Never Counted Out: Meet the Group that Combats Pain Through Expression and Voice

e.E. Charlton-Trujillo Photo Credit At-Risk Summer Screenshot
Photo Credit At-Risk Summer Trailer

It’s no secret that it can be really hard to be a teenager. Those awkward, stressful, confusing pubescent years take a toll on kids who are trying to find themselves or struggling to make sense of how their bodies, minds and lives are changing. And while we all have our rough years and awkward phases (7th grade is definitely a year we wish we could erase), some teens are at a higher risk of self-harm, depression and suicide, and they need help.

Those at-risk teens are often in difficult situations where they are being left behind without hope for a better future simply because they do not have the resources and support to work through their issues. But a group called Never Counted Out is on a mission to change all of that, empowering youth one creative and musical jam session at a time. 

The Reality for At Risk Teens

While all kids and young adults struggle in one way or another during those transitional teenage years, some are much more at risk than others due to a variety of factors, including their home life, their socio-economic status, their access to education and support, and their family history. At-risk youth often have negative circumstances and relationships in their lives that hinder their development, making them increasingly vulnerable to depression and other emotional distress. 

According to Mental Health America (formerly known as the National Mental Health Association), it is common for teens and young people to feel overwhelmed by emotions and feel down from time to time. Being a teenager is difficult and it’s a challenging time in your life to navigate, but that difficulty is magnified exponentially if a child doesn’t have proper guidance, inspiration and support from adults and role models around them. Which is why certain underserved teens are at a much higher risk for adolescent depression and all of the damaging side effects and risks that can come with it. 

Teens can become depressed, stressed, anxious or suicidal due to a wide range of factors, from academic pressures to social rejection or instability at home. Sometimes teen depression can have nothing to do with what is going on in their lives, but what is going on in their bodies. Studies show that some depressed people have too much or too little of certain brain chemicals, or a family history may increase the risk for developing depression. 

Recent surveys indicate that adolescent depression is increasing at an alarming rate — as many as one in five teens suffers from clinical depression. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that an estimated 3.2 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in 2017, which represented 13.3% of the U.S. population during that time. And that number goes up among at-risk teens who are less likely to transition successfully into adulthood. They are at an elevated risk of depression, anxiety, social and emotional disorders and even suicide.

But an organization called Never Counted Out is on a mission to change the course of recovery and improve the lives and futures for at-risk youths by introducing music therapy and the arts to these teens and kids in need of support and healing.

Never Counted Out is Providing Support and Inspiration for Kids Who Need it Most

What began as a book tour became an unconventional and life-changing trip across the country, and ultimately led to the development of Never Counted Out — a non-profit organization that bridges the gap between at-risk youth and artists by generating access to creative mentorship. 

It all started with young adult author e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, who had an eye-opening experience and a vision for a better future for at risk youth. Charlton-Trujillo is an award winning Mexican American novelist, filmmaker, playwright, poet and motivational speaker. While she has written several successful novels during her career, it was her novel Fat Angie that changed her life in more ways than one. While on a book tour for her novel, Charlton-Trujillo encountered a Texas teen in the spring of 2013; this teen was depressed and had thoughts of suicide, but after reading a writing sample from this teen, she knew he was something special. She spoke to him about his writing and noticed a shift in his demeanor as he was empowered to focus on his work. And so Never Counted Out was formed, with a mission to partner at-risk youth with artists (authors, musicians, creative educators and more) as a way to empower teens and provide hope and inspiration for the future. 

After seeing the impact that her face time with a writer could have on his well being, Charlton-Trujillo left her life behind and rented a Ford Focus to drive across America in search of at-risk teens in need of support. Using funding from a small Kickstarter campaign and her own limited funds she partnered with libraries, independent bookstores and community organizations to make herself accessible for at-risk youth who would benefit from creative mentors. 

She helped those teens channel their fear, anger, sadness, and rage and turn their emotions and struggles into success on the page. According to the Never Counted Out website, Charlton-Trujillo saw first hand that “showing up has currency with kids on the fringe and believes with a wider network of artists donating just one hour a year, lives can be changed!” 

That experience led to a far-from-typical book tour and served as a catalyst for the feature documentary At-Risk Summer, which follows Charlton-Trujillo as she travels cross-country working with at-risk teens. What she witnessed during her tour inspired her to make changes in her own life that would enable her to help transform the lives of others at risk. 

The Never Counted Out model is simple — empower the underserved population in America via the arts. This organization believes that arts such as writing, music, painting, photography, film and spoken word educate, invigorate and instill the ability to harness one’s voice. By meeting artists and creating art, youth on the fringe have the ability to be heard and seen not only now, but also for the rest of their lives. 

Using Creative Engagement as a Tool for Healing

For decades experts have touted the healing powers of music and the arts to help people in emotional or physical pain. Music has the power to change the way you feel and the way you see your world; it can pump you up for a workout, it can calm you down after a stressful day, it can take you back in time to a special memory or another place, and it can help you connect with others so you don’t feel alone. Other forms of artistic expression can also help you work through psychological distress, reduce anxiety and increase self-confidence and communication. 

Key findings from the Research: Art Works program out of the University of Maryland indicate that studying the arts is significantly associated with a 20% reduction in the likelihood that an adolescent would ever be suspended out-of-school. And adolescent students of the arts are significantly more optimistic about their chances to attend college than non-arts students. 

Research shows that music therapy can reduce depression in children and teens. A 2016 study out of Bournemouth University and Queen’s University Belfast shows that music therapy reduces depression in children and adolescents with behavioral and emotional problems. The group of children and young people (ages 8-16) who received music therapy had greatly improved communicative and interactive skills as well as better social functioning over time.  

Time and time again we are seeing that creative outlets can heal in a safe, drug-free and spiritual way. Working on creative materials, whether it be music, writing, poetry or art, can help build confidence where confidence has been lost or lacking, and can give teens hope for success in the present and future. Never Counted Out believes this whole-heartedly and is using the power of creativity to make a change in the lives of youth who are often overlooked or forgotten. 

In addition to partnering established artists and creative professionals with teens in a mentorship program that is free of charge to schools and afterschool programs, they also provide books to schools and programs all over the country for free. In addition, they publish an online magazine featuring a rotating themed anthology If Someone Only Knew, which allows at-risk youth to showcase their work and build a sense of recognition, self-worth and accomplishment. 

This movement is making a difference, and people are recognizing their amazing work. Margarita Engle, Newbery Honor Award-winning author of The Surrender Tree, said, “during one’s teen years, a single encounter with hope can make all the difference in the world. One conversation with an adult who cares. One shared experience. One innermost emotion expressed through poetry or any other creative outlet. One way of knowing that you’re not alone. Imagine a future where every teen receives many opportunities to experience hope!” 

Learn more about how you can get involved or support this incredible cause.