WILTON — Julia Morneau had no idea why, as an elementary school student, she was not getting invitations to her friends’ birthday parties, seeing a doctor four times a week or had a habit of answering teachers’ questions without first raising her hand.
It wasn’t until she was struggling as a freshman at Wilton High School that Morneau’s mother told her she had Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression. The unknown mysteries of her past suddenly had clarity.
“I never really questioned why I was doing certain things,” Morneau said. “I didn’t realize it wasn’t normal. I didn’t realize why this was happening. I think that was what was very eye opening. It kind of made sense after.”
People many years her senior shield their mental health issues, still fearful of a stigma. Now a junior and member of the Warriors’ swim team, Morneau is trying to make a difference. A little over a year ago she founded Little Minds, a foundation to raise awareness of childhood mental health issues. Morneau’s mandate is to use her own experiences both to better educate people and help ease the path for other afflicted children so they don’t feel isolated.
“A lot of parents like to shield their kids, and it has gotten a lot better in the past 10 years since I was diagnosed,” Morneau said. “It’s still an issue and parents are realizing now that it isn’t benefiting them from keeping away from the topics. If you grow up knowing something it will seem a lot less unusual than if you’re introduced to it when you’re older. Expose them when they are young so when they get older it’s not something that they’ve never heard of.”
Morneau speaks at youth and church groups, and anywhere else where her expertise is sought. Starting tomorrow, as part of Mental Health Awareness Month, there will be a week of programs at Wilton’s public schools. Morneau came up with the idea last July and has been working on it since.
As Morneau explained it, this is about “seeing what I have gone through in my life and gear it toward other people.”
Already at the high school there is a mental health art gallery with several hundred pieces of infographics, poetry and photography.
“People instantly judge you on something you tell them, and I had the confidence in myself that it is something I went through,” Morneau said. “It is who I am and something I went through, and that’s what make me, me. It’s worth making a difference to talk about my struggles.”
I became aware of Morneau and Little Minds about a year ago. We have spoken a few times to decide when it was best to tell her story. Morneau is one of the bravest and most heroic high school athletes I have encountered. Just read her story on the Little Minds home page. She is truly making a difference. Morneau is poised and comfortable in her own shoes.
“It was not something I had to deny because I could help a lot of other people,” Morneau said.
When we met in a coffee shop to do the interview for this story, Morneau spoke confidently in an unwavering voice about a subject many still either find uncomfortable or don’t fully comprehend. There were people within listening distance at tables not too far away, but Morneau said a more private atmosphere was unnecessary.
“People instantly judge you on something you tell them, and I had the confidence in myself that it is something I went through. It is who I am and something I went through, and that’s what make me, me. It’s worth making a difference to talk about my struggles.”
Morneau was talking to empathetic ears, for we share a bond. I, too, suffer from mental health issues. I became depressed nearly 18 years ago and was diagnosed as being slightly bi-polar, with anxiety. It is an ongoing struggle, though I have been fortunate not to have had too many major setbacks since, though in December my doctor told me I had been depressed most of this past fall. I doubt anyone noticed. When I wasn’t working I spent most of my time home in self isolation, battling the negative thoughts in my head.
While I don’t advertise my affliction, I am also very comfortable talking about it. My inner circle is aware. It is a chemical imbalance I cannot control, not a personality flaw I can improve.
A lot of my behavior growing up has become a solved puzzle, like why I was a hypochondriac (anxiety). If you are someone who has texted with me, you now know why I return your messages before you have hit the send button.
This has given me an even greater respect for Morneau, because there is no way at 17 I would have shared her boldness.
Morneau said while her childhood experiences didn’t cost her a circle of friends, parents were reticent to invite her to birthday parties because her excessive energy was considered too difficult to deal with. Her middle school years went well, but Morneau’s difficulties returned once she arrived at the high school.
“In 9th grade I struggled a lot with school and anxiety and went back to seeing a doctor,” Morneau said. “High school sparked difficulty. Freshman year almost triggered everything again. I started struggling with school again. With anxiety. My ADHD and depression. I get very nervous about certain things and I can’t think and gear my energy toward certain things. I had no energy at all. I’d get irrirated with myself. Trying to focus when I couldn’t. Being very nervous. I didn’t sleep for whole nights before tests my freshman year. I barely got any sleep at all. I kept thinking about the test I had to take. Everything was racing through my head even though I wanted to sleep. I’ve worked on improving it.”
Morneau said there now is even a greater importance to her work. The youngest of her two brothers, Jake, also has AHDH. He is in 3rd grade and Morneau wants to create an environment for him to succeed.
“We’re very similar,” Morneau said. “He’s kind of a younger version of me. We talk about when he’s excluded because that is what happened to me. A lot of times kids will get excluded because they can be a little bit too much to handle. It’s sad because you don’t want that to be the way it is. You want everyone to be included. Back then there was still a stigma about it and my parents were trying to protect me. Now things are improving and that’s why he knows.”
Morneau said her peers once considered her especially studious, when in fact she needed to spend extra time with her schoolwork as an equalizer to realize her potential in the classroom.
“People think I am always working hard and people see me as someone who pushes hard all the time, but I have a lot of energy and that’s how I use it,” Morneau said. “That’s why I want everyone to realize that everyone goes through something you can’t see. People think I am just a smart person, but I like to work hard and also use the flow of energy to help other people. It was eye opening to see where the motivation comes from.”
Being a member of the Wilton swim team — she competes in the 100 backstroke and 50 freestyle — has been both an outlet and therapeutic.
“Swimming has helped a lot” Morneau said. “You reflect and think when you are swimming and it gave me more confidence too. Swimming has been helpful because I’ve had a lot of support with my friends. It’s a place I can go to and enjoy and it’s something I like to have.”
Morneau has been a resource for those aware of her situation and hopes that role will grow as Little Minds gains a wider audience.
“Kids are being put under more stress,” she said. “Teaching them about this will definitely help them.”
Morneau had one interesting insight: what she considers the negative role of social media on teenagers.
“People will go to Instagram for relief, but it is how they want to look to the world but that’s not who they are,” Morneau said. “That’s what we talk about. I think it makes people less confident in themselves. People build a platform on their Instagram on how they want to be viewed. People want to put themselves on how they want to be seen and get likes. I see it a lot in girls but you can also see it in guys too. That’s how they want to be perceived. That’s one thing that social media doesn’t help with.”
Morneau knows her life after Wilton will take her into the medical profession. Whether that follows the trajectory of Little Minds remains uncertain, but her directive is clear.
“I find the most happiness in bringing other people happiness,” Morneau said. “If I help someone and they are happier it makes me happier, and that’s really what I like to do.”