of a new budget, a community group released a report this week showing that some residents favor investment in public health and social services, while supervisors favor investment in law enforcement.

Chris Irwin, dean of academic technology at Sage Hill and Param’s advisor, said that Param just “out of the blue” started it, but that he never really needed the prodding to go ahead with his project.

“I think it’s super important on a lot of different levels that there are students like Param at schools all over the place doing things like this,” Irwin said. “Whatever adolescents are struggling with, it’s certainly not my perspective anymore. I can kind of relate, but not really. I was a teenager a long time ago, but I didn’t have social media. I didn’t have the weight of everything that if you make a mistake, it can follow you online forever. That reality I’ve never lived in.”

Borelli and Irwin agreed, acknowledging that the best intervention for teenagers would come from teenagers. Borelli said that teenagers are more likely to listen to teenagers than adults because of the credibility that comes with being part of the community.

“For teenagers that are struggling right now, not just because we’re in a pandemic, but just struggling, not hearing [advice] from a 41-year-old man is a step in the right direction,” Irwin said. “It’s just a powerful thing. Not everybody’s going to be moved to help their peers. But, it’s good for everybody to be reminded that you don’t need to wait for Elon Musk to save us all.”

“Anybody at any time can go out and start to affect the change they want to see and it can be hard for students to really feel like the mission and values of any particular institution are real and tangible when what feels real and tangible to them before the last year was taking the SAT and applying to college,” Irwin added. “Now what feels real and tangible is asking, ‘Are we ever gonna be able to go outside again?’. Seeing people cut through that is really powerful, not just for adolescents, but adults too.”

Param said he hopes to carry the podcast with him going forward into the school year and into college. He said he plans to continue addressing COVID-19’s effects on teen mental health going forward, but is starting in September and October with topics like the benefits of digital tools for teens with depression, the treatment thereof and what parents need to know about antidepressants.

He hopes, when life returns to normal, to speak at school events to help remove the stigma of mental illness and spread awareness. His current goal is to produce three podcasts a month.

“I’ve seen a lot of teenagers and kids’ lives really crumble during this time and during many different times and I think that’s really inspiring to see someone kind of standing up in a different way to try and do something, to go against the grain and to make the change for the better.”

— Jessica Borelli, associate professor of psychological science at UC Irvine

Orange County COVID-19 stats

The Orange County Health Care Agency reported 299 new COVID-19 cases and 11 new virus-related deaths on Thursday, which included five skilled nursing facility residents, three assisted living facility residents and three residents not living in a facility.

The total number of cases in the county is now at 48,945. Deaths surpassed 1,000 for the first time on Wednesday.

The county is currently classified in the first tier of the state’s new COVID-19 monitoring system, but is below the threshold and holding steady at a daily positive case seven-day average for every 100,000 residents at 5.6. Testing positivity rates are at 5%.

To qualify for the next tier, Orange County will need to keep a daily case average for every 100,000 residents between five to seven and a testing positivity rate between 5 to 8%.

Here are the latest cumulative coronavirus case counts and COVID-19 deaths for select cities in the county:

  • Santa Ana: 9,503 cases; 247 deaths
  • Anaheim: 8,487 cases; 224 deaths
  • Huntington Beach: 2,275 cases; 64 deaths
  • Costa Mesa: 1,710 cases; 23 deaths
  • Irvine: 1,491 cases; 12 deaths
  • Newport Beach: 1,072 cases; 21 deaths
  • Fountain Valley: 486 cases; 10 deaths
  • Laguna Beach: 189 cases; less than five deaths

Updated figures are posted daily at occovid19.ochealthinfo.com/coronavirus-in-oc. For information on getting tested, visit occovid19.ochealthinfo.com/covid-19-testing.

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