Writing for Life: A Teenage Author’s Journey with Depression and Anxiety
“I took all of the pain that I was feeling and put it into my book.”
Justin Maxwell Kemp is a brave and gifted young man. He is a high school senior who wrote and published “Dear,” a short novel informed by his own journey with depression and anxiety. I met Justin at a recent book signing and talk/reading. As Justin shared his story, everyone present was moved by his words, honesty and vulnerability.
Justin’s mental health challenges started in middle school, when a collision of challenges—his parents divorced, and he was bullied at school—unrooted him and caused him deep duress and he considered suicide. “I was struggling alone. I didn’t tell anyone. No one knew anything about what I was going through, but I was struggling so deeply that I didn’t want to get help. I just wanted to die.”
The book began as a series of “goodbye notes” to friends and family, but with the encouragement of a therapist, writing soon gave Justin as a reason to hold on “and that’s when I realized this might be my purpose in life.”
While “Dear,” is infused with Justin’s personal experiences, the author uses the stories of four teens who died by suicide as a structural device to address issues facing teenagers in America.
“These were kids my age—younger than me actually at the time when I was writing this—but they died by suicide because of bullying and mental problems. They were my characters that, I don’t want to say brought me hope, but brought a sense of understanding towards what I was going through and sadness at the same time.
“Their stories and my story aligned and, unfortunately, they couldn’t make it out of what they were going through. But it gave me a sense of, now that I understand what they went through, maybe I can make a difference and change my narrative.”
Justin has worked hard to change his narrative. He is busy with school activities and sports, has a healthy social life and always finds time to keep writing. He attributes his stable mental health to a “collaboration” of therapy and medication and writing, the last of which is a creative therapeutic outlet that gives him a sense of purpose and hope.
Sharing “Dear,” with audiences of all ages has been an impactful and motivational experience for this young writer. Justin has found that his book sparks important conversations (especially among teenagers) about mental health.
“There are kids out there that don’t feel comfortable enough sharing what they’re feeling with their parents and friends and family. So that’s why I continue to do what I do. Hearing stories of kids my age who have struggled, who are struggling, it’s just powerful. And it makes me want to do more, write more, talk more, present more, just bring awareness to this.”
Near the end of “Dear,” Justin writes a note to teenagers who may be feeling lost, desperate and alone. It is a message that he needed to hear at one time in his life:
“Know you are not alone in your struggles. There is hope for a future full of love. Know that you are loved by someone in the world who is going through the same thing you are going through.”
I am indebted to Justin’s parents, Colena Johnson and Ramon Kemp, for inviting me and the crew into their homes, and for sharing their family story with us. I’m grateful as well to Justin’s friends Ava Hunsberger and Christin Wilson for their kindness and patience with documentary film production. And a special thanks to Justin’s dear dog, Woodford, for being so darn photogenic. I’m delighted to share this documentary portrait of Justin, in which he shares his story and reads powerful excerpts from his book. I know you’ll be moved by his voice and words.
If you or someone you know may be in crisis or considering suicide, please call, text, or chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.