Corona del Mar High School junior examines teen mental health in new book

Corona del Mar High School junior Gabriella Knox wrote her book "In the Arena" after the suicide of a fellow student last year. Proceeds will benefit Patrick’s Purpose, a nonprofit founded by the student's mother that is geared toward mental health education.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

It was a hot June afternoon last year when Gabriella Knox, then a sophomore in the midst of finals at Corona del Mar High School, began drafting the prologue to what would become her book, ”In the Arena: A Story about Teenage Mental Health.”

“If one lesson can be learned from this book, learn that the opinions of those who are not fighting the same battle or in the same arena are not valid,” she wrote in her journal last year. “Life can kick you down, and sometimes you will get dirtied by fear or fall down to the ground, but the most powerful moment is when you take off your armor and use your vulnerability to fuel your fight.”

Less than a year later, the 100-page novella is for sale for $15.58 on Amazon.

But, Gabriella said, how well her book sells is less important than the message she wants to get out to her peers and others in the community — that they’re not alone.

Gabriella, who was diagnosed with depression and anxiety when she was younger, said she felt the need to write the novella after Patrick Turner, a sophomore at Corona del Mar High, died by suicide in January 2018.

“There’s … a cumulative pressure that everyone feels they need to be the best. They have to go to the best school and get the best GPA,” Gabriella said. “But that’s not all we should stand for, and I think that’s a social climate we need to change. I think everybody needs to do their part to change it. Students not judging, teachers reaching out more and administrators being open to change.”

The coming-of-age book focuses on the fictional life of Kenza Cremisi, a young teen who finds herself in the affluent town of Bordeaux, Argentina, after her father is found guilty of fraud. Feeling guilt by association, Kenza grapples with mounting fear and anxiety that her friends will find out the truth as she struggles with depression that stems from the worst of her childhood traumas.

All proceeds from the book will go to Patrick’s Purpose, a nonprofit founded by Kim Turner, Patrick’s mother, that is geared toward mental health education. The organization recently held a parent forum at the Newport Beach Civic Center about “understanding the teenage mind.”

Gabriella Knox, center, stands with friends during her book launch party for "In the Arena: A Story about Teenage Mental Health" with the nonprofit Patrick's Purpose on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

“We’re really humbled by [Gabriella’s donations],” Turner said. “Just that she’s supporting the work that we’re trying to do in the community and she sees the need for it. We’re very appreciative.”

Turner added that she thinks the Newport-Mesa Unified School District is making changes academically that she believes are “helpful to maybe lessen the pressure on the students.” But, she said, there is still a lot of work to do in “breaking the stigma of talking about [mental health]” and that families need more resources if they know their children are struggling.

Newport-Mesa officials declined to comment about the book but said the district “remains on track for the installation of suicide awareness signs by mid-month.”

The signs are part of a districtwide initiative to promote mental health and wellness. They include information and phone numbers that students can call or text for assistance if they feel anxious, depressed or are considering self-harm.

The district says it has increased its focus on mental health in recent years, spurred by data indicating an increasing number of students were engaging in self-harming behavior.

Training in identifying risk factors and warning signs of suicide is required for all teachers in kindergarten through 12th grade and is provided to seventh- and ninth-graders, the district says. It also has increased its number of social workers from two to five.

Additionally, district spokeswoman Annette Franco said, the student services team is preparing a “tool kit” for schools to promote Mental Health Awareness Month in May. The kit will include resources such as “Know the Signs” and “Direct the Change,” which are statewide initiatives intended to educate students about suicide prevention and other critical health issues.

Alexa Wood, a childhood friend of Gabriella’s and a fellow junior at CdM High, said: “For our community, [Patrick’s death] ... made a big impact and everything changed. Our community came together … and everyone took a step back to realize something big is happening.

“I think part of the good thing is that like with Patrick’s Purpose and the continuation of meeting … as a unit to communicate, it kind of brings back that memory and centers people back to the focus of why we made [suicide] such a big deal the first time it happened and why we’re trying to get back together as a community to prevent something like that from happening again.”